Ole & Lena: Laughs last, lefse best

  • Article by: HERÓN MÁRQUEZ ESTRADA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 14, 2008 - 8:04 AM

The king and queen of Scandinavian humor bear their crowns a little cockeyed, and their 'uff da' world view was celebrated at the Nordic Heritage Club.

Burt Johnson of the Nordic Heritage Club in Carver County recently had a hot idea: an Ole and Lena joke contest.

So last Friday, at the group's monthly meeting in Victoria, the lefse and rommergrot arrived shortly before 7 p.m. and the jokes started flying shortly after 8 p.m. in front of about 30 members in attendance.

Johnson said the idea was so new that no one had a good sense of what the format should be or how it would be judged.

"We're winging it, just like a vaudeville show," said Johnson, who at 67 is old enough to remember vaudeville.

Eventually, it was decided that whoever got the biggest audience reaction, good or bad, would be the winner.

This being Minnesota, it also was decided that all contestants would get prizes: a genuine, 100 percent Ole and Lena fortune cookie from the popular Ingebretsen's Scandinavian shop on East Lake Street in Minneapolis.

The top three finishers also got their choice of one of Red Stangland's Ole and Lena joke books or large buttons with sayings such as: "Living With A Norwegian Builds Character" and "Improve Your Image, Be Seen With A Norwegian."

It took some encouragement, but eventually about a dozen people participated, including a few who got up and shot off some Henny Youngman-style zingers: "I take my wife Lena everywhere, but she keeps finding her way back."

"Maybe we should have a stage hook, just in case," joked one participant, Tim Vadnais.

Contestants were not required to come up with their own jokes. In fact, Matt Kertzman, the eventual winner, was very up front regarding where he got his material.

"I can't take credit for this," the 17-year-old high school student said, "I got this from my band teacher."

Most of the jokes -- including the winners -- have been around for years and can be easily found on the Internet.

The key to the jokes, as in life, was the timing ...

Tim Spargo of Chaska third place

Ole and Lena are sitting at their dining room table, listening to the radio and watching it snow out. All of a sudden there is a big message on the radio, "There is a snow emergency, please park your car on the odd side of the street." So Ole puts on his clothes and goes out to move his car. The next day the same thing, another snow emergency and the radio says, "Please park your car on the even side of the street." So Ole goes and parks his car on the even side of the street. A few days later there's a really bad snow storm and the radio says, "There's been a snow emergency please move your car to the ..." and the radio goes out. And Lena says to Ole, "Oh, forget it. Just leave your car in the garage this time."

Ole and Lena, the beginning

No one at the Nordic Heritage Club is certain when and where Ole and Lena jokes began, but most say they likely came from sons and daughters of Scandinavian immigrants making fun of their parents.

"It's part of Swedish heritage, part of Nordic tradition," said Ron Holtmeier, who at 77 was the oldest of the contestants.

Carolyn Spargo, a piano and language teacher, said the jokes also served to bridge the traditional divide between Norwegians and Swedes, especially as the two groups intermarried in the United States.

"To Scandinavians, they're not offensive at all," Spargo said. "They had a good sense of humor back then, and they just started telling jokes about one another. If you're Swedish, then Ole and Lena are Norwegian, and if you're Norwegian, it's the other way around."

Nathaniel Vadnais of Victoria second place

Ole and Sven went fishing one day in a rented boat and were catching fish like crazy. Ole said, "We better mark this spot so we can come here tomorrow and catch more fish. Sven then proceeded to mark the bottom of the boat with a large 'X.' Ole asked him what he was doing and Sven told him: Marking the spot so they could come back and catch more fish. Ole said, "You big dummy, how do you know we're going to get the same boat tomorrow?"

A real Ole and Lena

One of the few who didn't participate in the joke contest was Harriet Holtmeier, 78, who remembers hearing Ole and Lena jokes in the 1940s.

"I like them all," she said. "I don't remember any of them, but I like them all."

Holtmeier and others said the jokes are rooted in the Midwest, to which many Norwegians and Swedes immigrated in the 19th century.

"They don't tell Ole and Lena jokes there," said Spargo, who frequently visits relatives in Scandinavia.

This was borne out when Holtmeier and other members of the Nordic club hosted visitors from Sweden who were touring the Twin Cities last year.

"We actually had an Ole and Lena staying with us last September," Holtmeier said. "They were very nice people. But we didn't bring up the jokes to them."

Matt Kertzman of Carver first place

Ole is on his deathbed. One day he smells the smell of fresh lefse coming from downstairs. So he summons up the last of his strength and drags himself downstairs. He's at the table reaching for the lefse when Lena slaps his hand and says, "Ole, that's for after the funeral."

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