Text by Matthew Lee
Watching the movie Klovn immediately before meeting its creators isn’t advised. By the time you’ve sat through 90 minutes of debased, debauched, downright perverse and uproariously funny jokes – not a single one of which can be recounted in a family publication – it’s all too easy to confuse the unscrupulous on-screen versions of Casper Christensen and Frank Hvam with the men we meet in a central Copenhagen office on a gloriously sunny Friday afternoon.
Based on the long-term comedy partners’ TV series of the same name, in 2010 Klovn became one of the biggest films in Danish history, a big hit in Norway and popular on streaming website Netflix in the US, despite – or maybe because of – its bawdy humour. (Warner Bros are working on an English-language remake.) The film caught the attention of Borat star and fellow fan of taboo-busting comedy Sacha Baron Cohen, who has hired the duo to write his next movie.
We meet in Christensen’s new office, a large space in a building oozing old-fashioned opulence – our photo-shoot will make props from chandeliers, stained glass windows and taxidermed animals. In his still-bare room, the sun shines through a large balcony onto an electric piano, a vintage Italian fridge and tiny statuettes of Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin. Christensen says they’re precious to him, they remind him of family, and for a brief moment that line between horrible Casper and nice Casper is blurred.
Things get more blurred still when Hvam asks Christensen for help on what to wear for our photo shoot before settling on an open green shirt and jeans. He confesses that he requires sartorial guidance from his tattooed, tie-wearing colleague – “the fashionable one” – because he’s got no sense of style. In Klovn, socially awkward Frank constantly seeks approval from charismatic, confident Casper, a vulnerability keenly and repeatedly manipulated. Is this based on real life?
“Absolutely,” says Hvam. “It’s always been a struggle to find my personal space around him because he’s so strong and dominating, and he’s very clever.”
It’s worth pointing out the possibility that not everything said by the duo is entirely sincere. Like all couples in successful long-term relationships, there’s healthy competition, a tendency to wind each other up. Christensen declares that their working relationship is stronger than ever before chiding his friend for never inviting him for dinner in all their years of friendship. “That’s because you don’t want to come to dinner,” retorts Hvam. “You don’t see the point in dinner with friends if you don’t get to invite people to your big house, open up your big doors and say, ‘Welcome to my palace, here is my queen.’”
Before becoming Danish comedy’s foremost odd couple, Hvam and Christensen were adversaries. The latter started in stand-up in 1989 – “There was one comedy club in Denmark, open one Tuesday night each month” – and became a household name as the host of Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush and Deal or No Deal. At the time, Frank was working as a vet – “I’ve always loved animals although these days I prefer healthy ones to sick ones” – when he took what was meant to be a short career break to try stand-up comedy. Although Christensen was already a star at the time Hvam was starting out, around 15 years ago, they developed an acute rivalry.
“You have to remember that stand-up is a competitive environment and there were only about five of us doing it in Denmark back then,” recalls Christensen. “Besides, Frank was an absolute asshole onstage.”
“I wanted to fight the establishment,” replies Hvam. “And you were part of the establishment, Casper.”
When Christensen invited this brash contender to work with him on a new show, Hvam was the host of Denmark’s Funniest Home Videos, a job he despised. “I saved him,” Christensen says, and Hvam doesn’t disagree. The duo made over 50 episodes of sitcom Langt fra Las Vegas (Far from Las Vegas), which revelled in finding humour in awkward and unpleasant sexual situations – not the behaviour you’d expect from hosts of family quiz shows. “I used Deal or No Deal to get money, power and fame,” explains Christensen. “And I used that money and power to have the freedom to do what I wanted.”
The next thing he wanted was Klovn, something entirely different, both for the pair and for Danish TV. The episodes’ plots are planned in some detail, but the individual scenes are improvised. The duo admits US sitcom Curb Your Enthusiasm and its semi-improvised scenes are a huge influence. Like Larry David in Curb, the comedians play exaggerated versions of themselves, playfully subverting public perceptions (Casper the ladykiller, Frank the nerd) and creating excruciatingly embarrassing comedy in the process.
“Klovn is about being male and 40,” says Christensen. “They shouldn’t have any problems in the world. They have money, wives, good lives, but they create problems for themselves.” After six seasons on the small screen, they decided to make a movie. “We left behind the little stories and wrote a big story with an emotional core,” says Hvam, whose on-screen persona invites his girlfriend’s nephew (a brilliant performance by young actor Marcuz Jess Petersen) on a male-bonding road trip with Casper to prove that he’s responsible enough to be a father. He isn’t, obviously, and Casper’s determination to turn the trip into the “Tour de Pussy” in spite of the girlfriend at home and the child in the back seat, leads to innumerable genital jokes and inevitable, entirely deserved disgrace.
“We had kids of 10 and old ladies of 80 asking us for autographs at screenings in Denmark and Norway,” says Hvam, suggesting that setting new lows for gross-out depravity isn’t necessarily a turn-off in some places. “In Norse countries whole families watch Klovn together.”
“Except for the Swedes,” Christensen adds. “They’re smarter, more beautiful, more ethically correct than anybody else.”
While promoting the film in the United States, the first time the duo had worked outside Scandinavia – “It felt like starting over,” Christensen recalls, “we loved not being famous” – they noticed jokes about homosexuality and abortion caused greater offence than in Denmark. Perhaps it’s not so much American conservatism as it is a confrontational streak in Danish comedy. After all, when Lars von Trier, whose Zentropa production company made Klovn, was thrown out of the 2011 Cannes Film Festival for saying he could relate to Adolf Hitler, he said the problem was international journalists not getting his Danish sense of humour.
“We never understand the problem with what Lars did because it’s obviously a joke and nobody got hurt,” says Christensen. “Danes are certainly hard people to offend,” adds Hvam. “But we don’t intentionally try to provoke people. We just do whatever we find funny.”
Their sense of humour may occasionally get lost in translation, but Klovn has earned a cult following in the US nevertheless – and a fan in Danny McBride, writer and star of sitcom Eastbound & Down. McBride is now remaking Klovn for US audiences. The pair have had a few meetings with him and they’re confident he’ll do a great job with the film, although it’s out of their hands.
McBride isn’t the only big-name comedian to have discovered Klovn. Sacha Baron Cohen loved the film and reportedly flew to Denmark to hire the pair to write the script for his upcoming movie, The Lesbian. “It’s based on the true story of a Chinese businessman who offered US$65m [NOK398m] to any man who could marry his lesbian daughter,” says Christensen. “Which poses a challenge because how do you make that a happy ending? It’s obviously difficult to convert a lesbian and at the same time we want somebody to get the money.”
The pair say they won’t change their writing style even though it’s a Paramount movie with a big budget. They had no interest in writing a movie for somebody else but say they couldn’t refuse an offer from Baron Cohen. Other than that, they’re giving little away.
The interview ends with beer on the balcony and then more beer in the park. As a game of boules gets underway, Christensen is master of ceremonies, cracking jokes, rolling balls and being the life of the party. There’s sun, beer and good company – it’s the most beautiful day in Copenhagen, and Christensen and Hvam are enjoying themselves.
If this were a movie, something dreadful would be about to happen.