P.O.V. No.26 - Humor in Film and TV

Hello, my name is Frank Hvam
- Autofictional humor in the Danish TV series Klovn

Louise Brix Jacobsen

They are perverted, embarrassing, and partial to toilet humor. No taboo is spared when they drag the disabled, the gay, and the overweight through the mud. We join them in the toilet, in the double bed, and at the doctor's. And they are famous. In the past three years, stand-up comedian Casper Christensen has been unfaithful with the badminton celebrity Camilla Martin, the famous actress Sofie Lassen-Kahlke, a student, a Swedish girl, and his secretary Claire. His number one stand-up buddy, Frank Hvam, has defecated in a litter box, on the Danish flag, and behind the film director Bille August's car. Their friend and colleague Lars Hjortshøj has molested a transsexual au pair, Sten Jørgensen from the Danish rock band Sort Sol has obtained heroin for them, and along with the ballet dancer Alexander Kølpin and the rock star Jimmy Jørgensen, Casper Christensen and Frank Hvam take celebrity karate with the sleek and dictatorial sensei Peter Gantzler.

This article will illustrate the clashes between humor and the phenomenon exemplified by Klovn (Clown). In this famous TV series, the two popular stand-up comedians Frank Hvam and Casper Christensen play the roles of Frank Hvam and Casper Christensen. They have the same job, the same friends, and often the same family relations as they do in real life. In Klovn, however, things happen that definitely do not happen in real life as we know it.

Never before have the famous played themselves as much as they do now; and we are inundated by films and TV series that, despite a seeming fictitiousness, contain a surplus of biographical, geographical, and bibliographical references that make them difficult to decode. The works are biographical and yet not biographies, both fiction and non-fiction. To aid in describing these biographical-fictional works, I suggest broadening the literary term of 'autofiction'.[1] In this article autofiction is to be understood in the context of Gérard Genette's development of Serge Doubrovsky's original term (Genette, 1991). In Genette's version, the term refers to fictional narratives in which the author shares the name of one of the characters. In this article, however, autofiction refers to any kind of 'self-acting,' which means that it does not necessarily need to be the creator of the work who plays him or herself. The cast playing themselves in any form can trigger the term autofiction. In addition, the expanded use of the term includes an emphasis on the juxtaposition of the two tendencies that have given rise to the term. This means that the fictional basis of Genette's term should-in this context-be considered seeming fictionality, because the most essential characteristic of these kinds of productions is their ambiguous ontological status.

The assumption is not that autofiction as such is funny in film and TV series. In Klovn, many things are humorous without at the same time being autofictional, just as a number of productions offer examples of autofiction of a more serious nature (e.g., Morten Hartz Kapler's AFR (2007) and Christoffer Boe's Offscreen (2006)). There nevertheless seems to be a special attraction between the autofictional mode and humor because the phenomenon mostly occurs in TV comedy series like, in the Danish context, Klovn (directed by Mikkel Nørgaard 2005-), Drengene fra Angora (The boys from Angora) (Rune Bjerkø et. al. 2004), Den 11. time (The 11th hour) (Bertelsen and Brügger 2007-), Wulffs Magasin (Wulff's magazine) (Nicolaj Monberg 2008), and Deroute (Søren Fauli 2008).

After a short introduction to the autofictional phenomenon in this audiovisual context, I will offer some examples of how autofiction in Klovn creates self-irony and rumors with validity outside the context of the work. Finally, I will outline a special potential for humor which seems to be reserved for autofiction in film and TV series.

The autofictional mode
Autofiction in film and TV series is mainly based on biographical undecidability. When the famous play themselves, their names match and typically there are other significant points of resemblance regarding such aspects as career, family, and acquaintances. Biographical undecidability refers to the fact that this biographical appearance is part of a context where the role is not unambiguously separated from the personal life of the character. It both is and is not the same person at the same time.

The phenomenon that autofiction covers is neither new nor exclusive to the film media. It has, as mentioned, existed in literature for centuries, and the debate about the phenomenon has been highly topical on several occasions (the Lejeune/Doubrovsky-debate (1970s), Genette's additions to this (1991), and, in Denmark, Stefan Kjerkegaard et. al.: Selvskreven (Self-apparent) and Poul Behrendt: Dobbeltkontrakten (The double contract) (both 2006)). In film history, as early as in 1950 Buster Keaton played himself in Sunset Blvd, and Lars von Trier made Epidemic in 1987. It is, however, within recent years that the use of autofiction in this expanded sense has become a general movement across media, art forms, and continents.

The autofictional mode is also found in the context of film and TV in other countries as well, mainly linked to the humorous genres. The Daily show with John Stewart (Smithberg and Winstead 1996-) and Curb Your Enthusiasm (Larry David 2000-), the inspiration for Klovn, are popular American counterparts. So the question is whether there is a special potential for hilarity in the autofictional mode itself. Is humor especially capable of exploiting the duality of autofiction? Below we will examine some examples from Klovn where the coexistence of fiction and biography supposedly create what could be called added humor. Added humor does not only mean that the inclusion of self-acting is capable of making a funny TV series even funnier. It also refers to the fact that the coexistence can create a space for self-creating humor that produces a humor value (cf. added value) greater than the different perspectives put together.

Klovn plays to a large extent on the knowledge about the characters' personal lives that viewers have been able to generate from various media sources. When Casper Christensen is unfaithful in Klovn we are reminded of divorce rumors in the tabloids, and when Frank Hvam has to play second fiddle to Casper's popularity and arrogance this corresponds with our already established impression of the partnership between them. Casper is the visible cash cow who churns out one entertainment programme after another and always outdoes the more reticent Hvam.

When similarities with real life are established so massively it becomes even more toe-curlingly funny, forbidden, and pleasurable to witness the intimate lives of the famous and watch them make fools of themselves-like when Mia reprimandingly pumps Frank about whether or not he has been telling people about her yeast infections. Guiltily, he admits to this, but says it has gone no further than Casper Christensen. And of course also Alexander Kølpin, Jimmy Jørgensen, and the dwarf Christian (episode 39).

The references to real life with the constant of playing oneself as the pivotal point simultaneously become the platform for the most prevailing (and in my opinion the most successfully funny) aspect of Klovn: self-irony. Casper Christensen and Frank Hvam are funny at their own expense, with themselves as a very high stake. When they play themselves they take 'themselves' very seriously. Actually, they take themselves so seriously that it becomes hilarious-and self-ironic. Sometimes the self-irony is direct, an integral part of the world of the series involving the actors making ironic remarks about their very roles, but the most predominant and fundamental self-irony is created along the obscure line between work and reality. By playing themselves in a putting-on-airs manner, they construct a self-ironic attitude towards their real-life personas. The self-irony is thus prompted by the autofictional clash between work and reality, and it is given life and apparently also validity in real life.

Klovn often balances between friendly mocking and defiling - both when it comes to Hvam and Christensen, but also in relation to other famous people. Participating in Klovn means putting oneself at stake, but on the other hand it is possible to win the sympathy that self-irony awakens in the viewer. This may be one of the reasons why so many prominent figures among the Danish jet set have been lured into self-exhibition and self-staging.

The formula for self-irony involves tackling the fixed, but not necessarily desirable, perceptions of the celebrities created by the media in real life. Even though Peter Gantzler has played a number of characters since appearing on the Danish TV series Taxa (1997-99,) he is indisputably best known for his role as the cream puff Mike in this series. When Frank gets mad at the large, tough karate coach played by Gantzler, he naturally has to say, "Move that foot, Taxa-Mike". And later when he brings him cream puffs to apologize, Gantzler thunders: "Are you calling me a cream puff?" (episode 39, Klovn). The football coach Michael Laudrup plays a successful wine expert despite the fact that he failed in setting up a wine business (Ibid). The business icon Don Ø's unavoidable thinking in terms of consequences is heavily underlined when he forces Frank to eat several rotten no-bake oatmeal cookies as punishment for not eating his grandchild's fresh ones (episode 13). In episode 28, the Mayor of Copenhagen, Klaus Bondam, makes ironic remarks both about his job and his sexuality: "I'm the Kennedy of the gay in this city." Every politician probably fears being accused of abuse of power, and here he both avoids a fine and gets away with visiting young male prostitutes.

Naturally, it is not necessary to be part of Klovn to be able to create self-irony. But the unique referential structure of autofiction creates a sphere of possibility that real-life performance, the gossip magazines, or pure fiction cannot provide. Things can happen in Klovn that can usually only happen in fiction (e.g., Jarl Friis Mikkelsen and Nelson Mandela die and Frank Hvam lives with Mia Lyhne), but at the same time the references to real life are so pronounced that Klovn cannot simply be explained as a parallel world detached from reality.

The complexities that autofiction generates in Klovn are rooted in a comprehensive and ongoing fact-fiction debate taking place in both literature and film theory. In his article Fiction, Non-fiction, and the Film of Presumptive Assertion: A Conceptual Analysis, Professor of Philosophy of Art and film scholar Noël Carroll summarizes the discussion critically in preparation for introducing his important notions of fictive vs. assertoric stance and intention. The viewer is supposed to adopt one of these stances-a distinction that hinges on the filmmaker's ability to communicate her intentions clearly. This means that the viewer assumes that she will be able to recognize an either fictive or assertoric intention in the production in question.

Not surprisingly, trying to apply these distinctions to Klovn gives rise to a number of problems. First of all, it seems impossible for the viewer to choose a final overall stance. Some aspects of the TV series will clearly lead to a fictive stance while other aspects entail the assertoric stance. Yet other aspects can be characterized in accordance with what I would call a 'referentiality in suspense.' Examples here could be claims of homosexuality or infidelity (Klovn, AFR). Rumors of this kind can be verified in the real world but they can never be falsified. When the same artwork contains three different kinds of referential positions, the viewer is forced to continuously switch between stances. However, the viewer's confusion does not seem to be an indication of unclear communication. The severe questioning of the ontology of the artwork illuminates an intentional play on fact-fiction relations that unavoidably and seemingly very deliberately plays a crucial and visible role in the reception process.

Thus, it appears that both biographical (cf. Carroll's assertoric stance and intention) and fictional conventions are concurrent and equally valid within the same production. When the ontological status of the work is not unambiguously definable, a special strong channel between work and reality is created, and we find it difficult to determine unequivocally what belongs where.

Ethics and rumor making
Autofictional TV series are able to do what the gossip magazines can only dream about. They can exploit the possibilities of fiction in order to bend the rules and frameworks of reality, but the generic conventions for facts that are also evident in the work make the claims in Klovn transgressive and risqué. This means that Klovn can simultaneously maintain and disregard the moral parameters of real life. Exaggerations and lies abound, and doubts can be raised whether the real-life celebrities are equally as deceitful, but there will never be serious ethical consequences. In the essay Imaginary Gardens and Real Toads: On the Ethics of Basing Fiction on Actual People, Felicia Ackerman outlines the ethical considerations to be addressed when using people from the real world in literary narrative fiction. She focuses on whether or not identity should be revealed, as well as on the kind of information that is morally justifiable to share about a person under different circumstances. Ackerman's essay illuminates the displacement of the traditional moral and ethical parameters in Klovn. Thus, while watching the TV series we are supposed to be acutely aware of both the person's identity and his or her unsympathetic behavior.

Ackerman also stresses the issue of whether or not the person in question has consented to appearing in the work and considers the ways in which this appearance can harm the person in different ways. In Klovn, the characters play themselves, voluntarily, or maybe also insistently, promoting themselves as unsympathetic. As mentioned above, this is a risky maneuver but is surprisingly often considered sympathetic by the viewers. In conclusion, this means that Klovn does the opposite of what is normally ethically justifiable. However, the effect of this is likewise the opposite of what could be expected.

Regardless of whether Klovn creates a positive or a negative image of its characters, it should be stressed that self-acting can, however, lead to rather serious consequences for the actors' real-life reputations, because the special referential structure can also lead to another distinctive quality of autofiction: the creation of rumors that have the potential to become rooted in reality.

We know that in reality Casper Christensen has been divorced, that he is popular and likes the ladies, and that he really is involved with Iben Hjejle, who also plays his girlfriend in Klovn. Inside the Klovn world, he is unfaithful several times, and considering the many references to reality, it is not far from infidelity in Klovn to infidelity in real life in the viewer's mind. Klovn introduces an already established perspective from reality created by the media and fans it (and the viewer's knowledge) so that it exerts an influence back on the 'reality' from which it was taken. Here it can grow and help shape the 'reality' which, in turn, is to shape Klovn. So reality helps shape Klovn and Klovn helps shape reality, not only the TV series Klovn but also circumstances not inherent to Klovn, the extreme consequence of this being that the clowns can help shape their future self-image in the media. Casper starts going seriously downhill already in season four, becoming more and more alcoholic and less popular. If this becomes a self-ironic anticipation of a career change, it might make him more popular. Klovn mimics the tabloid emphasis on scandals, but these might very well have the opposite effect by leading to sympathy instead of outrage.

The hilarity potential of undecidability
A potential problem when referring to autofictional humor is that it can be difficult to identify precisely when something is self-inherently funny and when the special referential structure of autofiction creates added humor. The above examples demonstrate that a potential for humor can be created by playing on our knowledge about reality, but this does not mean that similar episodes would not have a humorous value if they were made without the characters playing themselves. There are, however, examples where the autofictional complexity not only creates the comical effect but also becomes the butt of it. This situation brings about a potential unique to autofiction in film and TV series.

In episode 10, Frank Hvam tries to swap for a better cemetery plot for his mother. A couple is willing to give him their plot in exchange for meeting Casper Christensen. But something is wrong. The couple takes pictures from the meeting and they do not think that the man in the picture looks like Casper Christensen, because he has blond hair and contact lenses. They are supported in this view by the gravedigger, who also has a different impression of him through the media (as the guy from the quiz show Husk Lige Tandbørsten (Don't forget your toothbrush)(1995-96), who had black hair and wore large glasses). In an earlier scene, we saw the picture in question being taken and therefore the viewer is in no doubt that it is Casper Christensen, i.e. Casper Christensen from Klovn. It could actually seem as though the couple is right. Considering the definition of autofiction, it is not straightforward that this is Casper Christensen. The couple does not think that it can be Casper Christensen because it does not look like him. To us, he looks so much like Casper Christensen that we think it could be him, as he is in real life. It is both him and not him.

It is funny that Casper Christensen himself is in the room and looks just as stupid as the regular people sitting on either side of him. And it is funny because it is him even though the others think that he is not the Casper Christensen they know from the media. The most hilarious thing is, however, that it turns out not to be him after all. Here, we are laughing at the complex connection between work and reality, because it appears that neither characters nor viewers are able to determine who the 'real' Casper Christensen is. The undecidability becomes the direct cause of our laughter (with the proviso that "humor is a difficult thing" and "you had to be there yourself").

A clown is supposed to be funny and make the audience laugh. A clown is clumsy and a little bit stupid, but often he is also very serious. The TV series Klovn combines the circus clown's serious/ melancholic and comic/fun traits in a game in which the central theme is reality and the make-up and mask have been removed. It is tough and therefore enforced humor where a lot is at stake because it looks like a complicated juggling act involving real people. It is funny because we know it is not real. But it is even funnier because we also know that it could be real. Or that it might be real. Or that it might become real.

1 In Danish I use the term 'fiktiobiografisme'. Cf. Louise Brix Jacobsen: "Klovnen og rygtet". In: 16:9. 6, 28, September 2008.


Ackerman, Filicia: "Imaginary Gardens and Real Toads: On the Ethics of Basing Fiction on Actual People". In P. French, et al. (eds.): Midwest Studies in Philosophy XVI: Philosophy and the Arts. University of Notre Dame Press, 1991.

Behrendt, Poul: Dobbeltkontrakten. En æstetisk nydannelse. Gyldendal, 2006.

Carroll, Nöel: "Fiction, non-fiction, and the film of presumptive assertion: a conceptual analysis". In: Allen, Richard; Smith Murray (eds.): Film Theory and Philosophy. Oxford University Press, New York, 1997.

Genette, Gérald Fiction and diction. Cornell University Press, New York, 1993 [1991].

Jacobsen, Louise Brix: "Klovnen og rygtet". In: 16:9. 6. årgang. Nummer 28. September 2008.

Kjerkegaard, Stefan; Nielsen, Henrik Skov; Ørjasæter, Kristin (eds..): Selvskreven. Om litterær selvfremstilling. Aarhus Universitetsforlag, Narayana Press, Gylling. Berlingske Forlag, København, 2006

Lejeune, Philippe: On Autobiography. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1989.

Autofictional Film and TV series

Bertelsen, Michael; Brügger, Mads: Den 11. time. Danmarks Radio, Denmark. TV Series, 2007-.

Bjerkø, Rune Kalle; Christensen-Dalsgaard, Marie et. al.: Drengene fra Angora. Danmarks Radio, Denmark, 2004.

Boe, Christoffer: Offscreen. Writing credits: Christoffer Boe; Knud Romer Jørgensen. AlphaVille Pictures Copenhagen, Denmark, 2006.

David, Larry: Curb Your Enthusiasm: Writing credits: Larry David. HBO Films, USA, 2000-.

Fauli, Søren: Deroute. Writing credits: Martin Kongstad. Denmark, 2008.

Kaplers, Morten Hartz: AFR. Writing credits: Allan Milter Jakobsen; Morten Hartz Kaplers. Bald Film/Liberty Film/Super16/Zentropa Entertainments. Denmark, 2007.

Monberg, Nicolaj: Wulffs Magasin. Writing credits: Mikael Wulff; Marie Østerbye. Social Club Productions, Denmark, 2008.

Nørgaard, Mikkel: Klovn. Writing credits: Frank Hvam; Casper Christensen. Zentropa Episode ApS/Nutmeg Movies. Denmark, 2005-.

Smithberg, Madeleine; Winstead, Lizz: The Daily Show with John Stewart. Dir. Chuck O'Neil. Mad Cow Productions/Comedy Central/Comedy Partners/ Hello Doggie, USA, 1996-.

Trier, Lars von: Epidemic. Writing credits: Lars von Trier; Niels Vørsel. Det Danske Filminstitut/Elementfilm A/S. Denmark, 1987.

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