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Laugh Out the Old:
Iceland’s New Year’s Eve Comedy Tradition

Words by
Kolbeinn Dalrymple

Photography by
Golli

Icelandic New Year’s Eve parties are notorious for their ill-advised combination of copious quantities of alcohol and ample access to explosives. Yet amidst the pollution and chaos of the night, every party has a distinct, hour-long lull. The reason is the TV comedy special Áramótaskaupið, which has satirised the top news stories of the year with skits and songs since its debut on radio in the 1940s.

It is no exaggeration to say that Áramótaskaupið is an indispensable national tradition. According to Gallup, about 75% of the population watched the show as it aired last year with 98% of TV sets that were on at the time tuned to the national broadcaster RÚV. In fact, the show’s viewership is second only to the annual Eurovision Song Contest.

Áramótaskaupið is a neologism combining the words for year, meeting, and comedy. Skaupið, like “jollies” in English, is a dated word for joke, and has become the affectionate nickname for the show. For a show that mocks politicians and current affairs, and is debated for weeks afterwards, there are surprisingly few real controversies in its long history. While the show has changed along with tastes, its jokes are usually egalitarian and good-natured, allowing Icelanders to laugh together at the joys, absurdities, and stress of the old year, and begin the new one in a uniquely irreverent and quintessentially Icelandic way. The show serves a significant cultural role, unifying the nation and promoting equality. The country’s public figures know that, at least once a year, they’ll be playfully pulled off their high horses and made the butt of the joke. The statistics suggest that they’re even watching, too.

It is no exaggeration to say that Áramótaskaupið is an indispensable national tradition. According to Gallup, about 75% of the population watched the show as it aired last year.

Áramótaskaup 2019

1967: Gentle jests

While the tradition of New Year’s programming began a generation earlier on radio, the move to television in the 60s set it on a different course. The earliest surviving special, from 1967, offers valuable insight into the culture of the time, as well as its continuities and contrasts to the present. Some of the show’s targets remain familiar today, including the fishing industry, a weak currency, and a politician named Bjarni Benediktsson. Bjarni was then Prime Minister, while his great nephew and namesake is Finance Minister today. The 1967 show was written by Ómar Ragnarsson, a beloved poet, singer, and environmentalist who won the inaugural Green Puffin award at this year’s Reykjavík International Film Festival.

1977: Poking at politics

Ten years later, RÚV finally began broadcasting in colour. By this point, Skaupið was beginning to resemble its modern iterations, reflecting the changes in culture and the economic woes of the decade. There were more comedy skits, and they were shorter and sharper in tone. Most notable for present-day audiences, there was a series of recurring skits mocking newbie news anchor Bogi Ágústsson, now a trusted institution at the RÚV news desk.

By 1977, the gloves were starting to come off. The show had a strong thread of jokes mocking the government’s inability to manage the economic turmoil of the time. There was still, however, a reluctance to name individual politicians: instead, a series of baking-show parodies were used to demonstrate political ineptitude. Nevertheless, Skaupið was on its way to becoming the social safety valve it is today.

Áramótaskaup 2019

1989: Finding the formula

The 1989 Áramótaskaup is considered one of the most memorable because of the cultural touchstones within its hour. Its songs and characters are still referenced to this day. By then the show had evolved into its modern format: gone were the hosts, and the skits were short and biting. There were no qualms about mocking individual politicians. Skaupið had fully entered the treacherous waters of political satire.

One of the most famous sketches in Áramótaskaupið’s entire run aired that year. It featured Gísli Rúnar Jónsson as Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, then the newly appointed Finance Minister. The actor was dressed in a Batman-esque costume and dubbed “Skattmann,” meaning Taxman. The song was fun and catchy, and while lampooning Ólafur’s politics it simultaneously humanised him. Satire can become an ally to its intended victims: Ólafur would go on to become Iceland’s longest-serving and most politically-active president.

All societies need to look in the mirror once in a while and laugh at what they see. We started doing it on New Year’s Eve some decades ago and it has become a tradition.”

2019: The value of variety

Skaupið’s production staff changes from year to year, with each bringing their own signature style. This approach has led to varying quality, but over time allowed for the experimentation and evolution that has been the key to the show’s enduring success. This year’s lead producer is Reynir Lyngdal, who previously directed the 2006 show, its 40th anniversary edition. For this year’s show, Reynir has assembled a diverse team, with a mix of veterans such as Hugleikur Dagsson and rising stars like stand-up comedian Jakob Birgisson.

When asked if the 2019 team planned to do anything new or different, Reynir said: “There are traditions we like and others we don’t like, some will be kept and others broken.” The news and pop culture events chosen are almost exclusively local to Iceland and there is much speculation as to which events will be included each year. “We basically look at what we feel has stood out in the news and in the zeitgeist of the past year. We, as a group, tend to look at how current affairs have influenced the life of the average Icelander and find the humour in the personal.” As every year, however, Skaupið’s contents are shrouded in secrecy, and Reynir did not break the tradition by sharing specifics.

Áramótaskaup 2019

Out with the old, in with the new

The Icelandic word for New Year’s Eve is gamlárskvöld, meaning “old year’s night.” That could explain why this nation of historians and storytellers find it the perfect opportunity for reflection. As Reynir says: “All societies need to look in the mirror once in a while and laugh at what they see. We started doing it on New Year’s Eve some decades ago and it has become a tradition.” The show’s endurance and popularity over the past 30 years suggest it’s a tradition the public continues to appreciate. This year, and likely for many years to come, Icelanders will continue to pause their raucous New Year’s Eve celebrations for a national custom unlike any other. 

Áramótaskaupið will be available with English subtitles on RÚV2 at 22:30, December 31.

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This article is an excerpt from Iceland Review Magazine

Iceland Review is the longest-running English-language magazine, presenting Iceland’s community, culture, and nature since 1963.