Olof Olsson’s info comedy remains well-written, toe-curling, and entertaining, but leaves little room for doubt and vulnerability.

Olof Olsson, Preview: Driving the Doubts Away, Den Frie Udstillingsbygning, 11 November, 2022. Photo: Den Frie.

He looks rather like a cross between a has-been rock star and a traveling salesman as he arrives at Den Frie Centre of Contemporary Art, hauling a guitar case and an amplifier lashed to a sack truck. Olof Olsson, who since 2007 has worked with what he calls “info comedy” – a performative mix between lecture and stand-up comedy – embodies the idea of the Man with a Guitar so emphatically that one is no longer sure whether this is a caricature at all.

This despite the fact that the classic stand-up comedy figure of the man-child who survived the school bullies by playing the class clown and now takes his well-deserved revenge from the stage by making crude or casually misogynist jokes is probably among those archetypes which have fared worst in the transition from the ironic 1990s to the new millennium. Today, the type of man whom the spotlights of the comedy scene saved from a fate as a lonely computer geek faces stiff competition in his very own field from minorities who are fed up with acting as objects for his punchlines, and who now take the floor in his place with a point about humour being funniest when it punches up, not when it kicks down. 

The question is, then, how Olsson’s classic devices – the figure of the archetypal male comedian, spotlights, hand-held illustrations on a music stand and a guitar – cope with the changing ideas about what, and not least who, we think might make for 2.5 hours of fun company.

Driving the Doubts Away is the title of Olsson’s info comedy, and the doubt referenced in the title seems to be the classic philosophical question of whether there is such a thing as an objective reality not constructed by language. A doubt that, in Olsson’s case, arose when, at the age of 20, he lost his faith in God and began to study philosophy.

The performance thus opens in a perfectly conventional, even classic manner with the biographical story of the young Olof Olsson, whose name translated from Swedish – Son’s Son’s Son – would surely instill a certain confusion about personal identity in its bearer. We hear about Olsson’s development from Catholic altar boy to visual artist and about how he struggles to find a foothold in a reality that constantly proves highly unreliable.

Concurrently with that story, we have at least three or four other running gags, including stories about the connection between pork meatballs and the Big Mac, about why Marco Polo called porcelain “a feminine piglet,” and about the fact that being a stupid cannibal is not exactly easy. The routine zigzags from classic comedy tropes – sex, toilets, and the enmity between Denmark and Sweden – to philosophical musings on the relationship between high and low culture, and on what success looks like in the realms of art, comedy, and business.

Marcel Duchamp and his urinal (Fountain, 1917) is the recurring figure with which Olsson identifies. Like Duchamp, Olsson became an artist because his jokes were too convoluted to be funny, and like Duchamp, Olsson nevertheless ended up working with crude, even scatological humour that might well have entered the art establishment, yet is nevertheless delegated to the part of the museum which is dominated by the café and toilets.

Olsson employs a kind of calculated awkwardness that manifests itself in long pauses within language-based jokes – so twisted and long-winded that you find yourself forever worried that the show is going off the rails – interspersed with melancholy songs that sound rather like a lonely Erlend Øye jam session in a bedroom. It is well written, toe-curling, and quite funny, but it also puts Olsson in a rather safe position, one where he is constantly able to wryly poke fun at his own performance. In a show ostensibly about doubt, I would like to see a little more immediate vulnerability and a slightly clearer voice, one less hidden behind the 1990s irony. As far as I’m concerned, Olsson could usefully dial down the Man with Guitar schtick a little. But I guess that is one of the defining traits of this tragic figure: he cannot let go.

Olof Olsson, Preview: Driving the Doubts Away, Den Frie Udstillingsbygning, 11 November, 2022. Photo: Den Frie.