Big in Finland

Conan O’Brien’s recent comedy bits about Finland earned him that country’s adulation; his trip there for a one-hour special—airing tonight—sealed the deal. What the unlikely matchup means for one writer’s family.

Over the years, pop culture has brought us some bizarre international pairings: Jerry Lewis and the French; David Hasselhoff and the Germans; Morrissey and Mexican vatos; Conan O’Brien and…the Finns?

It’s true. Last month, O’Brien spent a week in Finland, where he was mobbed, Beatlemania-style, at the airport. The country was even nicknamed “Cone-landia” for the occasion. “Conan is our king!” one fan told the New York Times. If all this sounds crazy, then you clearly haven’t been following the love affair growing between the late-night talk show host and the country that brought us the sauna. You’ve also forgotten how few people visit Finland.

The romance began last October with a bit on O’Brien’s show about his resemblance to Finland’s (female) president, Tarja Halonen, who was running for re-election. “Why do I support Tarja Halonen?” O’Brien asked. “Because she has the whole package: personality, a quick mind, and most importantly, my good looks.”

The sketch made front-page news in Finland, which hadn’t enjoyed that much attention from America since the glory days of Cutthroat Island director Renny Harlin.

Despite all its chilly remoteness, Finland is one of the most technologically advanced countries on the planet, so news of O’Brien’s schtick lit up the Internet as, over the next few weeks, he continued his mock campaign ads, in which he spoke his endorsement in halting Finnish. One blogger complained on the English-language “Finland for Thought” that Conan couldn’t even pronounce Halonen’s first name right. In general, however, the quiet Finns were uncharacteristically gushing. Another post on “Finland for Thought” read, “I want Conan to be our president.”

The whole thing reached absurd heights in January, as Halonen’s opponents grumbled to the Associated Press that—get this—Conan O’Brien could actually swing the Finnish presidential election. (In America, I’m not sure he even wins his timeslot.) In the end, Tarja Halonen was re-elected, not exactly a surprise for an incumbent president. The surprise, at least for me, was when O’Brien announced he would travel to the country himself for a one-hour special, airing tonight [Friday, March 10].

According to my mother, my dad and I are quite the comedians. Since this nutty story began unfolding last fall, I have been emailing my father about it. A full-blooded Finn whose parents came from the Finnish communities of Michigan and Minnesota, my father responded to my emails with the kind of verbosity and enthusiasm native to his countrymen: “Thanks. Love, Dad.” Please understand—he is very interested. If he had rattled off a string of exclamation points and told me about his feelings, I would have known he’d been eaten by zombies. That, or maybe my excitable Irish mother had finally learned how to use the computer.

The Conan stories were important to me, though, because they marked the first time my obsession with American pop culture substantially intersected with my unfamiliar heritage. Growing up, I could not have found Finland on a map. (And I only discovered, a few months ago, that it isn’t actually a part of Scandinavia. Who knew?) I could count on one hand—no, two fingers—the things I knew about Finland: saunas, Nokia phones…and I’m out.

A few years ago, though, in a gesture so dear it still makes me choke up like a rush-hour expressway, my father took me to visit Hancock, a tiny Finnish community in the frigid no-man’s land of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It was his hope I might learn more about our homeland. It was my hope we wouldn’t run out of conversation on the first day.

We had a lovely adventure there, touring the iron mines, visiting the spinning wheel my late grandmother donated to the Finnish Center, eating pasties (pronounced pass-tees, despite my sarcastic attempt otherwise), sipping beer in a dark tavern, trying to take pictures of each other before the other one noticed and shut down the operation. We drove through the local cemetery and, as if in a dream, every other surname on the tombstones ended in “-ola.” (I don’t know why, exactly, but many Finns have surnames ending in “-ola,” including my unfortunate relatives, the Aholas.) It was something of a revelation for me to experience this in America: The street signs were in Finnish, people spoke Finnish. I mean, they didn’t speak much, but when they did, it was Finnish.

Maybe it’s the gloomy weather, or the centuries spent being trampled by Sweden and Russia, but the Finns have a terribly self-conscious culture. There is a Finnish joke—and believe me, it’s the only one I know—about an American, a Frenchman, and a Finn who encounter an elephant. The American thinks, “How much money can I get for the tusks?” The Frenchman thinks, “What sort of love life does the elephant have?” The Finn thinks, “I wonder what the elephant thinks of me.” When I read that joke, it explained more about my father (and me) than years spent in a therapist’s chair.

All this may make a goofy Irish-American talk-show host seem like a baffling choice as Finland’s adopted son. But there are shared sympathies, too: Like the Finns, O’Brien is an underdog; he’s self-deprecating and endearingly awkward. Besides, the Finns may be shy, but that doesn’t mean they can’t enjoy a good joke—the movies of Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismaki are shot through with deadpan wit. Truth is, the Finns have a wicked sense of humor. And, according to my mother, my dad and I are quite the comedians.

Mostly, though, I think the Finns worship Conan O’Brien because he made them feel important. Perhaps he would have experienced the same adulation if he’d made good-natured goofs about some other random country—Greenland, perhaps, or French Guiana. I, for one, am glad he chose Finland. Tonight’s episode might teach me a few things about the place. Because I do plan to visit one day—with my Finnish awkwardness, my self-deprecation, and my dad.