Time to lay Ole and Lena to rest?

Innocent mirth or out-dated ethnic inferiority complex?

ole and lena color

Judith Gabriel Vinje
Los Angeles

I stomped out of the Sons of Norway convention hall, and said to the surprised guy guarding the door, “I hate Ole and Lena jokes!” Anywhere Norwegian Americans gathered, at some point these anecdotes involving two dim-witted Norwegian immigrants would be told. It was almost time for the coffee break, and the jokes were flying.

“Don’t take it so serious,” he said, giving me an incredulous look as I dashed out the door. “We Norwegians are big enough to laugh at ourselves.”

Yeah, he’s third or fourth generation. Truth is, Ole and Lena jokes were never told by the original “Ole” and “Lena,” the first-wave immigrants.

It was the self-conscious second and third generations who were embarrassed at the accents and old world ways of their parents and aunts and uncles. Certainly if you could tell an Ole and Lena joke, you proved that you, too, saw the backwardness of that symbolic couple’s ways. Laughter took the sting out of criticism.

Turning mistakes into jokes enabled people to make light of immigrant awkwardness.

Ole and Lena sound slow, dim-witted. But even if someone from that generation spoke that way, it would never compare to the disparaging dialogue in Ole and Lena jokes.

They were poverty-stricken rural folk who left behind their beloved—and impoverished at the time—Norwegian shores. They said farewell for eternity to their parents and everything they knew, coming to the new land where they struggled and sometimes stumbled making a new life for themselves and the generations to come. They brought their Norwegian rural ways with them. Sure, they had an accent and a dialect. They struggled to learn a new language—without Berlitz. It was a slow process, partly because so many all stuck together in dialect communities.

But the jokes were a defense mechanism taken up by the second generation, the ones who were likely to be embarrassed by their parents’ immigrant ways. They themselves were often the butt of dumb immigrant jokes from the rest of America.

Telling ethnic jokes about oneself provides armor against the joke being turned on you! Stealing the “punch of criticism.” Making it clear that you aren’t one of those dumb country folk who talk in such a way and are clueless about so many things.

But it’s not “ourselves” that you’re laughing at. (Our pot belly. Our dirty socks. Our blunders.) When you tell Ole and Lena jokes, you are making fun of my grandfather Ole and my grandmother Tillie.

Granted, most Norwegian Americans don’t agree with this perspective. Yet.

“Ole & Lena jokes are no big deal, and some are quite funny,” Norwegian-American writer Trond Woxen chided me from Oslo, adding that the genre is still mostly a Midwestern phenomenon, and then even more found in Minnesota. The jokes, Woxen noted, “take their place among the myriad of ethnic jokes told around the world. That Norwegians and other nationalities can make fun of themselves is a healthy sign.”

Okay. They still make me sick.

While there is are astounding numbers of Ole and Lena jokes to be found on Google, it’s harder to find opinions like mine. But but they are starting to surface. One blog proclaimed, “We need a law against Ole and Lena jokes.” I couldn’t believe my eyes! Finally, someone who agreed with my utter disdain for the “beloved Minnesota Scandihoovian” jokes.

Another blogger, Minnesotan Nate Fred­rickson wrote, “Being both Swedish and Norwegian, I find jokes about Ole and Lena to be the antithesis of what real Scandinavian people are like.” Antithesis: a big word that means the “the exact opposite, the reverse.” So not slow to catch on, not dense, not dim-witted.

What about Polish jokes, you say? (Yes, if you’re Polish you can tell them.) But even a Polish blogger wrote that “Norwegians are worse than Poles when it comes to jokes about themselves. The theme is a dumb Norwegian couple.”

Nonetheless, I wasn’t surprised to read that many Norwegian Americans don’t see it this way: almost 100% of the 1,000 people Odd Lovoll interviewed for his book, “The Promised Land: A Portrait of Norwegian Americans Today,” said they accept the Ole and Lena concept, and that Norwegians “are able to take a joke on themselves.”

Able to? Endure insult? Glorify it, sanctify it? Sometimes I think there’s little else left of our Norwegian roots. There are Ole and Lena joke contests, Ole and Lena pizzerias, Ole and Lena plays, Ole and Lena carnivals, Ole and Lena days. Dozens of books full of Ole and Lena jokes, as well as mugs, recordings, and T-shirts. It’s become quite a biz.

Even though Norwegian Americans today insist that Ole and Lena jokes are well-meaning, there are permanent consequences to passing them on. For one thing—think of the kids. (And not because some of the jokes are off-color or downright dirty.)

I am fourth-generation Norwegian and Minnesotan on both sides. My grandchildren are sixth generation. They know that their great-great-grandfather’s name was Ole. What do they think when they hear the grownups tell such disparaging jokes about a man named Ole? When I was growing up, I’d heard about “dumb Norwegians,” even though I was a Minnesota child. Did I somehow internalize that idea, secretly dreading that it might be true?

For ten years, I was heritage teacher for kids seven to 13 at a two-week Sons of Norway camp in California’s Sierra Madre Mountains. I showed them an Ole and Lena joke book one day (after tearing out the dirty parts). The young campers—who knew virtually nothing of immigration history—had never heard of the couple. I gingerly read them a couple of jokes. Sure, they’re funny. Sure, the kids laughed (when they got the joke). But it was not a laugh to be proud of.

Not an innocent funny: it’s ethnic self-flagellation. It is harmful. It is all a fiction, a lie. And it’s old. It’s been way more than a century!!

And way past time to stop belittling Norwegian immigrant men and women. We should be singing their praises, raising sculptures in their honor—with their work-hardened hands and plain dress, their endless toil and their legacy.

Judith Gabriel Vinje has written for NAW since its inception, and before that wrote for Nordisk Tidende (Norway Times) for more than a decade. She has been a professional journalist for many decades—and has also ventured into comedy, writing TV sit-com episodes for shows such as Laverne and Shirley and Harper Valley PTA. She was editor of The Nordic Spirit Newsletter published by the Scandinavian Center at California Lutheran University and is cultural director of Edvard Grieg Lodge, Sons of Norway, in Glendale, Calif.

This article originally appeared in the July 24, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.