Nearly four years have passed since Ismo decided to leave the comforts of his native Finland and take a crack at the U.S. comedy scene. He quickly found a home on the stand-up circuit, booking his fair share of gigs. And the comic became a viral sensation after his January 2018 set on “Conan,” which has generated more than 70 million views on Facebook.
Coming to comprehend the American lifestyle, however, has been more difficult for the Los Angeles resident. One source of bewilderment: the arbitrary etiquette of when to tip.
“In Finland, there’s no tipping — everybody just has a good salary anyway,” Ismo says. “How do you know who to tip and who not to tip? It’s crazy, the logic. Then I ask locals and they don’t even know. What about delis when there’s no waiter? Nobody can explain tipping, and I’ve been trying to ask for three years.”
Ismo, 40, wields that outsider perspective onstage with an endearing sense of bemusement. In his “Conan” set, for example, he playfully posited that “ass” is the most complicated word in the English language. “Sometimes, if you add ‘ass’ to something, it can actually reverse the meaning of the original word,” he joked. “Like, ‘bad’ is bad, but ‘badass’ is good. But not always. Like, ‘dumbass’ is still dumb. How could you know?”
Although Ismo recalls picking up a fondness for wordplay and parody from the pages of Mad magazine, which he read as a youth in the Finnish city of Jyväskylä, his early exposure to stand-up was limited to the comedy club bookends on episodes of “Seinfeld.” It wasn’t until he was a physics and chemistry student at the University of Jyväskylä that he was introduced to live stand-up at the campus bar.
Ismo was 23 when he first stepped onstage at the bar in 2002. He promptly became a student of stand-up, dissecting VHS tapes of specials from Eddie Murphy and Eddie Izzard and scouring Finnish record stores for whatever comedy albums he could find.
Within 18 months, he was booking gigs across Finland. Ismo then tried his hand at English-language stand-up with a trip to the United Kingdom in 2005, and further raised his profile by performing at the prestigious Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2007 and 2008.
He eventually made his American stand-up debut in 2014, when he won the Funniest Person in the World contest hosted by Hollywood’s Laugh Factory. At the time, he was in the midst of writing and starring in his own Finnish sitcom, titled “Ismo.” But he didn’t hesitate when a newfound wealth of connections and contacts presented the opportunity for a move stateside, though it meant ending his series after just 16 episodes.
“Saying no would have sounded ridiculous,” says Ismo, who moved to L.A. in December 2015. “That would have been a thing I would have regretted my whole life.”
Living in the U.S. has helped Ismo further master the craft of performing stand-up in a second language. And it’s been all the more challenging for a comic whose material is largely a witty dissection of dialect, even if his adaptation to life abroad has turned into a treasure trove of jokes.
“Crafting the order of the words to reveal the joke in the best way, that can be difficult,” Ismo says. “English has, like, a million words — way more words than any other language. I don’t know all of the subtle double meanings of stuff, or there’s lots of synonyms for a word and I have to choose the right one. … Often I do have to ask people, ‘Why is this not working? Why are people not getting this?’
“But timing and rhythm, that’s always been really natural to me with comedy,” he adds. “Luckily, that’s kind of the same in both languages.”
Ismo is now sharpening his material in hopes of taping a special or recording an album. He relishes hitting the road with his act, which he will bring to the Arlington Drafthouse this weekend, earnestly noting that “there’s so many states I’ve never been to yet.” More television is on his to-do list, as well.
All the while, Ismo faces the distinctive pressure of feeling like “the whole Finland is watching what I do here.”
“When you start thinking about it,” he says, “it’s kind of crazy that you can come from a small country with a completely different language and still do all this — and hopefully more.”
Arlington Drafthouse, 2903 Columbia Pike, Arlington; Thu., 7:30 p.m., $20, Fri., 7:30 & 10 p.m., $20, Sat., 7 & 9:30 p.m., $20-$25.