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Rack your brains for a comedian who is political, sometimes controversial, and a household name. Chris Rock, there's one. Louis C.K there's another. But here in the UK? Since Russell Brand swapped the club for a career in political punditry there's been a distinct lack of sharp-tongued comedy that is both insightful and hilarious. For those seeking a little more punch in the pithy, let us introduce you to Magnus Betnér. Relatively unknown here, Betnér is a huge star in his native country, Sweden, but following a successful Edinburgh run is focusing on his English-speaking sets. Great news for us. We caught up with him ahead of his three night London run (closing tomorrow—what are you waiting for?) before he heads to Tallinn, Estonia to record his first one-hour English special.
You're well known for being a politically engaged comedian—a social commentator. Having just come back from Edinburgh, what are your thoughts on Scottish Independence?
Well... Of course it will affect people up there and maybe even more so in Britain if independence happens, but to be honest I really don't think it's a big deal to the rest of us. There will be another tiny European state, which is a bad idea by the way, the nation state is one of human kind's very worst inventions. If anything we need its fewer countries, not more. We are one race on the planet. That should be it. Anyway, there will be another country who will either become a member of the EU or be very closely tied to it. For the rest of us it's just gonna be a matter of getting a few documents signed and then business as usual.
You describe yourself as a liberal feminist—what do you mean by that, and how did you come to find yourself a feminist?
I am a liberal and most Swedish feminists are socialists. I just feel the need to make that distinction. Not that I think that socialist or any left-leaning feminism is worth less than the version I subscribe to, but we do have very different solutions to the same problems. And especially in Sweden there has really been a sense from us more liberal feminists that the issue is being hijacked by the left. And again, that's not all bad. But when we finally have a feminist party that might make it in to our parliament it's to the left of our former Communist party and I feel that that's something I want to distance myself from.
I suppose in some sense I've always considered myself a feminist, even before I knew what it meant, but one thing that really influenced me a lot is having my daughter. Yeah, it's a cliché, but it is, like most clichés—true. When you father a daughter you are forced to see things like gender and how it affects kids in a way that you don't when you're a kid or when you're a grown man with a sister, a girlfriend, female friends, a mother or whatever. You just look at it differently when you get a daughter. One of the main reasons I started talking a lot about feminism in my act is that it pissed me off that the world seemed to look at my daughter and say; Hey, here is one without a penis. She can only do cute things in cute clothes while she shuts the fuck up and lets the boys have all the fun.
How have men and women received you as a feminist?
I'd say most women who got in touch with me were positive and maybe saw the benefits of having a feminist out there who could reach a crowd different from what most public feminists would. Sure, there has been a few who said I can't be a feminist because I'm a man or that I shouldn't call myself that or whatever. And I respect that. But I strongly disagree. Amongst men the reactions have been more divided. 'Let men be men and women be women' is a far more common response to feminism amongst men. Probably because more men than women do not understand that that's not what feminism is about.
You're also a vehement anti-racist. Is racism an issue you feel needs to be discussed?
Oh yeah. It's probably the one most important thing in Europe today. It baffles me that we have xenophobic and even fascist parties in almost every parliament in Europe today. And to see people fall for the propaganda of these people makes me fucking sad. We're talking about people from Romania and about Muslims now the EXACT same way we talked about Jews in the twenties. And people just refuse to see it. Because they lost their job. Because they're scared by media to believe they're gonna be blown up by an Islamist terrorist even though it is extremely unlikely, and so on and so on. It just makes me angry and sad. And that's the sort of stuff I have to bring up in my show.
You've just come back from Edinburgh and are en route to Tallinn via London and Helsinki having previously performed in America amongst others. What is your experience of different audiences?
The three shows I'm doing in London now will be stuff from the solo-shows I've done at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and when I'm done in London I go to Tallinn to record it for a special. After that I'm gonna keep travelling all over Europe to write a new hour. As far as differences go, I'd say Europe is pretty much the same. If there is a difference it has to do with how long comedy has been around. When I go to some of the smaller countries in Eastern Europe they might not be used to my style of comedy but that's because comedy there is young, I think. Stand-up comedy in the States is different though. It's more or less only a springboard for TV. Everybody seems to be doing the same 7-minute set for years to try and get picked up by a network. That's horrible for comedy. And happily it's not the case in most of Europe. Yet. We're slowly turning in that direction here too.
But you are famous in Sweden. How has that been?
I'm happy that I didn't become famous overnight. I got to get used to it in small doses, which I think is the only way to go about it if you're gonna keep your sanity. It's easy to lose your foothold when you get to read about yourself in articles and reviews on a daily basis but I'd like to think I've handled it pretty well. I'm not so sure I would have if it happened fast, and when I was real young. Fame has never been a goal of mine. I just wanna do live comedy. If I have to do some TV to get a decent crowd and that gives me a certain amount of fame along the way, then so be it. But it's been a by-product. Not a goal.
As a well-known provocateur—is controversy something integral to your work?
I don't try to be controversial or shocking just because. I talk about stuff that I feel is going wrong and if that means I talk about abortions, rape or suicide, then so be it. I like to think I have a valid point when I bring something up and if some people get offended...Well, fuck 'em. I was just trying to make them think. I think any good comedian challenges people’s beliefs no matter what they may be. One night I'll talk a lot about how religion is a horrible thing. Another night I might be talking about the fact that being on Paradise Hotel is a pretty shitty goal when you're 14.
What's next for you? Is the move to English permanent?
After I record my special I go back to Sweden to finish a tour there that I've been on a little over a year. After Christmas when that's done I'm going to focus more on working in English and I expect 2015 to be pretty much all in English. After that we'll see what happens.