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Art Lee column: Surprise twist in origins of ethnic jokes

Hey, didja hear the one about - (fill in the blank)?

Different ethnic groups poking fun at each other seem destined to go on and on, with no end in sight. The poking can be between individuals or groups or even jokes between states, e.g. the ongoing pokes between Minnesotans and Iowans. Sample: "Warning: Never buy fresh walleyes from the back of a pickup truck with an Iowa license plate."

Among Scandinavians, both in America and, well, in Scandinavia, the pointed jests remain ongoing between Swedes and Norwegians, and almost all of the attempted humor involves the alleged dumbness of the one compared to the other. Sample: "How can you tell if a ... has been using your computer? Answer: The screen is covered with white-out."

In this everlasting jousting, one side is as guilty of blame as the other, even as both sides maintain (usually) that it's all done just in fun. No harm intended. Or so they say. Whatever, this constant bantering permeates the Scandinavian cultures both in America and abroad.

So, how and where and when does this joking get started; how is it learned? And the answer almost always is something like, "Well, it's just part of growing up. Kids hear the jokes and jibes from their parents and other grown-ups," and that answer seems reasonable and acceptable, even when some people don't like the idea of ethnic jokes of any kind, regardless of their origin. Whatever and however and regardless, they go on.

Now comes one more factor to add to those aforementioned origins, a whole new twist when the answer becomes: "Well, kids learn it in Sunday School." Huh?

We have two young grandsons who live in Norway. When they come to visit us in Minnesota, they regularly bring along some reading materials - all på Norsk (in Norwegian) of course - notably lots of Donald Duck and Miki Mus comic books. But they also bring with them a few of their Sunday school bulletins and these church bulletins, comic-book size, are attractive publications with many pictures and colored drawings. The entire contents are aimed at young elementary-age students.

Near the end of each of these 12-page church-published monthly pamphlets, titled BARNAS (Children), is a one-page section called VITZER (Jokes), and almost always in this section with some half-dozen short gags is at least one aimed at the Swedes. Sample: "Gunnar and Sven had trudged through the snow in the spruce forest all day long looking for a real Christmas tree. With no luck. By five o'clock the exhausted Gunnar finally announced: 'We're gonna take the next tree whether it got lights on it or not.'"

Of course children have been well exposed to this kind of alleged humor long before reading about it in Sunday school, as it's part of their culture; it goes with the territory whether in Oslo or Stockholm - or Scandinavians in Bemidji. Just plain "dumb" jokes, the adjective to be defined in various ways, depending. However, sometimes the intended humor in one Vitser section seems a bit advanced for 6-year-olds. "Did you hear about the latest Swedish invention? It's a solar-powered flashlight."

Confession time. Guilt time. Even to Norwegian-Americans, these dumb-Swede jokes for little kids being published in church publications seem a bit over the top, a bit out of line. And just about the moment some Norsk guilt enters in, there also enters in another zinger from the Swedes:

"Hey, didja hear the one about this Norwegian who walked into a store, and he had a big green parrot sitting on his shoulder. The clerk looked up at this odd sight and asked, 'Where'd you get that goofy looking thing?' And the parrot replied: ''In Norway, they've got millions of them over there.'"

In this bizarre tradition, there are no winners, just losers. And alas, there's no end in sight. Uff da.