Jesper Rönndahl Turns Science into Stand-up
Story by Johanna Tauriainen / Photos by Martin Kjellberg
We meet up with Jesper Rönndahl in a photo-studio in a basement in Vasastan on a chilly February evening. He is tired, but cheerful, it has been an eventful week. Not only did he win this year’s edition of the Swedish TV quiz show “På spåret” together with his partner Elisabeth Höglund, but he and his girlfriend also welcomed their very first child, a baby boy. Even on a normal day, Jesper is a busy man; he hosts a number of radio shows and TV-shows, runs his own production company, does stand-up comedy and gives lectures on different subjects. But he seems to like it that way “Sure, it’s stressful, I should not do so many things. But often they cross-fertilize each other. I can use something I’ve come up with for the radio show and use it in a lecture and then use the same joke when doing stand-up comedy. Of course I have to reformulate it in different ways, but the basic facts are the same. They work separately and in combination. It all creates a synergistic effect that’s really great”.
“I should not do so many things. But often they cross-fertilize each other.”
Jesper started his career as a comedian and as a producer and host on Swedish radio in shows such as Hej Domstol!, Så funkar det, Pang Prego and P3 HipHop. Comedy has long been his bread and butter, he has set up stand-up shows, formed a comedy group called Einsteins kvinnor with colleagues and has toured Sweden with his comedy show Hej Framtiden! Since an early age Jesper wanted to make people laugh, however it has not always been easy. “As for many others things it has been a matter of practice, I’ve told many bad jokes and jokes that were misunderstood. But eventually you become better at it and you find your own way of making jokes”. He indeed has come up with something unique in terms of entertainment which has made him popular and his Youtube channel where he posts short movies and humoristic sketches has thousands of followers. Another thing that has been in his life for a long time is science. Jesper states finding out scientific facts as one of his main hobbies, “Ever since I was a kid I’ve had an interest in space…There is just something about the fact that it is right there, we just don’t know where it ends”. Then there are all of these other subjects, for example I used to hate Geology in school, but now we’ve covered it on the show (Institutet in P3). And as for many things that we do research for the show I get interested because I understand more about the subject. Some time ago I was really interested in quantum mechanics and then it could be magnets and so on. But my interests change over time”.
Another thing that has been in his life for a long time is Science
Not only is Jesper one of the funniest people in Sweden, he also has a keen interest in science, but how did it all begin? “It all started in many different ways, which in combination created a strong interest in science. My dad bought Science Illustrated, which I found when I was little. Also, it really irritates me when I don’t understand things; I think it irritates me more than others. It just makes me feel dumb. Maybe that is what drives me; that I don’t want to feel dumb. Then there’s this know-it-all thing, that I’ve had and still have, although I am working on it, I have an urge to tell people about what I know and the more I know, the more I have to tell people about”. In today’s information society, where anyone can find out about scientific facts in a matter of seconds using their smart phones, it has also become easier to expose know-it-alls and challenge them. Does he ever feel that it has become more difficult to be a know-it-all with all the modern technology around? “It’s good that it’s more difficult to be a know-it all, at least in the negative way, like when you are a pain is the ass. To be a know-it-all in the positive aspect that is to actually know things has become a lot easier since it is easier to find out about things. So I predict a bright future for the know-it-alls despite of the information society we live in.”
For Jesper, science and humor have led parallel lives for a long time, until he decided to combine them. He is lucky enough to be able to combine his work with his hobby and describes it as “humor is what I do for a living, I am not a scientist, humor is my main focus and then science comes in once in a while. But it’s the best thing ever to be able to combine my job and my hobby”. He has done this successfully, the radio shows he hosts with his colleague Karin Gyllenklev “Institutet med Karin och Jesper”, has earned them the award for “Popular educators of the year” at the Swedish Radio Awards in 2013 and in 2014 the prize for “Entertainers of the year” at the same awards. In the show, the pair bring up a wide variety of scientific topics such as biofilm formation, the Higgs particle and banana-HIV, in an easy-to-understand humoristic way. “Popular education and making people understand that science and knowledge in general is exciting is a driving force for me. But it is also that for me it is the easiest subject to make jokes about. Some people may think about funny facts about their girlfriend and joke about that or joke about themselves like their height. But I find that difficult and I don’t find that particularly funny myself. So instead, often when I have a fact to start from I can base my jokes around that fact. But I don’t just joke about science, I also make a lot of silly jokes, but as for the science part is just something that comes easily to me”
Jesper has a very wide area of interest when it comes to science and when asking him about where he gets all of his ideas he says: “It could be anything. I read a lot of popular science magazines. For example, lets say than in a text about Uruguay I find a phrase about an armadillo that can walk 500 meters under water and then they go on about Uruguay but I feel like: What?! What about the armadillo! And then I want to find out everything I can about that fact. It’s all about going through a lot of stuff, but even though it’s hard work, it’s also a lot of fun”. A think that strikes me with Jesper is that he seems to be bursting with ideas and that he has a genuine interest in science. “What’s amazing are the random discoveries. People can work really hard on something and then they go off on a vacation in Spain and when they come back they have made penicillin. I don’t know if it is about taking delight in someone else’s misfortune, but there is just something very liberating about it”
“Then I also love magnets. It is great because they are everywhere, but no one really knows how they work. I find that really interesting. It started when I was making a segment on the show about magnets. I wanted to explain how they work and contacted experts and started reading up about it and found out that there are many different theories about how they function, but no one knows for sure. I love things that we don’t know about yet”
“I love things that we don’t know about yet”
When asked about what he would like to invent himself, he stops to think for a while. “I would invent a matter that would make it possible to change the shape of one-self or things. I recently moved to a new apartment, so if you could make something fluffy, it would be easier to pack things. Like, if you would use a memory metal, you know the kind that changes its shape when electricity is run through it. That’s what I would invent, just off the top off my head. What’s great is that I can just come up with things, but I am not a scientist, I don’t need to figure out how things work. That’s what happened with warp-drive, from Star Trek. The writers of the series, as far as I’ve understood, just came up with the idea and then someone watched the show and started thinking about how to make it work in reality and now it has become something that is theoretically possible, which is interesting”.
Jesper is known for being the well-read, funny guy. Does he ever feel a pressure of having to be funny and smart all the time? “ Yes, but it is easy to use humor to make people forget about it. Now, after På Spåret, people think that I am really well read, but I have an enormous lack of knowledge in many areas. But the show is all about luck. It’s like, what did I read about yesterday? Maybe it’s Sao Paulo and then there happens to be a question about Sao Paulo. I don’t know the answer to more than half of them, but then hopefully Elisabeth (Höglund, his partner in På Spåret) will know it. A lot of people focus on what you know, but forget about the things that you don’t know”.
It is time for the photo session and Jesper, dressed in a suit and bow tie gets ready for the shoot. It is a fitting outfit for the guy that once joked about becoming “the king of infotainment” at a party. By combining the things he loves, he has made science easily accessible to people who might not have been interested otherwise. He has, whether it was a conscious effort or not, really become the king of infotainment.