18 December 2014 | Yrmy
Dark, derivative and delightful
Volanen and Korpela were part of the team that made Studio Julmahuvi, one of the all time greatest sketch shows in Finnish television history, and its equally brilliant spin-off Mennen tullen. Nearly ten years later, they challenged the expectations again, but now the roots of their inspiration were more obvious. Ihmebantu is modelled on Jam, as a surreal stream of absurd or disturbing scenes linked by a hugely effective dark ambient score. It is derivative, but not slavishly so. Unlike Jam, Ihmebantu does also make good use of the traditional sketch form with many inventive "mockumentary" style stabs that even manage to kick-start the carcass of toilet humour.
The unsettling undercurrent still runs through these as well, as an animal handler trains winos to act in a children's film, a man relays relatives' messages to the dead by shouting into graves and a creepy Father Christmas and his lady (of the night) assistant come to offer a more disturbing yet probably more authentically Finnish alternative to the all-pervading Coca Cola Santa. It's all straight acting and sincere, often tragic characterisation in a preposterous situation, and most of the time the combination produces baffling and hilarious results. The same approach with much tamer ideas was used later in the sketch sections of the more mainstream and popular Putous, the show that also made stars out of Ihmebantu's bit players Hirviniemi, Kuustonen and Toivanen.
When it goes deeper into the dark, the show gets more hit and miss. There is something genuinely disturbing and creative about radio chatter between an airline hijacker, a terrified Finnish passenger and a disinterested American ground controller playing against a totally unrelated montage of eerie night vision city scenes, for example. The comfortable, deadpan callousness gets a perfect swipe here, but elsewhere the affectation sometimes shows. Korpela's provocatively smug monologues as a narcissistic neoliberal twit tend to ramble too much to really work as outrageously as they should. Also the use of filters to distort the image in the middle of scenes doesn't always look so much like reality breaking down as a director trying to be experimental.
As the controversial final sketch summarised, the show wanted to challenge the easy escapism offered by the canned-laughter, catchphrase-driven comedy with the disturbing invasion of the unpredictable and the surreal. Most of the time it would surprise the audience and make them think as much as laugh, sometimes it would just leave them perplexed and frowning. Many were absorbed, many changed channel. That is the risk inherent in sticking one's neck out and trying something different and unexpected. In the five years of shrinking budgets and proliferating reality twaddle since Ihmebantu, few have attempted anything as ambitious as this in Finnish comedy.