Ethnic Jokes

On-camera joke 

Ole sees Sven walking down the road with fishing pole over one shoulder and a creel strapped over the over.  “Hey, there, Sven, whatcha been doing?”

“Well, Ole, you dumb Norwegian, whatcha think I been doing?  I’ve been fishing.”

“Okay, Sven.  So how many fish you got in the creel there?”

“I tell you what, Ole, if you can tell me how many fish I got in the creel, I’ll give you both of  them.”

So Ole, he guessed “three.”

And Sven said, “That’s not bad.  You only missed by two.”



Ethnic jokes are told around the world.  They are rooted in the human need to mock other groups, usually to lift up one’s own ethnic group.  They make fun of stereotypes about another group’s cheapness, laziness, or other negative trait.  In my youth, I listened to stories that Pollocks (derogatory term for Poles) were stupid and dagos (negative term for Italians) were loud and bossy.

Beyond ethnicity, jokes are told about other groups, usually by dominant groups against less-powerful groups.  For example, men will tell jokes about women, making fun of old stereotypes: bad driving skills, too much shopping, or nagging their husbands (or sons-in-law).  The typical male joke about female stupidity is the “dumb blonde” joke, with the assumption that women who are blonde (or dye their hair blonde) cannot be intelligent.

When I lived in southeastern Germany, I noticed that people told “Bayer” jokes, making fun of people from the state of Bavaria.  I learned that northern Germans told jokes about East Frisians, the people who live on the islands off the north coast of Germany.  Are East Frisians or blondes or mothers-in-law any more stupid (or lazy or nagging) than the rest of us?  No.  But they look different, talk “funny,” or are somehow not the same as we are, so as humans we feel we need to make fun of them.

In order to not be considered ethnocentric, I only tell jokes about my own personal memberships: male (gender), Christian (religion), heterosexual (orientation), white (race), or Swedish (ethnicity).  My grandfather, an immigrant from Sweden who never lost his strong Swedish accent when speaking English, used to tell Ole and Lena jokes.  I told the Ole and Sven joke for FLYB TV in honor of him. 

What you need to know:  This joke is a ripple joke, where one line plays into the next and then into the next, giving multiple punch lines for listeners to laugh at.  In this case, the joke makes fun of people from both Sweden and Norway, northern European countries that have been at war off and on over history (even though their languages and cultures are very similar).

Pronunciation: Telling an ethnic joke can involve using accents if the joke teller is confident in mimicking dialects.  This makes the characters sound more “authentic” to the audience and adds another layer of “flavoring” to the joke.  All speakers, in both our first and second languages have an accent.  This makes life more interesting when we travel, and it helps us identify when other speakers are not from our region.  I tell this joke affectionately in memory of my Grandpa Headbloom, not to make fun of Swedes in general or my dear cousins in particular. 

Vocabulary: A person from Norway is called a Norwegian.  A person from Sweden is called a Swede.  A creel is a kind of basket with a shoulder strap; it’s used for carrying freshly caught fish from the lake or river.


Creel photo: Wikipedia

History: Ole and Lena are a husband and wife who emigrated from Scandinavia (usually Sweden or Norway).  They represent the immigrant experience in the U.S. upper Midwest, especially Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and the Dakotas.  The jokes make fun of everyday life situations (work, marriage, etc.) and are often told with a Scandinavian accent.  Read more here

 Lena and Ole

Lena and Ole

 What’s so funny?  This ripple joke pokes fun at both Ole and Sven’s stupidity.  First, Ole doesn’t know what Sven’s been doing, even though he’s clearly carrying fishing equipment.  Then, Sven tells “stupid” Ole he can have both fish if Ole can guess the number.  Of course, “both” means “two,” making the guess very easy.  Ole surprises us by guessing wrong (three).  Sven then surprises us by giving the wrong mathematical answer (should have been “one”).  The joke is best told with short pauses for comprehension (and laughter) between the last three lines.

Here is a website with many more jokes about the famous Minnesota couple, Ole and Lena, and their friend, Sven.  The beauty of Ole/Lena jokes is that you can usually substitute other people (your cousin or your neighbor) or other locations into the story.  


Here are some Ole/Lena jokes on the air for your listening practice.  You can read more Ole/Lena jokes here

Some of my favorite ones:

Ole and Lena were at the kitchen table for the usual morning cup of coffee and listening to a weather report coming from the radio.

"There will be 6 to 8 inches of snow today and a snow emergency has been declared. All vehicles should be parked on the odd-numbered side of the streets today to facilitate snowplows," the radio voice declared.

"Oh, gosh, OK," said Ole, who got up, bundled up, and headed outside to dutifully put his car on the odd-numbered side of the street.

Three days later, Ole and Lena were at morning coffee when the radio voice said, "There will be 4 to 6 inches of snow today and a snow emergency has been declared. You must park your vehicles on the even-numbered side of the streets."

Ole got up from his coffee as before. He bundled up, shuffled off, and put his car on the even-numbered side of the street.

A few days later, the couple was at the table when the radio voice declared, "There will be 5 to 7 inches of snow today and a snow emergency has been declared. You must park your cars on the...." 

Just then, the power went out.

"Park it where?" Ole asked in the dark, "What should I do?"

"Aw, to heck with them, Ole," Lena said. "Don't worry about it today. Just leave the car in the garage."


Ole was on his way home from town and called Lena from his cellphone. 

"Lena, put supper on, I'm on my way home." 

Lena says, "Be careful out there. The radio reports some nut is driving the wrong way on the freeway." 

"It's worse than that, Lena; I’m seeing hundreds of them!" 


Ole walks into work, and both of his ears are all bandaged up. 

The boss says, "What happened to your ears?" 

Ole says, "Yesterday I was ironing a shirt when the phone rang and [holds iron to ear] tssshhh! I accidentally answered the iron." 

The boss says, "Well, that explains one ear, but what happened to your other ear?" 

Ole says, "Well, jeez, I had to call the doctor!" 


One night, Ole and Lena were fast asleep when all of a sudden the phone rings. Ole wakens and goes to answer it. 

"How the heck should I know? That's a thousand miles away!" he barks into the phone and then slams down the receiver. 

"Who was that?" asks Lena. 

"I have no idea," answers Ole. "Somebody wanted to know if the coast is clear." 


Ole's neighbor Sven had a boy, Sven Junior, who came home one day and asked, "Papa, I have da biggest feet in da third grade. Is that because I'm Norwegian?" 

"No," said Sven, "It's because you're NINETEEN." 


Ole and Sven grabbed their poles and headed out to do some ice fishing. As they were boring a hole in the ice, they heard a loud voice from above say, "There are no fish under the ice here." 

Ole and Sven moved about 25 feet over and started to make another hole. The voice said a little stronger, "There are no fish under the ice here." 

They both looked around and then looked up. Ole said in a humble voice, "Are you God?" 

The voice spoke back, "No, you idiots! I'm the ice rink attendant." 


Ole died, so Lena went to the local paper to put a notice in the obituaries. The gentleman at the counter, after offering his condolences, asked Lena what she would like to say about Ole.

Lena replied, "You just put 'Ole died.'"

The gentleman, somewhat perplexed, said, "That's it? Just 'Ole died?' Surely, there must be something more you'd like to say about Ole. If it’s money you're concerned about, the first five words are free. We must say something more."

So Lena pondered for a few minutes and finally said, "O.K. You put 'Ole died. Boat for sale.'"


Sven and Ole went hunting for deer one day. They stopped to ask the farmer permission to hunt on his land. The farmer agreed to let the two hunt, but warned them that the farm very large and it was easy to become lost. He told them that if they got lost to fire three shots into the air and he would come get them. Indeed, after a half hour the two found themselves totally lost. 

Sven said, "Ole, I believe we be lost, you better fire three shots into de air." 

"Ya, I think you're right, Sven," said Ole. "We better get that farmer going." So Ole fires three shots into the air, but a half hour passes and no farmer. 

Sven says, "Ole, I think you better fire three more shots into the air, the farmer has not come yet." 

"I can't," said Ole, "I run out of arrows." 


Ole and Sven went on an expensive fishing trip and returned with only one fish. "The way I figure it, that fish cost us $400," said Sven. 

"well," replied Ole, "At that price it's a good thing we didn't catch any more."

Ole goes in for a check-up, and his doctor asks, “Ole, how are things in the bedroom?”

Ole shakes his head and says they’re not going so well.

The doctor says, "Ole, all you need is some exercise. I want you to walk ten miles every day. You give me a call in a week, and let me know how you're doing." 

So, a week later the phone rings, and the doctor answers it. A voice on the other end says, "Doc, this is Ole." 

The doctor says, "Hello Ole. Have you been walking ten miles every day?" 

Ole says, "Yes." 

The doctor asks, "And has your sex life improved?" 

Ole replies, "Well, how the heck should I know? I'm seventy miles from home!"


Sven gets a new car and Ole comes over from next door to admire it.

“Hey, Sven,” Ole says, Whatcha doing with your new car.

Sven says, “I’m checking it out to make sure everything works.  Can you help me out?  I need you to go in front of my car and tell me if the headlights work.”

Ole goes in front, Sven turns them on, and Ole says, “They work!”

“Now, Sven, go in the back and check out the brake lights.”

Ole goes in the back, Sven steps on the brake, and Ole says, “They work!”

Sven says, “One last thing.  I want you to go back in the front to check out the emergency flashers.”

Ole goes back in the front, Sven turns on the flashers, and Ole says, “They work…they don’t work…they work…they don’t work….”


Alan Headbloom

Alan advises Americans how to be global citizens and expats how to fit in to Michigan culture without annoying their native coworkers and clients. He also tweets and blogs at the intersection of language and culture. Over decades, he's traveled, studied, or lived on six continents, putting strange foods into his mouth and emitting strange sounds from it. His use of English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Swedish, Hausa, and Japanese all improve with alcohol use. He gives invited public presentations on culture and unsolicited private advice on English grammar and usage; the latter isn't always appreciated. Visit his website for information on consulting, coaching, or speaking engagements.