The jokes first became popular in the 19th century, and were originally inspired by the life of the poet and composer Carl Michael Bellman. The first known Bellman joke appears in the preface to an 1835 collection of Bellman's works, in which the publisher reprints an 1808 letter from a contemporary of Bellman, containing the following anecdote.
|“||[Bellman] rarely owned more than one coat. Once when King Gustav met him in the street he was wearing no more than a nightdress, at which the King said: "But my dear Bellman, you look so ill-clad," to which he bowed and replied, "I humbly assure your Majesty that I have the whole of my wardrobe on me."||”|
19th-century Bellman jokes tended to focus on C. M. Bellman's life at court, and often contained sexual humour. Since then, however, the Bellman character of the jokes has changed into a generic Swede, rather than the historical figure. The shift from jokes told by adults to jokes told mainly by young schoolchildren up to 10 years of age probably happened in the first half of the 20th century.
The modern versions of the Bellman jokes often include Bellman and two other characters of different nationalities, with the former coming out victorious from a tricky situation. However, in many Bellman jokes, Bellman is portrayed as something of an anti-hero, who may cheat, lie or even smell very bad in order to get the last laugh. Another common theme is that Bellman fools or makes fun of a priest, policeman or other authority figure. He can thus be seen as a modern sort of a trickster. The jokes tend to involve bodily functions such as urinating or defecating.
The ubiquitous character of the stories and the fact that they have been told in various forms for so many years have made them subject to study by ethnologists such as Bengt af Klintberg and researchers in children's culture.
Examples of contemporary Bellman jokes
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A Russian, a German and Bellman wanted to see who could swim the fastest across the Atlantic. First out was the German. He swam one kilometer and drowned. Next came the Russian. He swam 10 kilometers and then he drowned. Now it was Bellman's turn. He swam and swam until he almost reached the coast of America – then he got tired and swam back.
A Dane, a Norwegian and Bellman made a wager on who could remain inside a goat pen the longest. First out was the Dane, who came out after just 10 minutes yelling "Damn! The goat stinks!" After him the Norwegian went in, and after half an hour he came out yelling, "Damn! The goat stinks!" Finally Bellman went in. After two hours the goat came rushing out yelling "Damn! Bellman stinks!"
- Klintberg, Bengt af. (November 1987). "Varför är Bellmanhistorierna roliga?" [Why are Bellman jokes so funny?] (PDF). Børne-og UngdomsKulturSammenslutningen (BUKS) (in Swedish). 9. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2 May 2013.
- Valda Skrifter ("Selected Writings"), published by Henrik Gustaf Nordström, Stockholm, 1835. Page 22.
Hans sinnelag var det aldrabästa emot andra, alla tjente han, alla gaf han med sig, ägde till slut sällan mer än en rock; också mötte K. Gustaf honom en gång på gatan, uti en ganska stor negligée, och då Konungen sade: "Men, min kära Bellman, ni ser så illa klädd ut," bugade han sig och sade: "Jag kan i underdånighet försäkra Eder Maj:t, att jag ändå har hela min garderobe på mig."
- Klintberg, Bengt af. 1998. Kuttrasju: Folkloriska och kulturhistoriska essäer. Stockholm: Norstedts