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East Grand Forks native's Swedish skills lead to jokes on Letterman

Swede joke

In David Letterman's Rolodex, filed under S for "Swede" is Paul Thureen, East Grand Forks native, currently of Brooklyn, N.Y.

Or maybe he is under N for "Norwegian" or "Nordic."

Those traits won him an appearance on "The Late Show with David Letterman" Tuesday night when he walked on stage briefly to tell a joke in Swedish. The international gag was a nod to this week's gathering of world leaders at the United Nations.

Thureen said he is the Late Show's go-to Scandinavian, a guy who can speak Swedish and Norwegian, look the part by being tall and fair and be ready whenever the producers have a joke poking fun at northern Europe.

It's a small niche, but Thureen earned it the old-fashioned way: by sending out headshots for auditions after moving to New York. Someone at Letterman's show saw he spoke Norwegian and Swedish and gave him a call.

"You've got to have something, and that's mine," he said. "That and being tall and Nordic."

He also made an appearance on the show in 2006, he said, and gets occasional calls for skits that end up getting cut. The show actually requires a Scandinavian more often than one might expect.

"I wish it would come up more often," said Thureen, an actor and playwright who is preparing to open one of his plays next week.

Part-Norwegian and part-Swedish, Thureen became interested in learning the languages by listening to his parents switch to Norwegian whenever they did not want the kids to know what they were talking about. He later studied languages at Concordia College's Language Village and by taking Norwegian classes from his mother, Faythe Thureen, who was a professor in UND's Norwegian Department.

Swedish and Norwegian are similar enough for speakers of one to switch to the other, though Thureen admits to "speaking Swedish with a Norwegian accent."

Which could have been confusing for Swedish viewers Tuesday. Here was his joke:

"What's the difference between a Norwegian and a mosquito? Mosquitoes are only irritating in the summer."

"I did feel like I was betraying the Norwegians," Thureen said.