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Sunday, July 23, 2006

The Sunday Funnies

A Russian figures prominently on the new version of American Idol, "America's Got Talent." Here is what they say about him on TVGASM:

I've never loved and hated someone so much as I simultaneously love and hate Leonid the Magnificent. Leonid is a 6 foot plus Russian Drag Queen, all dolled up in silver glitter paint and wings. Sadly, he doesn't look all that ridicuous, cause you could crack a walnut on his abs. His talent is balancing knives and swords on his face and mouth. Umm, okay. He actually drops the sword and catches it barehanded, which causes Piers to start buzzing him off stage. Piers wonders what he can do with him besides sticking him atop his Christmas tree; Brandy likes him because he's shiny; The Hoff was worried he was going to actually die on stage and was more nervous than excited. Leonid is voted off 2 to 1. But this isn't the last we'll see of Leonid! A little later in a moment that wasn't at all staged, Brandy asks the Reege to bring Leonid back because she has a feeling about him. Please click here to watch the whole thing because I just can't describe it perfectly enough. After Leonid finishes crying hysterically, he tells the judges that he's been waiting his whole life for this moment. You waited your whole life to come from Russia to be on the stage? Exactly how cold does it get in Mother Russia, Leo? And then, the best part is when he responds to Piers comment about placing him on top of a Christmas Tree. The crowd is roaring with Leonid this whole time, and then he tells Piers that to him he might belong on a Christmas Tree but to someone else he could be a God. And wtih that the crowd goes into stunned silence. Did he just say he was a God? A God of what, exactly? A God of Transvestites? It's just so funny. Please watch. After that performance, which was way better than his sword balancing schtick, He is voted through to the next round, and happily skips off stage.

* * *

Here's a review from Seattle on what Russians take for comedy:


The one-woman show Child of Hungry Times is being hosted by WET, which is holed up in the former Little Theatre space, at 608 19th Avenue East. It's a one-hour one-woman show, and it runs this weekend and next (July 27 - 30) at 8pm. Tickets are $15 and can be gotten online, or by showing up at the box office, open an hour before each show. As we watched the show last night, we were wondering who might want tickets to it. We're all about pointing people in the right direction. That's us. Based on the (Now! Uncensored!) writing of the gloriously Russian-named Lyudmila Petrushevskaya, the show features actress and playwright Bridget Bailey taking on the roles on six women drawn from Petrushevskaya's fiction. (One we recognize from "Our Crowd.") Things do not go particularly well for any of them, though it takes a while to find out what's going on. Faithful to Petrushevskaya's style, Bailey initially offers snippets out of context, conversational starts and stops -- it's a little annoying in a hot theater. So there's the teenager's affair with the married guy who gets her pregnant, the "street"-talking woman who gets pregnant by a KGB agent and has it aborted, the mentally disabled woman whose twins die in utero, the woman with cancer who's desperately trying to keep her son from an orphan's life, and the woman who's so poor she travels around town dropping in on friends so her son can eat. She just has tea. And we're introduced to them all by a Party representative/babushka whose fawning, keening speech reminds us of the Boss's dog that's "been beat too much." It's grim. It's not all that funny, though there are funny moments here and there. The text is sometimes too obviously translated from third-person narrative by simply changing pronouns around. Bailey's performance is one of those marvels of quick-change artistry, not just costumes, but posture, gait, and accent, too. Near the end, we were musing about how wonderfully set up the unspoken comparison about governmental "thought control" was, how an ideology can seem transparent, it's so right-thinking -- and then Bailey's babushka went ahead and made that precise comparison so we'd know what to think.

* * *

Finally, the Moscow Times confirms (via the LA Times) that, in Russia, joking about the President is no laughing matter (any day now, La Russophobe will be transformed into a criminal blog, as far as the Kremlin is concerned):

With a heat wave baking my Stalin-era apartment building, I went to visit friends at their dacha outside Moscow. On the veranda of their simple wooden house, the table was set for a colorful feast, and over the coals cubes of lamb and pork sizzled on skewers. Perhaps it was the cooking meat that inspired someone to tell this joke:

President Vladimir Putin is roasting Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko on a spit, working up a sweat as he rotates the spit as fast as he can.

"Why are you turning him so quickly?

"I have to, otherwise Yushchenko will steal the coals."

The joke hinges on Moscow's claim that Ukraine steals Russian natural gas. But it was the closest thing to the old Soviet political jokes, or anekdoty, that I had heard in a long time. Intrigued, I began some informal field research on Russian political humor today. Here's one I heard repeated:

Putin gets up in the middle of the night and goes to the refrigerator. When he opens the door, a dish of jellied meat begins to tremble.

"Don't worry," he says, "I've only come for a beer."

Putin jokes tend to play on the Kremlin's consolidation of power, on the efforts to eliminate the opposition, on the silencing of independent voices and the domination over other branches of government:

Putin goes to a restaurant with the leaders of the two houses of parliament. The waiter approaches and asks Putin what he would like to order.

"I'll have the meat."

"And what about the vegetables?"

"They'll have the meat, too."

Back in Soviet times, anekdoty were an essential social safety valve. Many jokes compared life under Vladimir Lenin, Josef Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev:

Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev are traveling together on a train when suddenly it lurches to a stop. Stalin has the conductor shot. The train doesn't move. Khrushchev rehabilitates the conductor. The train still doesn't move. Brezhnev closes the curtains and says, "There, now we're moving."

Brezhnev took a beating for the Soviet Union's stagnation under his increasingly geriatric leadership, as in another old favorite:

Brezhnev begins his speech opening the 1980 Summer Games: "O! O! O!"

An aide interrupts him with a whisper: "The speech starts below, Leonid Ilyich. That is the Olympic symbol."

The anekdoty art form survived glasnost and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Mikhail Gorbachev was taken to task for his anti-alcohol campaign, and Boris Yeltsin for his drunken behavior and slurred speech. But Putin poses a problem for the people who make up these jokes. He's always in control, always on cue. He dresses well, speaks well and drinks in moderation.

The most telling thing about Putin jokes is their scarcity. This joke, for example, is 3 years old, and I haven't heard it lately:

Putin is sitting in his office with his head in his hands, when Stalin's ghost appears. Putin tells the ghost his problems, bemoaning the incompetence of his Kremlin underlings.

"That's easy to fix,'' Stalin says. "Shoot all the bad officials, and paint the Kremlin walls blue."

"Why blue?" Putin asks.

"Hah! I knew you'd only ask about the second part!"

Most people I asked, including a taxi driver who keeps his car radio tuned to a station called Humor FM, said they hadn't heard any Putin jokes, that Putin jokes would not be funny anyway, or that the public wouldn't like Putin jokes because the president is so popular.

There are no jokes about Putin, and if there were, they would be in bad taste, snapped an art historian, an old friend.

But Russians also have reason to be afraid of making fun of their president. For one thing, if a bill working its way through the parliament becomes law, slandering the president would be a crime. Political candidates and their parties could be barred from elections. Journalists could be jailed and their news organizations shut down. Even without this law, the editor of an Internet newspaper was called in for questioning and had his site closed down in May after satirizing Putin's plan to encourage families to have more children.

A newspaper columnist who writes on foreign affairs said, not without irony, that there are no jokes about Putin because he is seen as a kind of god. "You don't make jokes about God, do you?" the columnist asked.

NTV television dared to compare Putin to God on its satirical puppet show, "Kukly." Shortly after Putin's election in spring 2000, NTV announced that in response to pressure from presidential aides, it would do a show without the Putin puppet. Instead, Putin's chief of staff was depicted as Moses bringing commandments down from a God so holy that no one was allowed to see him or speak his name.

But the joke was on NTV. By the following spring, the privately owned channel had been taken over by state-controlled Gazprom, and "Kukly" disappeared. All three national television channels are now under state control, and the president gets blanket coverage, none of it critical.

Perhaps most revealing about Putin as a leader is his own crude sense of humor and the tough-talking street language he uses. He recently told his ministers that no economic changes could be expected until they "stopped chewing on snot" -- slang for getting down to work.

One of the very few people who has been successful at poking fun at Putin is Maxim Kononenko, who set up a web site in 2003 that spoofed the president's lowbrow slang. Many people expected the site to be quickly closed down. Instead, Kononenko's hallmark sendups of conversations between Putin and a key aide, which begin, "Listen, Bro," won a coveted Saturday-night spot on NTV -- hosted by a Kremlin favorite. Putin likes being portrayed as a tough guy.

Putin may not be funny enough to inspire a new generation of political humor, but what is happening in Russia is not always funny. Perhaps allowing a few more jokes would help.


copydude said...

Putin goes to a restaurant with the leaders of the two houses of parliament. The waiter approaches and asks Putin what he would like to order.

"I'll have the meat." "And what about the vegetables?" "They'll have the meat, too."

This old joke was doing the rounds about Mrs Thatcher in the '80s. Somehow I don't think you're going to bring about regime change by recycling old jokes.

La Russophobe said...

COPYDUDE: Yes, I believe that is the point of the article, namely that Russians don't have the fortitude to invent new appropriate jokes about Putin, a symbol that they have vested him with far too much power and far too little criticism, leaving him with the impression that he can do anything he likes. America has far fewer and less serious problems than Russia (the same is true of Britain) but there are far more jokes being told about the leaders of those countries. It's yet another sign that Russia is doomed.