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Soviet Comedy / Theories of Humor

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Post 23 Feb 2013, 18:27
I'd love it if people could speak to the genre of Soviet comedy, and what the major theories of comedy and humor were. Were these empirical studies, or informed by Marxism-Leninism?

Any online references would be great as well. This is a topic in the West that is sorely neglected.
Post 23 Feb 2013, 20:16
I don't think comedy was really informed by ideology in any strict sense, although certain concepts -like what was considered proper vs. not, were informed by positive, non-corrupted morality, which can be called Christian, socialist, etc. For example, in the famous film Gentlemen of Fortune (Джентльмены удачи), the main character embarrasses his thief companion by telling the companion's long-lost school friend of his thieving ways. Later, when the thief companion, clearly embarrassed and upset, asks the main character why he did so, he replies: "He'll envy you! Who is he? Just an engineer. What does he have to live for? In the morning he goes to work, in the evening he comes home to his wife and sniveling kids. Once in a while he'll go to the theater, maybe go to Yalta on vacation. All so intolerably boring. But you! You're a thief! A gentleman of fortune! You really live! You steal, drink, and go to jail, steal, drink, go to jail. That's a romantic a lifestyle!"
->Link to the film if you're interested. It's among my top five, and the translation captured a lot of the comedy.

Because the Soviet mass intelligentsia was so massive (comprising about 1/4-1/3 of the adult population by the 1980s) there were a lot of political jokes as well. Now of course you will have heard about the phenomenon of socially spread political jokes poking fun at the leadership and the political system. But this was not only some sort of secretive, dangerous phenomenon. First of all, even the leadership of the Party up to the General Secretary enjoyed this type of humour (Vladimir Medvedev, Leonid Brezhnev's chief bodyguard, recalled how Brezhnev regularly asked his barber about the latest jokes about him, and always laughed hysterically at them). Secondly, socio-political humour existed in the mass-media as well. Arkadi Raikin's standup routines are the epitome of popular political humour, and his performances were regularly broadcast on tv. One of the things that made it interesting and funny is that Raikin (and there were several others like him) used hidden or dual-meaning words and phrases to make his point. It is for this reason that after perestroika, Raikin-style political humour virtually disintegrated -the challenge and need for linguistic talent disappeared. Earlier, there was the famous duo of Pavel Rudakov and Veniamin Nechaev, who, also appearing on tv (back when it was all live) played guitar and accordion while singing satiric couplets about all sorts of issues -social, political, economic, international affairs, etc. Another great example, which I have mentioned elsewhere many times, is the satirical short 'Wick' (Фитиль), played before or after a feature film presentation at movie theaters, and poked fun at the problems of life in real existing socialism (though the project carried on into the 2000s).

Naturally, there were many other forms of comedy -for children and adults, ranging from situational to physical to observational. As I mentioned above, none of these forms of comedy were allowed to exit the realm of morality, i.e. to teach a negative morality, or to allow a bad guy to win, although satire could be said to bring a certain cynicism. Vulgar language and rudeness were not tolerated, and whether this is a positive or a negative in general I am not sure, although in principle I believe clean, morally positive comedy should at least outweigh the negative/vulgar form in airtime, runtime, publication, etc.
Post 23 Feb 2013, 21:34
Thank you for your post Soviet.

On your last few sentences, on one hand, I think there is value in a "positive" inspirational message being the official policy. On the other hand, it strains against my liberal upbringing sensibilities

Some things are hard to shake.
Post 23 Feb 2013, 23:03
Rune, being that I was brought up in a similar time and place, I can agree with you in principle.
I don't think good comedy can be produced or controlled by quotas and censorship. It has to resonate with the population on its own, and for this the population has to be sufficiently enlightened morally, socially and politically. Moreover there are definitely crude forms of comedy that I personally enjoy, some of them simplistic (the crude dialogue in the film Die Hard 3 for instance), some of them vulgar but very intelligent (i.e. the work of George Carlin).
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