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16 February 2012

Russians should liberate the smiler within

Russia may not have as many aircraft carriers as the United States, but Russian people have one priceless advantage over Americans, namely a sense of humour. Time magazine has posted a piece today which makes this point for me. It is entitled: “Is this the funniest YouTube video of all time?”
     Click on the link and you will see a weakly slapstick film of a man banging his head on a ceiling fan while trying to get hold of a tomato. The narrative beneath this begins:
“As if Google didn’t have enough to work on — that business of being the world’s most recognizable search engine would be plenty to keep them busy — it turns out the company also has a comedy algorithm. And they’ve just used it to let us in one* of the great, unanswered questions of our age: what’s the funniest video on YouTube?”
A comedy algorithm? Yep, that’s right: jokes by formula.  Only in America. They will be challenging the Germans soon, which could be very worrying. Spike Milligan, the writer of the immortal Goon Shows (which you can still hear on the BBC Radio Comedy channel via the internet), once said: “The German sense of humour is no laughing matter.”
     Half the charm of Russians is that they do have a sense of humour, unlike the people who Time magazine is writing about today. The flip-side of this is that half the strength of America is that it is prepared to admit its failings in this and most other respects without having a fit of “patriotic” censorship—which is the Russian vice.
     The timeless truth (no pun intended) which lies behind this apparent paradox is that so much humour is connected with hinting at matters which we do not wish to discuss openly, or admit freely. The grievous British tradition of lavatorial humour is an embarrassing case in point. Here are two examples which would be censored in both Russia and America, and quite rightly so.

     A fart, a fart is good for the heart.
     It sets the mind at ease.
     It warms the bed on a frosty night
     And drives away the fleas.

     Beans, beans musical fruit,
     The more you eat, the more you toot.
     The more you toot, the better you feel:
     Beans, beans for every meal.

     Russians are inclined to write in  a formal way, for fear of being thought деревенский (rustic), hence the “patriotic” censorship. In my view, that is a mistake. Laughs may be for the pub, but a smile in an email is, like a picture in a news story, worth a thousand words. The problem is, that humour is the hardest thing to get right in a language which is not your own. So keep reading this blog!

*Yes, that is copied correctly. A proof-reading error from Time! That sentence  should read: “…let us in on one of the great unanswered questions…”


  1. Hm...Ian, have just picked up on this and scrolled through to read your blog so far. Very witty, entertaining and intelligent. I agree with most of what you say - but when it comes to humour, let us bring out our Monty Python fish and slap each other around the cheeks! I defy you to watch Frasier, Seinfeld, Two and a Half Men, Will and Grace etc and come up with anything remotely - remotely - as humorous from the Russian media. And, having - like you- lived here for a long, long time....we make due allowances for cultural differences. American Jewish humour is on another planet ...British sitcoms make a good fist (Father Ted, Peep Show, Outnumbered, Black Books), not to mention the new breed of stand-up comedians, Michael Macintyre, Freddie Boyle, John Bishop etc...but where is the Russian sidesplitter? Oops, someone just fell over on the ice; how funny is that? See you at the next BBC. Mike

    1. Mike, but is your Russian good enough to understand any of Russian comedy programmes?
      I seriously doubt that - have known quite a few English speaking expats in Russia and none was even close to some sort of Pre-Intermediate level of mastering the Russian language.
      Personally I don't fancy 'good old British comedy' like Father Ted, find it quite boring. Like 'Come Fly With Me' a lot, but it's new.
      And, yes, we don't have as many stand-up comics in Russia as there are in the UK, for example, but Russian humour isn't about sitcoms or any other media 'shite' - in most cases they would be bad replicas of Western shows.
      Russian humour is in everyday Russian, read Dovlatov, for instance.

  2. Frasier, Seinfeld, Two and a Half Men, Black Books - good examples, really. They are well known series, and yes - there are no Russian series or sitcoms with the same quality of humor. However, TV series is not the only filed for humor. There are authors of real humor in Russia that leave all the examples mentioned above far-far behind. For example - Michail Zhvanetsky. His humor is _wise_, it is kind of old-fashioned real art. Unfortunately, year by year such humor is rarer and rarer in Russian mass media, and it is real problem for Russia. People here more and more often follow the worst US examples with laughing over slapping cakes, falling into pool and vomiting. At the old times of Soviet Union there was much more elite humor, it was just inappropriate for a clever person to neigh over lavatory jokes that are jokes just because they are lavatory kind, without any humor in them. At the same time there were excellent and absolutely obscene anecdotes that were excellent not because they were obscene, they were just excellent. Now our Russian humor is following American, and it's ramp down, it's the way to total stupidity.