Comedy In Ukraine Is Thriving

Dec 12, 2019
Originally published on December 12, 2019 7:44 am
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NOEL KING, HOST:

Given what's been going on over the past few years in Ukraine, a violent political revolution in 2014 and now a war with Russia, you'd assume Ukrainians would be in a grim state of mind. But instead, their comedy industry is thriving. Long before President Volodymyr Zelenskiy became a politician, he represented his country in a different way. Here he is as a college student competing in a Russian comedy competition called KVN.

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PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKIY: (Non-English language spoken).

KING: He won the competition and became a star. And then after the war between Ukraine and Russia started, the Russian show was pulled off the air, and Zelenskiy launched a Ukrainian version. Gregory Warner went to see what comedy looks like in a country at war.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: It's called the "Liga Smeha," the "League Of Laughter." And the winner of this regional competition will head to the national championships to represent eastern Ukraine, the part of the country most affected by the war with Russia. Today, each team is rehearsing a comic sketch that they've written on the theme of a foreign country. La Planeta (ph) is an all-women's team, and their theme is Spain, although they use that to make jokes closer to home.

So in this scene, Vika Pidhorna (ph) is playing a woman from the 17th quarter. It's the local skid row. And then she gets magically transported to a Spanish city, and she's got no idea where she is. So she's walking down the street, and she sees a guy.

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VIKA PIDHORNA: (As character, non-English language spoken).

WARNER: "Look at that man."

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PIDHORNA: (As character, non-English language spoken).

WARNER: "He doesn't have a black eye. He doesn't have peregar (ph)," which is a word that means the gasoline breath of a person the day after a drinking binge. I don't think that word exists in English. Later, she starts rapping about her knockoff brands, like a Chinese Louis Vuitton.

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LA PLANETA: (As characters, rapping in non-English language).

WARNER: "I got shoes in the style of Dolce Gabbana. The heel fell off. It was fixed by my mama. All these threads thanks to the Jitomirskaya Fabric Factory (ph)."

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LA PLANETA: (As characters, rapping in non-English language).

WARNER: This factory reference - it's strategic, aimed at the local audience of mostly factory workers. But this team - it turns out they are not local. They are college students from the capital, Kyiv. They took the train 400 miles out here to kind of crash this local competition. And some of the other contestants see them as interlopers.

SASHA SERDYUK: (Non-English language spoken).

WARNER: Sasha Serdyuk (ph) is the coach of one of those local teams. He tells me he knows this formula when a team comes from out of town. There's three questions you ask the locals to come up with your material. What's the sketchiest nightclub? What's the public construction project that's been stalled by corruption the longest? And what's the roughest neighborhood? In this case, the 17th quarter. He's told his team, don't do that.

SERDYUK: No, no, no. No stereotypes, please. Come on. Let's do it. Sarcasm, but not stereotypes.

WARNER: Serdyuk's team is from a town called Mariupol. It's a port city in southeast Ukraine quite near the front lines of the war where the local industry has been devastated by Russian blockades. His team is scattered in different cities and different countries because the local economy doesn't support a comedy career. And they've reunited for this competition. But since they're not letting themselves really make fun of Ukraine, only the U.S., their sketch...

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UNIDENTIFIED COMEDIAN #1: (Mimicking explosion).

WARNER: It's like every American action film, cultural stereotype mashed together. You have aliens in cornfields and the Statue of Liberty getting blown up and John Travolta.

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UNIDENTIFIED COMEDIAN #1: (Non-English language spoken).

WARNER: After it's done, the celebrity comics who are here to advise the teams seem underwhelmed.

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UNIDENTIFIED COMEDIAN #2: (Non-English language spoken).

WARNER: One says, the sketch is still uncooked; you have to fill it up with jokes.

Afterward, in the hallway with the team...

Can I ask a question?

...I attempt to offer some advice.

What about, like, Trump and Zelenskiy - Trump, Zelenskiy and Biden?

Serdyuk tells me Trump is too familiar.

SERDYUK: Many on television - this joke.

WARNER: And Giuliani. And Giuliani...

SERDYUK: Not many people know.

WARNER: ...Not a household name.

People may not know it here.

SERDYUK: We have our Ukrainian Giulianis.

WARNER: We have plenty of our own Ukrainian Giulianis, he says. But the team doesn't want to joke about those characters either. When I asked another member of the team, Vova Sivak (ph), what he wanted to portray about Mariupol, this troubled city so close to the war...

VOVA SIVAK: (Non-English language spoken).

WARNER: ...He tells me, we want to show our town in the best possible light, as happy and cool. We've had a lot of changes in our region, but we have good people.

SIVAK: (Non-English language spoken).

WARNER: This team sounded less like comedians, more like politicians. But this competition - it's comedy. It's not a game of looking proud or dignified.

So I wanted to know, how did Zelenskiy do it? When he was a competitive comic, how did he represent his region on the comedy circuit? So I called up Aleksei Semenenko (ph)...

ALEKSEI SEMENENKO: Hi.

WARNER: ...A professor at Stockholm University in Sweden who researches Russian comedy.

SEMENENKO: He didn't represent - this is probably not the word, but...

WARNER: And he corrected me.

SEMENENKO: They exploit this identity.

WARNER: Zelenskiy exploited stereotypes about Ukraine, made them funny for the rest of the world.

SEMENENKO: But that was not a problem in the '90s. That became a political question now - I mean, since 2014, of course.

WARNER: Since 2014, meaning since the war with Russia. It's harder to know how to make fun of yourself when the other side is trying to use those stereotypes against you.

But if this local team from Mariupol feels muted by the war, the women's team from the capital - they've also struggled to find their voice. Vika Pidhorna tells me all of them spent time on co-ed comedy teams. It was not a good experience. The guys, she says, muscle in with their bruh (ph).

PIDHORNA: (Non-English language spoken).

WARNER: But she was inspired when Zelenskiy created a show of all women comics.

PIDHORNA: (Non-English language spoken).

WARNER: She told me that through comedy, you can set yourself free in Ukraine. You can start something new - a show, a startup. And she thinks that Ukrainians voted for Zelenskiy not because they liked him so much, but because they could see he worked hard. She sees comedy as a similar platform to prove herself.

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UNIDENTIFIED COMEDIAN #3: (Non-English language spoken).

WARNER: At the semifinals, the women's team slides into first place in the first round with their sketch, but the second round is lightning improv. The game is to fill in sentences. The second part of the sentence - it's a little bit Soviet - is that's why there is no heat. So the Mariupol team tries a joke about the mayor filling up his bathtub with the hot stuff...

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UNIDENTIFIED COMEDIAN #4: (Non-English language spoken).

WARNER: ...And that's why there is no heat. And the crowd loves it. The team makes it to the next round, maybe because they finally did use the familiar stereotypes of corruption, alcoholism that people recognize.

(CHEERING)

WARNER: In the end, the local team is declared the winner, and they'll head to the finals this February. And they know that everyone out there in the rest of Ukraine only knows the bad stuff about their town - the polluted factory air, the massive unemployment and the war. So they'll start off making fun of all that, just as a hello. And then they'll drop the cheap jabs and just try to be funny.

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KING: That was Gregory Warner with an excerpt from the NPR podcast Rough Translation. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.