Rants and Raves

Opinion, commentary, reviews of books, movies, cultural trends, and raising kids in this day and age.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

What Eastern Europe did to my sense of humor

I have written, and intend to write more, about the changes I've gone through living abroad for thirteen years. Changes in my politics, lifestyle, taste in reading, taste in women...

However, one thing a friend pointed out to me was that my sense of humor had changed to the point that she couldn't understand many of my jokes.

I myself think that it's not exactly my 'sense' of humor - I still laugh at the same kind of jokes. I think it's the content and context. I really like satiric irony and word play, and a mutual taste for that kind of humor is one of the most important things my wife and I have in common. This has to be really important, given that we are of different countries, native languages and generations. (That and the fact that we are both military brats, US Navy and Polish Army - some things transcend country and culture.)

How the things I laugh at has changed was driven home to me in a class taught by a distinguished American professor, originally from Romania. He has a collection of books on Eastern European jokes of the communist era and one day brought them to class to illustrate a point about communication through political humor.

So... he started reading some of the jokes. I started telling some, and pretty soon we were swapping jokes and chuckling - as the rest of the class looked on with expressions that eloquently said, "Huh?"

At any rate, here are some that might need only minimal explanation:

The milicia ("militia") were the communist police force, now reorganized as "policia". Many jokes known in America as Polish jokes are milicia jokes in EE and Russia.

Why do milicia always patrol in threes? One can read, one can write, and one to keep an eye on the two intellectuals.

Two miliciants are walking with a police dog, and a two men stroll by. One miliciant stops, walks to the back of the dog, lifts its tail and looks under it. The other asks, "What are you doing?" "Didn't you hear what that guy said ? "Look at the dog with the two assholes."

In Hungary there is a whole genre of jokes about Little Moritska:

One day in school, the teacher asks, "Who can tell me about the advantages of socialist agricultural production?" Moritska volunteers, "Under the latest five year plan, if you piled all the potatoes in Stalin Square, they would make a pile that would reach to the feet of God!" Teacher gets very frightened and says, "Moritska, haven't you been paying attention in class? Don't you know there is no God?" "And potatoes? Are there potatoes?"

From Slovakia:

A man is drinking in a bar, raises his head and shouts, "The president is an idiot!" Two secret policemen rush over, "You're under arrest!" "For what?" "You said the president is an idiot." "But I didn't mean OUR president." "Don't try to fool us! We know very well whose president is an idiot!"

One found all over the Soviet bloc, and which possibly goes back to the Nazi regime as well:

There was a peasant, and one night Death knocks on his door. "Who's there?" he calls timidly. "I am DEATH!" "Of thank God! I thought it was the secret police!"

When I was living and working in Serbia during the Milosevic regime, my students told me this one:

Slobo and his family are flying over the country. Slobo says to his wife, "Mira, why don't I throw out a hundred-dinar bill and make somebody happy?" "Oh Slobo, why don't you throw out two fifty-dinar bills and make two people happy?" His daughter chimes in, "Oh Pappa, why not throw out ten ten-dinar bills and make ten people happy?" Then his son says, "Gee Pappa, why don't you just jump out and make everybody happy?"

And a Russian girl told me this variation on the classic multi-ethnic joke, "How many miliciants does it take to change a lightbulb?"

Six. One to hold the bulb, four to turn the table, and one to walk counter-clockwise around so the guy holding the bulb doesn't get dizzy.

Some of you might have chuckled at some of the above examples. And indeed, many are "plug-in jokes" - the kind of ethnic humor you can adapt by changing the butt of the joke to the local equivalent.

Some however, are pretty context dependent. You have to know something about the history of Poland in WWII to appreciate the quip that was going around Warsaw during the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the General Uprising that resulted in the almost complete destruction of the city. The government of Poland invited the chancellor of Germany as a gesture of reconciliation, and most people were pretty OK with that. Then they invited Boris Yeltzin - and nobody was really OK with that at all.

During the Uprising, the Red Army advanced to the banks of the Vistula river (that divided the old city from the newer suburbs on the East bank) and waited for the Germans to complete the destruction of the Home Army and the city, before moving in, occupying the rubble and arresting the surviving members of the resistance.

So, the joke at the time of the anniversary was, that if Yeltzin wanted to come to the ceremony, they should give him a place to stand on the opposite bank of the river and a pair of binoculars to watch it with.

If that fell flat, consider that I once had to spend about a half-hour explaning to some Japanese students, "Other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?"

I remember the moment I realized how much I'd fit in to Polish life when I read a local political joke, and laughed immediately. First you have to understand that ZChN is a Polish religious/ political party. The acronym means something like "Christian Nationalist"* and they are considered by many to be the political arm of the Catholic Church.

The Emperor Nero is opening the Games at the arena in Rome. "Send in the lions!" he commands. In come the lions, roaring and pawing the sand. "Throw in the Christians!" They throw in the Christians. There's roaring and a cloud of dust rises. When the dust settles, there are all the lions. Dead, with their throats torn out. "No, no!" he cries. "Not the Christians from ZChN!"

That falls flat in America no matter how I explain it. But there are still jokes that I don't get no matter how they're explained.

For example, I told my wife once that I'd asked a Polish friend about the traditional rivalry between Poles and Czechs. What is it about, I asked. There's no great history of warfare and conquest between them, like with the Germans and Russians. What's the deal?

He answered, "Oh, they're OK. If you like all of that Om-pah-pah shit." "So what the heck does that mean?" I asked. "Too German." he explained.

To this day, I still don't get it. My wife however, still laughs whenever I repeat it. And when I mentioned this example to that Romanian-American professor, he laughed uproariously as well, while I and another equally clueless grad student looked on.

Note: I have done some research into humor, particularly linguistic humor, and will have more to say on the subject later.

* Interestingly, America is accused of having politics dominated by religious extremists, but though several European countries' have political parties named "Christian Democrats" I can't see anything like that happening here.


  • At 2:21 PM, Blogger Evanston said…

    Thanks! Fun and fascinating commentary.

  • At 10:50 AM, Blogger Black Sea said…

    A joke from the Cold War era:

    An American, a Russian, and a Pole have agreed to meet at 6:00 pm at a certain pub to have a beer. The American and the Russian arrive on time. One hour later, the Pole shows up. "Sorry I'm late," says the Pole, "but I had to stand in line for one and a half hours to buy a ham."

    "What's a line?" asks the American.

    "What's a ham?" asks the Russian.

  • At 1:10 PM, Blogger Alaric said…

    Moritska and an Irish lad named Robert meet via a foriegn exchange program. They fall in love and marry, but one problem was that although the two worshipped Potatoes, God and Stalin don't get along.

    *I thought I'd try...maybe it's too ridiculous to be made sense of.

    I did very much so enjoy your jokes. they make me laugh. well except the one about Boris...that was just stupid.

  • At 3:27 PM, Blogger Christopher said…

    Stalin invites Alexander the Great, Hitler and Napoleon to watch the military parade on the Day of the Revoluton.

    The Macedonian is captivated by the tanks. "With chariots like these" says Alexander, "I could have conquered all of Asia."

    Hitler stares at the endless ranks of soldiers. "With an army this size, I could have gone on to the Middle Est and Africa."

    Napoleon is not watching. Izvestia
    has grabbed all his attention. "With a newspaper like this, nobody would ever have heard of Waterloo."

    Two good sources of Communist-era jokes:

    Der politischer Witz im Ostblock

    Le communisme est-il soluble dans l'alcool?

  • At 11:56 AM, Blogger Anonymous said…

    The "om-pah" stuff (I think) refers to those German bands playing traditional German music. I've always called them "om-pah" bands. Maybe they're mocking the similarity between Czech and German music? As a Polish person, I loved those jokes!

  • At 12:21 AM, Blogger Alex said…

    Stephen, I am giving a short presentation in one of my classes about EE humor, and your blog has provided some interesting insight. I really enjoyed the jokes, thank you for sharing.

  • At 4:54 AM, Blogger Steve Browne said…

    Alex, if you and your class are interested in linguistic humor: puns, play on words, jokes that can't be translated because they use specific features of the language for humorous effect - get in touch. I've got a manuscript on the subject.


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