The notion of using broad laws to suppress the arts has a long and horrifying tradition in Russia. Last year, Bob spoke with comedian Yakov Smirnoff about performing in the Soviet Union, where comics had to submit jokes to a Department of Humor for approval.
BOB: The notion of using broad laws to suppress dissent has a long and horrifying tradition in Russia. The Soviets enforced a censorship regime, ranging from the brutal to the ridiculous. Not only were wayward writers confined to gulags and insane asylums, or worse, even comedians were under the thumb of the state. Yakov Smirnoff is a Soviet-born comic who emigrated in the late seventies to the US, where part of his comedy was about his previous life.
YAKOV SMIRNOFF: I am actually from Russia. I was born there, grew up there, worked as a comedian out there. What surprises me, American people don’t know we have comedy in Russia. We have comedians. They are there. They are dead.
They are there. It’s very hard to do comedy in Soviet Union. You have to write out all your material and you send it to Department of Jokes.
I’m not making this up.
BOB: He wasn’t making it up, well, except for the name, “Department of Jokes,” which was actually the Humor Department of the Censorship Apparatus within the Soviet Ministry of Culture. Smirnoff says that once a year comedians had to submit their jokes to the Department of Humor for approval and were prohibited from straying in any way from the approved text in their acts.
YAKOV SMIRNOFF: We had pretty strict guidelines. We couldn't talk about government, politics, religion, or sex. The rest was fine.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] In other words, 97.3 percent of all the subject matter of all comedians all over the world throughout history.
YAKOV SMIRNOFF: Yeah, we can talk about fish, buttons, animals.
Those are very hot topics, you know?
BOB: Now, for the last 25 or 30 years, here in the West, you have been a fairly traditional standup comedian.
BOB: But there was a no standup tradition in Russia back in the 70s and 80s. What was your act?
SMIRNOFF: It was more of a – the older version of comedy that was during the vaudeville - vaudeville time here. And I would deliver the material that was approved. And if somebody heckled from the audience, I would say, well, come back in a year when I can approve some –
- comeback line to you, you know.
BOB: Nothing ad-libbed, not even dealing with hecklers.
SMIRNOFF: No, no, not at all. I would say, you know, in Russia they would say we have freedom of speech but in America you have freedom after you speak, which is a nice little feature.
BOB: [LAUGHS] Allowing for the fact that translation doesn't always work, can you tell me some of your material from the old days, so we can get a notion of what Soviet comedy sounds like in translation?
SMIRNOFF: Well, I’ll tell you, like one of the jokes was about an ant and an elephant. A little ant got married to female elephant, and after first wedding night, elephant died. And the little ant said, only one night I enjoyed myself, and now for the rest of my life I have to dig this grave.
That was okay. A couple of jokes that did not make it: The Soviet leader was cracking down on alcohol problem that’s happening there, and so he does to a factory and he says to one of the workers, if you had a glass of vodka could you work today, and the guys said, I, I guess I could. And if you had two glasses of vodka, could you work? He said, I guess I could. If you had three glasses of vodka, could you work? He said, I’m here, aren’t I?
So that, that joke did not pass through the, the government. And the other one that I thought was funny and did not pass either was about buying a car, and it took like 20 years to get a car in the – in Soviet Russia at that time, and the guys goes to, you know, to the factory and says, I’d like to buy a car. And he said, well okay, put your name on the list, come back in 20 years, pick up the car. The guy said, do I come back in the morning or in the afternoon?
And the manager said, what’s the difference, it’s 20 years from now. The guy said, the plumber is scheduled to come that morning.
That did not, did not pass.
BOB: I want to ask you about what’s going on now in Russia. It’s hard to look at Putin’s actions without hearing these echoes of Soviet repression. He’s becoming increasingly autocratic, increasingly intolerant of dissent. People are going to jail for various crimes, real and imagined. But there’s also the risk of overstating the threat that Putin poses vis-à-vis a genuine evil empire like the Soviet Union. What is your level of horror?
SMIRNOFF: Whatever it is that is going on, I see the same thing that I grew up with starting to happen again. The new law that just happened a couple of days ago, that you cannot have bad language in any media, it’s a very simple formula, divide and conquer. It gets rid of all the things that might influence people. And then you’re the sole source of information, and that’s part of the plan. He is like a chess player. He understands how there are certain elements he needs to be able to control, and the media is one of the things that is in competition with him. And that’s how the old Russian regimes, Stalin and all those guys, were functioning at that time.
BOB: The Cold War was great for defense contractors and Yakov Smirnoff.
You had something to joke about, and you were, you know, very current in the 70s and the 80s.
BOB: And then something horrible happened.
The, the Berlin Wall fell, the Soviet empire disintegrated. And you suddenly became less interesting. Is there a part of you that wants Putin to turn into a bona fide Communist style dictator so you can [LAUGHS] get back at the top of the bill?
SMIRNOFF: The answer is no. When the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union collapsed, David Letterman has a top 10 list of things that will now change through the Soviet Union – I’m no longer there. Number one on the list is Yakov Smirnoff will be out of work, which I thought was funny, but it really wasn’t because it exactly came to fruition and all my contracts in Vegas, Atlantic City and etcetera, etcetera, were no longer renewed, so I started looking for a place where they did not know that the Soviet Union collapsed. And I found my –
- place in Branson, Missouri, where I now own and operate 2,000-seat theater. So I’m okay. I don’t need Putin to rebuild the Soviet Union for me to make a living.
BOB: [LAUGHING] So both, both Branson and, and Crimea have, have been uninformed –