The Humor Code

Did the KGB Secretly Write All the Best Jokes About the Soviet Union?
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March 30 2014 11:42 PM

The Humor Code

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Entry 6: Can comedy bring about real political change?

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Toy hammer photo by Cavan Niron/Thinkstock. Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo.

A few years ago, Palestinians turned on their televisions and watched Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas announce, at long last, a peace deal with Israel—that is, Mahmoud Abbas the 13th, at a time 500 years in the future.

The satire was the work of Watan ala Watar, Palestine’s first-ever televised political satire show. A few years ago, in the course of researching our book, we visited the West Bank and met the comedians behind Watan ala Watar, Arabic for Homeland on a String. The trio had enjoyed a surprising amount of editorial freedom since they hit the airwaves in 2009, especially considering their weekly 15-minute show ran on state-run television. No one was off limits: Palestinian leaders, Israeli negotiators, Osama Bin Laden, Barack Obama. One skit featured an Islamist judge in Gaza making eyes at a male courtroom reporter.

The results were wildly popular. In 2010, the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center found that 60 percent of those in the West Bank and Gaza who’d seen Watan ala Watar liked it, far higher approval ratings than either of Palestinian’s two major political parties.

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But while we were in Palestine, Watan ala Watar took things one joke too far. Halfway through our stay, the Palestinian Authority attorney general shut down the show, just a few days after the comedians aired a skit making fun of him. Someone apparently couldn’t take a joke. (In 2013, Palestine’s high court overturned the ban, but the show’s creators weren’t sure they’d be returning to Palestinian state TV. Since the ban, they’ve been talking to other Arab television channels about airing the show.)

The attorney general’s move might also have been an acknowledgement that humor can have real political power. From Aristophanes’ political sex comedy Lysistrata to Honoré Daumier’s caricatures, politics has always inspired political satire. It’s no different today, as the popularity of the Daily Show and the Colbert Report attest. And lately, activists all over the world have been using comedy as a form of political protest. Stories abound of protesters in Tahrir Square waving satirical banners and erupting in comical songs during the 2011 Egyptian revolution. In New York, the satirical activists the Yes Men have launched the Yes Lab, designed to teach protesters the art of comedy.

It’s encouraging stuff. Unfortunately, the jury’s still out as to whether subversive humor can actually effect change. Science, even the science of humor, is based on evidence. Which insurrections were launched by joking, ask scholars. When has a despot been overthrown, or oppression overcome, with the help of a few good punch lines?

You might imagine the best evidence for humor’s revolutionary power would come from the last years of the Soviet Union. Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the USSR experienced a great surge of political joking, much of it aimed at the Soviet system. There were even Soviet jokes about jokers busted for their jokes:

Who dug the White Sea Canal?
The right bank was dug by those who related anecdotes.
And the left bank?
Those who listened.

If anyone was going to argue that such witticisms helped topple the Berlin Wall, it would be British sociologist and international joke expert Christie Davies, who spent decades tracking humor in the USSR. But in fact, he believes the opposite. According to Davies, among all the factors that led to the Soviet Union’s spectacular collapse, joking didn’t even crack the top 20. At best, he thinks the explosion of Soviet jokes was an indication of a rising political discontent already underway among the populace, not the spark that started the fire. Or as he puts it, “Jokes are a thermometer, not a thermostat.”

Some scholars go further, arguing that not only is comedy incapable of launching revolutions, but it might even have prevented a few from happening. According to this line of thinking, joking among the discontent masses might act as a release, allowing folks to let off steam, instead of rising up in rebellion. It’s one of the reasons there have long been rumors that some of the best anti-Soviet jokes were in fact planted by the KGB. As folklorist and longtime humor scholar Elliott Oring noted in an article on jokes created under oppressive regimes, “several of my informants suggested that the KGB actually created, or at least purveyed, political jokes. The jokes were circulated from time to time, they said, in order to relieve stress and defuse tense political or economic situations.” (He added, however, that he’d never found concrete evidence that this had actually occurred.) Revolutionary humor, conclude skeptics, doesn’t really exist. There’s never been a case of jokes changing the world.

Or has there? Let’s consider the case of Serbia in 1999. The small Balkan state was in its 10th year in the autocratic grip of President Slobodan Milošević. Four recent wars with neighboring republics of the former Yugoslavia had left the country isolated, financially ravaged, and aggressively nationalistic. No one expected the situation to change anytime soon.

A year later, everything was different. A half-million people had taken to the streets in protest, and Milošević resigned in disgrace. What happened in between? Among other things, a whole lot of jokes.

Many of those wisecracks came from Otpor!, a Serbian youth movement. On Milošević’s birthday, Otpor baked the president a giant cake in the shape of Yugoslavia, only to carve it up just like he’d disastrously carved up the former country, offering pieces to passersby in central Belgrade. Another time, the group released a flock of turkeys dressed up like Milošević’s wife in a busy shopping district, leading the authorities to chase the fowls all over the neighborhood.

Otpor practiced what it called “laughtivism,” an effort to inject humor into protest movements. That’s the term used by its former leader, Srđa Popović, who told us that he considers himself a disciple of both Martin Luther King Jr. and Monty Python. Popović has continued to develop laughtivism techniques; he and his former colleagues founded the Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies, or CANVAS, where they’ve taught their protest methods to activists from Georgia, Ukraine, Lebanon, the Maldives, Egypt, and elsewhere.

According to Popović, humor added three key elements to the movement that ultimately brought down Milošević. First, he said, prior to Milošević’s ouster in 2000, “People were afraid, and humor was useful in breaking that fear.” Second, humor was integral to Otpor’s signature “dilemma actions”—protests designed so that however Milošević responded, he looked stupid. One example involved Otpor painting Milošević’s face on a barrel and letting folks on the street take a whack at it. Since Milošević wasn’t about to let citizens smack him in the face, police confiscated the prop—allowing Otpor to report that the authorities had arrested a barrel. Having your face abused in public is embarrassing; appearing to not be able to take a joke is arguably even more so.

Finally, the young, laughing activists wearing Otpor T-shirts and engaging in goofy street theater made protests seem cool and fun. Or as Popović put it with a wink, “If you weren’t arrested in Serbia in 2000, you couldn’t get laid.”

Next up: Are joke-stealers violating copyright?

Peter McGraw is a professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Joel Warner is a former Westword staff writer.

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