The Magazine

Laughter in Red

Humor as a weapon against Soviet Communism.

Oct 26, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 06 • By THOMAS SWICK
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A new convict arrived at a prison camp. The inmates began questioning him about the length of his sentence.
"Twenty-five years," replied the newcomer.
"What for?"
"Nothing. Didn't do a thing; I'm innocent."
"Don't give us that story. The innocent only get five years."

In the 1940s, the Soviet Union expanded its sphere of influence and Communist humor became multilingual.

After the war, different national traditions of humor from Central and Eastern Europe came together and enriched the Communist joke, which already benefited from the culture of Jewish humor and the Russian anekdot. The result was the emergence of a new breed of super-jokes, perhaps the best that had ever existed in history.

The Soviet Bloc as Comedy Central.

The Berlin Wall, constructed in 1961, inspired more jokes, but only in the East. Which is probably not surprising, considering that there it went by the risible name of the "Anti-Fascist Protection Wall."

In Halle, Lewis meets with two former student comics, Ernst Röhl and Peter Sodann, who believed in the German Democratic Republic (the name itself a kind of bad joke) and thought that, through humor, they could provide constructive criticism. They are among a number of fascinating characters the author exhumes-fruits of his exhaustive look at Communist humor in all its forms (satire, cabaret, cartoon, etc.)-and they show that there was more going on than just a series of jokes (however clever and subversive) being circulated among a beleaguered citizenry. Lewis does everyone a service in telling their stories, which give the much-ballyhooed human face to what could have been simply a joke anthology.

Further elevating the book is his analysis, which is scholarly but not dense, and usually astute, though his sympathy for the German comics, and their continuing sympathy for the regime, lead him to reflect on the tragic quality of the jokes: "Behind the contempt, frustration, and fear lay a note of attraction and forgiveness. However awful Communism was, the ideals and goals behind it never lost their allure."

That may have been true for Röhl and Sodann, but not for millions of unwilling subjects. As the unheralded comedy writer Josef Stalin once said (in a quote not included here): "Communism fits Poland like a saddle fits a cow."

The Communist joke reached its apotheosis, Lewis writes, in the 1960s. And to prove it he tells a day-in-the-life story entirely through jokes.

Less than a half-century after the revolution, there was no aspect of life under Communism that wasn't ripe for ridicule. A system that promised cradle-to-grave security now delivered absurdity.

But do you know, I'm getting so absent-minded: I left the house today, I shut the front door and looked at the empty bag in my hand and for a moment I couldn't remember if I was about to go shopping, or if I had just come back.

Not everyone was amused, or is amused today, as Lewis discovers when he attends a meeting of the Janos Kadar Appreciation Society and spouts jokes about the former Hungarian leader. He has a much more successful visit in Bucharest with Calin Bogdan Stefanescu, "the world's only statistician of Communist jokes." His Trabi jokes fall flat at a rally of Trabant owners in Zwickau. And he gets a cool reception from Lech Walesa when he asks the former Polish president and solidarity leader what would happen if Communism were introduced to Saudi Arabia. (There would be a shortage of sand.)

Walesa takes himself far too seriously these days, but his impatience signifies something else, which Lewis addresses. Orwell may have claimed that "every joke is a tiny revolution," but jokes don't prosper during moments of revolt. The act of insurgency calls for courage and earnestness; cynicism and derision belong to the helpless observers of history.

"I was slowly coming to the conclusion," Lewis writes, "that, as the people of the Soviet Bloc rose up, they cast aside not only their chains but their jokes as well."

But what a waggish legacy they left behind. The jokes, according to Lewis, "are proof that they weren't simply lost years. They are evidence that some kind of soul came out of that era, and that [the people who suffered under Communism] have something that we in the West never had and will never have. Jokes were eastern Europe's jazz, the music of the oppressed."

I would change "jazz" to "blues." And I would add that, while many of the jokes are now dated, some remain timeless.