“Do not go to this performance,” Vladimir, an East Portland greengrocer, advises me. “You will not like the jokes.”
I’ve lived in Russia and heard jokes like the ones RUDN, a winning team from Russia’s national competitive comedy TV show KVN, is bound to make Saturday, March 23, at the Alberta Rose Theatre. Russian humor tends to be as dark, irreverent and complicated as the Russian spirit. Vladimir is right—don’t go to this Russian-language show. Instead, we’ve created a very brief history of Soviet comedy. Try not to smile.
- In 1778, a treaty between Imperial Russia and the indigenous Chukchi people is signed, thereby guaranteeing the native arctic peoples would be the butt of jokes for centuries. There is a story about one Chukchi man who opened the yogurt in the grocery store because the lid read “Open Here.”
- On Nov. 8, 1961, the first episode of KVN, or Club of the Funny and Inventive, airs on the First Soviet Channel. KVN is a competition between two teams of college students to joke, mime, sing and dance their way to the top, judged in a haphazard, “whose line is it anyway?” sort of way. One of the co-creators was a Russian doctor named Albert Akselrod. Akselrod.
- In 1965, as the number of televisions across the Soviet Union rapidly expands, two teams of witty, shaggy-haired students in the finals solidify KVN in the collective consciousness. Their jokes are funny only if you’ve been collectivized: “Who goes into the forest and who collects the wood? The forest manufacturing collective goes in the forest, and the forest cooperative goes to get the wood.”
- In 1969, as we had Woodstock, Soviet censors started cracking down. Teams on KVN were warned in advance about unbecoming language, and the show stopped being broadcast live. Yes, the jokes only got tamer.
- On April 1, 1973, after the Soviet Union deemed KVN’s students “unruly” and banned the show altogether in 1972, the team from Odessa, Ukraine, founded Humorina, a wacky festival of parades and performances that takes place on April Fools’ Day every year. Don’t go buying a rainbow clown suit yet. A popular rhyme goes: “A little boy found a machine gun/ Now the village population is none.”
- On Sept. 27, 1986, Ukrainian-American comedian Yakov “Soviet Russia” Smirnoff becomes popular through the American TV show What a Country! Though his accent is authentically Slavic, his jokes are not. Trust me, I’ve tried them. In America, you can always find a party. In Soviet Russia, Party find you!
- In 2002, a highly multicultural KVN team from RUDN, or the People’s Friendship University of Russia, wins the First League Cup, moving it up to the Premier League, where it will compete 14 times, the second most in KVN history. The introduction of the team’s winning performance included four team members dressed in Men in Black suits and singing a parody of Shaggy’s “Mr. Bombastic.”
- In 2006, RUDN wins the national championship, and seven years later, the team is in America. What a country!
GO: Team RUDN hams it up in Russian at the Alberta Rose Theatre, 3000 NE Alberta St., on Saturday March 23. 7:30 pm. $20-$40.