LVIV, Ukraine – Some short stories are so dark and absurd that they seem to have been conceived in the distorted imaginations of bored satirists. Like the headline from Belarus a few weeks ago, reporting that 10th graders were learning to aim rifles – using shovels.
“What do you think of that?” asks comedian Vadym Dziunko.
Dziunko is on stage with two other actors and a well-known singer. All are seated and holding microphones, valiantly trying to find humor in a place and time where the tragic outweighs the funny by a dramatic margin.
It’s a recent Saturday night at Cult Comedy Hall, a comedy club in downtown Lviv, near Ukraine’s relatively peaceful western border. About 100 people spent about $13 each to eat, drink and listen to comics telling whatever came to mind, which is often the latest news on the war with Russia. Or in the case of this shovel-as-a-gun affair, the subject is the strangeness of life in Belarus, a dictatorship just 150 miles to the north.
“What do you expect from a country where a potato is a weapon? says comedian Oleksandr Dmytrovych. Then he imagines an instructor, giving advice to the children.
“‘We can’t give you guns yet – -“
“‘Because we only have one,'” concludes the third comedian, Maksym Kravets.
This is Cultural Defence, an evening of unscripted, free-flowing humor held in Lviv every few nights. It started two weeks after the Russian invasion, when Kravets, a Ukrainian intelligence officer by day and a comedian by night, called up the show’s co-creator, Bohdan Slepkura, and pointed out that the Cult Comedy Hall was in a basement.
“I said, ‘You know, the place is a bomb shelter,'” recalls Kravets, a burly, bearded 42-year-old.
Kravets, wearing a T-shirt with “Wildness” on it, and Dmytrovych sat in another room at the club after the show recently. At first, they said, they weren’t sure anyone in the country was in the mood for a laugh. The shock of the invasion was then fresh and hundreds of thousands of people from the east of the country flocked to the city.
“Before the first show, we thought maybe it wasn’t the right time for comedy,” said Dmytrovych, who is also 30 and sports a beard. (“Without a beard, we’re ugly,” he explained.)
“We were petrified,” he continued. “But after the first show, we came and sat in this room and realized that people wanted to laugh. They want to hear jokes about our enemy. From that first night, we understood that it would be bigger than us didn’t think so.
There was exactly one international star in Ukrainian comedy, and that happens to be the country’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky. If that puts pressure on others in the business, it wasn’t evident on stage this Saturday, when no one seemed particularly eager to land a punchline and a singer, Mykhailo Khoma, has spent a lot of time brooding over his childhood.
Ukraine has long had a modest live comedy scene, though anyone used to the standard American club setup will find something new in the show’s format. There is no warm-up act and at no time does anyone stand alone on stage. There are different guests every night. The evening begins with four men leading a hoarse call and response in Ukrainian, like the rest of the show.
Hosts: “Glory to the Nation!”
Audience: “Death to the enemies!”
Audience: “Above all.”
Public: deposition not printable!
After that, the stars take their seats and start talking.
Part of humor is self-mockery. In an earlier broadcast – they’re all available on YouTube – Dmytrovych recounted the news that Ukrainian soldiers had mastered a “single-use” anti-tank missile called NLAW. It was amazing, he said, because by nature and by necessity, Ukrainians are used to reusing everything over and over again.
“I bought slippers from a hotel in Egypt a year and a half ago and I still wear them,” he said. “When they were dirty, I washed them. When they fell apart in the washing machine, I glued them together. Now I’m giving guests slippers.
There are plenty of jokes at the expense of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, who is despised as a swaggering idiot who underestimated the spirit and determination of Ukrainians. The Russian army, on the other hand, is largely spared. The goal, Dmytrovych explained, is not to downplay the invading forces, which Ukrainians regard as formidable and horrifying. This is to lift the spirits of people who are not on the front lines, or who may have lived near the front lines and have since moved.
So, during a show, Kravets extolled the surprisingly sophisticated beauty of checkpoints in Lviv (“I wouldn’t be surprised if they served lattes”), some of which have unusually long queues. (“I thought at first they would take my order and in the end I would be handed a Big Mac”).
Domestic politics is a recurring theme. During a broadcast a few weeks ago, a poll was quoted which revealed that 90% of Ukrainians want to join the European Union.
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“What is the first thing you will do when we enter the European Union? asked a guest on stage.
“Look for the 10% who didn’t want to join the European Union,” said Dmytrovych deadpan. “Who are these people?”
The shows also serve as a fundraiser for Ukraine’s war effort. Each performance is streamed live on YouTube and viewers can send in donations online. Throughout the evening, a host who is offstage shares details of some of the most important donations, as well as messages for the artists. On this Saturday evening, a donor needled the hosts for the scarcity of jokes.
The object of the evening was to raise enough money to buy a car for the border guards, and by the time the public returned home, about an hour before the war-imposed 11 p.m. curfew, the objective was almost achieved. In more than 50 shows, Cultural Defense raised nearly $70,000.
The crowd at these shows is quite young, with most being between 20 and 35 years old. There are rows of packed seats near the stage and tables at the back for those who want to sample Cult’s menu, which somewhat incongruously leads to a long list of sushi offerings, including scrolls and nigiri. In brief pre-show interviews, a few viewers said the onslaught of depressing news made laughter essential.
“I think it’s three to one,” said Petro Diavoliuk, who was drinking and eating with friends. “All the money goes to the army, people relax and it’s cheaper than a shrink.”
Even here, however, reality prevails. Minutes before the final ovation on Saturday evening, a number of cell phones simultaneously began to emit the classic air raid siren, that rising and falling sound that is a staple of every World War II film in which soldiers rush before an attack. . Everyone has checked their phone and opened an app – several are available – that tracks government warnings about missile strikes.
“Warning! Airline alarm! read a text in Ukrainian and English on a Telegram channel called Notifications CD, for civil defence.
No one seemed remotely concerned, and the flow of onstage chatter didn’t stop for a moment. Airborne alarms are quite common in Lviv; there were 10 during the Cultural Defense fairs. And anyway, the place is a certified air-raid shelter. If there was real danger, this would be a good place to wait.
About an hour later, well after the broadcast had ended, a second message appeared: “Aerial alarm off.”
During a post-show interview, the two comedians said they hoped the war would end before the fall, for purely career reasons. They have a few corporate gigs lined up in other countries and while hostilities are raging the men are banned from leaving the country.
It was a joke. Humor in Ukraine is both a prayer for normality and a form of resistance. It is also, in a way, a unique fortifier. As Dmytrovych said, “As long as we laugh, we don’t give up.”