Friday, March 2, 2007

Why I don't get Russian humor

The title of this post may be misleading, since I’m not sure I can answer the question myself. I think the problem is either…my culture or my personality. :)

The scenario

Russian person: [insert anecdote here]
Me: [silence or fake laughter]
Russian person: You didn’t understand?
Me: I’m not sure.
Russian person: [translates joke into English]
Me: I know, I got it. I just…don’t think it’s funny?

Then I decided that none of you readers will know what I’m talking about unless I provide an example. After reading through several pages of jokes, I couldn’t find one that was funny. And then I remembered that their non-funniness to me was the point of my research in the first place.

So in the end I chose a few doctor jokes, which I found to be the least offensive to my American ears. Maybe it’s because I’m not a doctor…

From Wikipedia: “Medical jokes are wide-spread. Usually, they consist of a short dialogue of doctor or nurse and patient.
-'Doc, why is it that when I speak to God it's a prayer, and when God speaks to me it's schizophrenia?'
-'Doc, everybody ignores me!'/ 'Next patient, please...'
-'Doc, why you are measuring me!'/ 'I'm not a doctor, I'm a carpenter.'
-'Doc, where're we going?' / 'To the morgue.'/ 'But I haven't died yet!'/'Neither have we arrived.'
-'Nurse, where're we going?' / 'To the morgue.'/ 'But I haven't died yet!'/ 'Er, the doc said 'to morgue', so to morgue!'

The phrase 'The doc said 'to the morgue', so to the morgue!' became a well-known Russian cliché.”

So why am I bothering to write about something I don’t understand? Because the anecdotes are everywhere! Everyone is reading them in the metro, using them in sermons, interjecting them into conversation. And I can’t stand it. So what’s my problem? What am I missing?

Maybe I just haven’t been in Russia long enough. When I start to laugh at the jokes, I will know that it’s been long enough. I’ll let you know…


  1. Hey, it's Kim.

    I read this and I was reminded of Lyubov when we were at St. Petersburg State. "You understand? Eta shutka! Eta shutka!"

    Yes, yes. We understand. It's a joke. It's just...absolutely not funny.

  2. Yeah! I still have that textbook. When you come to St.Pete we should go visit Lyubov and Lyudmila.

  3. most of the times jokes are not about being so funny, but to reveal some truth, and laughter is not "i got it" meter

  4. So anonymous (Zhenya?), you think that the jokes reveal something about real life? About culture? I understand that. But what is the expected response? Why do Russians wait for me to laugh? Why is the anecdote format so popular in Russia? In other cultures it is more popular to make funny films or draw political cartoons. These too reveal certain truths.

    1. Because in Russia - during most of the 20th Century -those who made 'funny' films or political cartoons about the difficulty of life in the Soviet Union found themselves laughing all the way to the Gulag. A type of sardonic story telling that indirectly reveals a truth was the only way to satirize life in the Soviet system.

      A joke Reagan used to tell:

      Two men, an American and a Russian were argueing. One said, in my country I can go to the white house walk to the president's office and pound the desk and say "Mr president! I don't like how you're running things in this country!" The Russian said "I can do that too!"
      "Yes! I can go to the Kremlin, walk into the general secretary's office and pound the desk and say, mr. secretary, I don't like how Reagan is running his country!"

    2. Ha ha! Funny, I don't even remember writing this blog post, I guess I was experiencing culture shock!


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