Liberating humor

A few years ago, when it suddenly became public that Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister would become Putin’s likely successor, a team from Moscow State University performed a skit on television, with Dmitry Medvedev roaring with laughter in the front row.
The students portrayed Medvedev’s fictional high school reunion: His former classmates fawn over the president-to-be, asking if he remembers them and laughing uproariously at his lame jokes.

A clueless former classmate arrives, boasting: “I’ve been in the woods for the past five years – no TV, no radio…nothing!” Oblivious to Medvedev’s fame, the guy smacks him on the back and says “What’s up, Dima?” When they pose for a class photo, the unknowing hero gives the future president bunny ears. Tell this story to any Russian, and he’ll respond, “only on KVN.”

The abbreviation KVN is as recognizable a Soviet brand as the Bolshoi Ballet or Yuriy Gagarin’s smile. When it debuted on national television in the 1960s, KVN, or Klub Vesyolykh i Nakhodchivykh (The Club of the Merry and Quick-Witted), was the only legal form of unorthodox thought.

Today this humorous survivor from Soviet civilization is a one-of-a-kind show, a unique creation that wasn’t borrowed from the West.

The series of games and skits between teams of college students is played out in front of a live studio audience. At first it consisted of competitions involving general erudition, but it evolved into contests of wits that favored the player who made the smartest joke. The key to the show became improvisation, jokes and put-ons, as well as uncontrollable laughter.

It began in its first incarnation in 1956. Like a bolt from the blue at the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party, Khrushchev delivered his secret speech denouncing Stalin. His unmasking of the personality cult was like a breath of fresh air — and freedom.

The following year Moscow hosted the World Youth Festival. The Soviet intelligentsia was full of hope, creative projects and brilliant ideas.

It was then, during the so-called “Thaw,” that producers came up with the idea of “enlivening” Soviet television, still totally controlled by the ruling regime.

The message was completely new for Soviet TV: the participants included not only the hosts, but members of the audience. Filmed live, they took part in various contests. The show helped to demonstrate that after decades of being stifled in the name of the Party and the State, every person could be interesting on his own and, more significantly, have his own opinion.

This was a fantastic breakthrough, a revolution of sorts.

In the beginning the show was not yet KVN, but VVV — or Vecher Vesyolykh Voprosov (An Evening of Merry Questions). After only its third show, VVV was taken off the air by the Soviet authorities in the wake of an “incident.”

VVV had decided to award a prize at the next taping to any audience member who arrived at the studio dressed in a fur coat, hat and felt boots (it was then the middle of summer) and carrying a newspaper dated December 31 of the previous year.

Unfortunately, when the show’s host (the famous composer Nikita Bogoslovsky) announced the conditions, he forgot to mention the newspaper.

Naturally, almost everyone owned winter clothing, and when the next show was scheduled to start taping the studio was stampeded by hundreds of people in fur coats and felt boots. They surged past the police, and chaos ensued. The show was yanked, but nothing was put in its place. All evening televisions tuned to VVV showed the message:

INTERRUPTED FOR TECHNICAL REASONS.

This technical interruption lasted four years until KVN rose from the dead air in 1961. It was originally filmed in black-and-white and became fantastically popular overnight, eventually becoming the longest-running show on both Soviet and Russian TV.

KVN soon became a social movement. Copycat “KVNchiks” were put on at universities, factories, schools and pioneer camps. KVN went around the country auditioning teams, the best of which wound up on television.

Since the teams often made ironic remarks about Soviet reality and ideology (those were the jokes the audience liked best), the show was soon no longer live, but taped. And ideologically dubious humor was often edited out.

More recently, the game has been played in Western Europe, Israel and the United States. The first international competition, between the former Soviet Union and Israel, was held in Moscow in 1992. A world championship—between teams from the United States, Israel and the former Soviet Union—took place in Israel in 1994.

In one skit, following several bank defaults and economic crises, a KVN team from the city of Tula offered the following domain name to Russia’s largest state bank, Sberbank: www.deneg.net. In Russian, “deneg net” reads, “there’s no money.”

In the old days, KVN had been a sort of valve through which, along with laughter, the steam of social tension was released.

The media atmosphere in Russia has since changed, and KVN has become one of many comedy sketches. Today the government welcomes the movement: Putin appeared on the show several years ago to congratulate the team on its 45th anniversary.

However, it is still one of the few places—perhaps the only one—that has brought former President Vladimir Putin to laugh at an impression of himself.

Evgeny Tipikin is a member of the Russian Union of Journalists.

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