Don't Look to TV for Crisis-Time Laughs

On a recent episode of television show "Comedy Club," a comedian downplayed the crisis in Russia.

"Why are people talking about a crisis, when there's a traffic jam of Bentleys?" Alexander Nezlobin asked.

He went on to list what would be real signs of a crisis: Zenit football team agrees to trade its star Andrei Arshavin for potatoes, a McDonald's Happy Meal comes with salt, matches and soap instead of a toy, and you need to take out a mortgage to buy pelmeny.

"There isn't any crisis," Nezlobin concluded his monologue, as the audience of pop starlets and sportsmen clapped and sipped champagne.

While in the West, the crisis is creating plenty of material for comedians, Russian comedians are steering clear of the topic on television or going for light, uncontroversial jokes. Even a late-night show on Channel One where comedians discuss current affairs has made few mentions of the crisis.

This reflects news coverage on state channels, where anchors are avoiding mentions of the crisis and concentrating on upbeat stories.

Meanwhile, people's fears about the economic situation are reflected in dark gallows humor that is circulating through word of mouth and on the Internet.

Nezlobin brushed off a question about censorship. "We're forbidden to mention the word crisis more than 37 times in a show," he joked in a statement forwarded by "Comedy Club's" press secretary.

"We live in this world and talk about what affects us. Everyone knows about the crisis. It's like a cold sore. We can talk about cold sores, why not about the crisis?" he said.

On a recent "ProjectorParisHilton" show on Channel One, comedians discussed only one crisis story -- stingy anti-crisis advice from Liberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who said he had given up haircuts and advised people to save money by sharing a newspaper with their neighbors.

The improvised current affairs show features four comedians leafing through newspapers and commenting on articles. It's the closest Russia has to a show such as Britain's "Have I Got News for You," but the comedians generally stick to fluffy or patriotic pro-Kremlin stories.

The rest of the recent show was taken up with non-crisis stories including President Dmitry Medvedev's visit to Venezuela and the Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction Awards.

One of the hosts, Garik Martirosyan, who also appears on "Comedy Club," talked openly of his political position on a talk show last month. He said he would not parody Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who "saved a great country from falling apart."

A request to Channel One for comment from the comedians went unanswered after repeated calls.

Jokes on the crisis are flourishing outside the restrictions of television, passed on by word of mouth, blogs and specialized joke sites.

Viktor Shenderovich, former screenwriter for the political puppet show "Kukly" on NTV television, said he no longer watches comedy shows on television, but he had heard jokes on the crisis from friends.

He told one: "What's the difference between a divorce and a crisis? With the crisis, you've lost half your money and you've still got the wife."

Sergei Dorenko, former Channel One news anchor and now editor-in-chief at the Kremlin-friendly Russian News Service, said he had not seen any comedy shows because he had not watched television for a decade. Russian television is "for poor, uneducated old women," he said.

Dorenko said he'd heard jokes about the crisis, but that they are being recycled from the 1998 default.

He told one about two businessmen. Both complain they don't pay their staff but they keep coming in to work anyway to save money on their bills. One says he introduced a system where people pay to get into the office, "but they're cunning and come in on Monday and stay until Saturday."

A Internet survey carried out by Kommersant Dengi magazine in the fall found that more than half of respondents found crisis jokes funny, while only a quarter called them inappropriate.

Ad agency director Alexander Tsaryov has a LiveJournal blog where he writes jokes about office workers and the crisis.

One of his jokes is called a "Checklist for Socially Responsible Bloggers and PR People." It lists politically correct ways to rephrase bad news about the crisis. For example, "there are no dollars at the exchange point" should be replaced by "banks prefer Russian currency" and "I've been fired" should be replaced by "I've gone freelance."

"Everyone understands that humor is probably the only way to react to the crisis," Tsaryov said. "Being grumpy or staying silent about it isn't an option."

He said he now rarely watches television. "Society has divided up into people who use the Internet and people who watch television," he said, calling the television audience "badly informed."

Jokes on the crisis are among the most popular on web site, said its founder, Dmitry Verner.

Some people have sent political jokes about the crisis, and they have gone online. "We don't have any censorship on the site and publish whatever we are sent," Verner said in answer to e-mailed questions.

All the same, the political jokes haven't been particularly good. "I think it's because the current political leaders are not making such a strong impression," Verner said.

Back in 1998, President Boris Yeltsin and Prime Ministers Viktor Chernomyrdin and Sergei Kiriyenko were popular subjects of jokes, he said.

Asked for the best of new jokes, he cited one about a son asking his father, "Will we be affected by the financial crisis?" "No," he answers. "The financial crisis will affect people who have finances. The people who don't will just be f****d."

Another joke he told is about a man going to a bank and trying to withdraw money. The manager pays no attention to his appeals for funds to buy food and pay bills until he says, "Maybe I need the cash so I can pay for a prostitute." "Take your pick, the manager says, pointing to the cashiers.