Don't Laugh, I Tried To Do Russian Sitcom

If asked to pick one shining, definitive example of the yawning cultural gulf between East and West, my choice would have to be situation comedy. Laughter in Russia can be a rather stolid business, the preserve of aged stand-up comics who look like everybody's most boring uncle. On the other hand, as anyone who has watched a film starring Russia's answer to the Marx brothers, Vitsin, Nikulin and Morgunov, will know, comedy here can also be so frenetically slapstick as to make Basil Fawlty seem like the epitome of restraint.

The comedy iron curtain, it would seem, can be explained by that elusive quantity called comic timing. Russians and Westerners may laugh at the same jokes, but only when they are played at different speeds.

This is a conundrum that began to preoccupy me only when I was asked to draw up a scenario for Russia's first ever (almost) entirely home-grown sitcom. The prospect of an Irish journalist coming up with an idea that would extract belly-laughs out of the Russian couch-potato television masses may seem rather comical and ludicrous in itself. But then I'm always game for anything, particularly when the production company was waving the prospect of huge wads of cash in my face.

So, the doomed project got underway. As none of my Russian writing partners had ever actually seen a sitcom, we spent an entire weekend drinking beer, ingesting hallucinogenic substances and watching old episodes of Seinfeld and Cheers. During this brainstorming session, we came up with anti-hero and central character Timur, a high-strung entrepreneur tragically committed to reviving the lost tradition of Russian innovation, who runs an ailing business to promote contemporary Russian inventions. These included: the unbreakable Pizza box, so strong that it could withstand bullets; the stereo mobile phone and, finally, collapsible skis which often spontaneously folded up on the slope in mid-slalom.

The show centered around Timur's office and his communal flat. Other characters included an uncouth toilet attendant, a crazy old man who traded in human skeletons, and a mentally unbalanced mafia hood who tore peoples' limbs off by day and wrote anguished poetry during his time off.

The show, unsurprisingly, failed to find financial backing. And now that two "sitcoms" have finally arrived on Russian television, I am rather relieved that it didn't go ahead. Both of these new efforts are egregious beyond belief, particularly NTV television's "Merry Affairs, Family Affairs," which is punctuated by the most artificial laughter ever canned.

We may be waiting a long, long time -- until America makes a good Hollywood movie of Tolstoy or the Brits come up with a Country and Western musical -- before Russia produces a decent situation comedy.