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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

That Elusive Russian Funny Bone

When Russia's first sitcoms set off in search of the elusive Russian funny bone, they took along some supplies: gales of canned laughter.

It's easy to see why the creators of these two new shows thought they might need the prerecorded guffaws: They're going where no one in Russian television has ever gone before. Their lavish use of that irksome U.S. invention, the laugh track, is about all they have in common. "Funny Business, Family Business" and "Cafe Strawberry" have very different ideas about what's funny in Russia.

Liberated by the demise of stodgy Soviet television, broadcasters have been importing shows for several years and have taken a few attempts at adapting stock formats such as the game show. There is a Russified "Wheel of Fortune," a "Dating Game" and a "Name That Tune." One producer has an idea for a "What's My Line?" spinoff. Contestants would try to guess which guest is the mobster and which the honest businessman.

But no one here ever has tried a series, especially one that's supposed to be funny. A lot of people think it's a radical, even doomed, idea. "No one believes they can pull it off," said Inga Ugolnikova at TV Park, a Russian television magazine.

For one thing, Russian audiences might not accept low-budget homemade shows after the rich diet of glossy imports they've been enjoying. For another, no one's quite sure what makes Russians laugh anymore. In Soviet times, funny was easy: You mocked the system, its foibles and failures. The trick was to be sly, to use metaphors or hints.

"It was the humor of a totalitarian regime," says "Cafe Strawberry" director Yury Belinky. Things aren't so simple now.

On the set of "Cafe Strawberry," everyone's in summer clothes, despite the snow and sub-zero weather outside sprawling Mosfilm studios. The creators of "Cafe Strawberry," a slick place on a cobblestoned plaza with a tinkling cherub fountain, seem to think the Russian funny bone can now be found in the vicinity of, say, Spain or Italy. The improbable setting is a dead giveaway. When it comes to gritty, real-life Russia, this show's creators are not amused. Their inspiration is "Cheers," not Gogol.

"We agreed at the outset: No politics. None. No huge social problems," Belenky says. Each half-hour episode is a generic comedy of errors in which the cafe's proprietors and their friends, neighbors or patrons get hopelessly entangled in a mixup or misunderstanding.

"Funny Business, Family Business" is a different bowl of borscht altogether. It centers on a middle-class family trying to get by in today's changing, corrupt and often just plain crazy Russia. The action takes place at the laundry they opened after losing their savings in a pyramid scheme or at their cozy apartment.

Among the characters are a "new rich" banker with gaudy suits and an even gaudier lifestyle, an elderly neighbor rendered psychic by an electric shock, a bandit who loves birds, a dreamy son-in-law everyone calls the "wunderkind," and a grandpa given to wildly embroidered reminiscences of his adventures in the Russian Revolution.

The often biting show is the brainchild of the Keossaian brothers, producer David and director Tigran. They borrowed the format, but tried to fill it, Tigran says, "with Russian life.'"

"Everything on the show is out there on the streets," he says. "Our idea was to use our experiences."

"But gently," David interjects. "With humor. People have a lot of anger these days. You don't show this anger."

Both shows premiered last month. Critics have so far ignored "Family Business" and panned "Cafe Strawberry." One called it "profoundly stupid" and another pummeled it for the laugh track.

Time and ratings will tell whether Russians are ready for sitcoms and who is right about what makes them laugh. Meanwhile, both shows are fine-tuning.