Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Humor Emigrates With Russians

NEW YORK -- Everyone's a comedian.

Wander along the boardwalk in Brighton Beach, as a team of young immigrant comics does for its twice-monthly television show. Shove a microphone at any ordinary-looking guy in a fur hat. Has he got a joke for you? Has he got a joke for you!

Humor, the elixir that helped relieve the aches of life in the former Soviet Union, has survived the Russian immigrants' voyage to Brooklyn. Not only are the streets filled with wags; the Russian newspapers are filled with page after page of jokes.

The Russian-language television and radio station, WMNB, broadcasts two locally produced comedy shows. Transplanted Russian comics work the private-party circuit, while the most successful of the New York City immigrant troupes, Kanotiye, fills the 600-seat National restaurant in Brooklyn every time the group opens a new variety show.

But just because the Russians are laughing a lot, it doesn't mean they think life is so good. What would be funny in that?

"It's the nature of Russians to take everything with a little bitterness and a little humor," said Valentin Polyakov, a member of Kanotiye. "There's comedy in that."

The line between laughter and tears was always paper-thin in Russia. Tragedy flavored comedy and gave it its sting. Humor survived Soviet censors and even thrived on adversity, shaped into something subtle and delicious in the hands of comedians.

It's difficult to transplant that kind of underground humor to a country where anything and everything goes in comedy. What's the point of subtlety, many of the older comics complain, when everyone is free to complain out loud?

"Forbidden fruit is always sweet," said Albert Levin, a well-known Soviet-era comedy writer who immigrated to Brooklyn two years ago to join his son. "When we had censors and it was forbidden to joke, it was easier to find things to joke about."

But Levin, 63, is making the best of a good situation. He has begun to revel in the Jewish jokes and the Yiddish intonations that he was forbidden to use for most of his career. (The majority of the 400,000 or so Soviet immigrants in New York City are Jewish or have Jewish spouses.)

He does his stand-up routines at bar mitzvahs, Jewish centers and private gatherings, and he writes a humor column for several local Russian-language newspapers. Russian comics are finding their richest material in that unfathomable region where the immigrant collides with American bureaucracy. Medicaid, welfare, traffic rules, the tyranny of the Immigration and Naturalization Service officer who administers the citizenship test - these are the new surreal aspects of many immigrants' lives.

Comedians have managed to spin endless variations on the theme. One of the favorites pokes fun at elderly immigrants who want American citizenship but don't want to learn English and civics for the INS test.

Much of the Russian comedy being broadcast and performed now would be recognizable, in translation, to anyone familiar with borscht belt humor, which itself was inspired by the brand of self-deprecating and family-centered humor brought over by Russian Jewish immigrants early in the century. The mother-in-law jokes, the vaudeville-style one-liners and the wry treatment of anti-Semitism sound familiar.

For instance, when the hosts of the television show "Prosto Anekdote," or "Just Joking," intercepted a Russian strolling on the Brighton Beach boardwalk, he told the chestnut about three men on an airplane. In his joke, they are a communist, a fascist and a Russian Jew. God tells them he will grant each one a wish. The communist wishes that all fascists would disappear from the earth. The fascist wishes the same for all communists. The Jew says, "If you are going to grant their wishes, I'll just take a cup of coffee."