Not All Jokes Are a Laughing Matter

Humor is, as the reaction of dictatorships shows, an effective weapon.

Political jokes are more than expressions of vitriolic wit. Consider such jokes to be a sub-form of an art. It thrives in communities that are in a “prone position”, therefore powerless to strike back with other means. Accordingly, totalitarian dictatorship has been the context for the best political jokes. National-linguistic factors have enabled subjugated peoples to produce in their own way attacks on tyranny. At least in Hungary –whose case the writer knows best-  the collapse of communism has ended the era of hilarious political jokes. 

The reader that has not experienced totalitarianism will fathom only with difficulty the cultural-emotional dimension of humor used as a weapon of last resort. The exposure to such material is therefore an intellectual submergence in an alien culture. While humorless, totalitarians grasp that jokes are weapons and for that reason, they do not find fun funny. The case of a full railway compartment illustrates this. Someone makes funny remarks, folks smile, and then the mood gets better. Carried away, someone injects a political joke. The smiles freeze. However, one guy laughs loudly. “This one is great. I must jot it down. What is your name?” 

The suspicion of the suspect is the subject that comes through in the one that begins with a group drinking silently in an inn. Then, without speaking a word, one of them makes a dismissing gesture. The next one emits a loud groan. The third of the party spits on the floor. From the neighboring table someone calls out “for your own good, stop making political statements”. 

There is plenty of evidence of the known risks of telling jokes. A guard finds Brezhnev listening to tapes from hidden microphones. “What are you doing, Comrade? – I am collecting the jokes people tell about me. – Have you amassed a lot? – Yeah, I have already filled three labor camps north of the Arctic Circle with them”. 

Attribute it to the fear they cause that the demise of the ritually praised “Great and Beloved Leader’s” is a prominent subject of barbs.

Brezhnev holds a speech in Red Square. A shot is fired at him but it misses. Security apprehends the perp. Here the notes of the interrogation. “Your name? – Ivan Ivanovich. – Occupation? – Marksman. – You a marksman? You missed the General Secretary. – How was I supposed to aim accurately when the crowd was nudging and pushing me while insisting ‘hit him, hit him now!’ “

Inept killers appear in other tales, too. Such as when they ask John Lennon’s assassin “Why have you killed this wonderful person? – I had to do it. – But why him, why just Lennon? – Did you say Lennon? Not Lenin?”

A school is expecting the surprise visit of the Supervisor. The kids practice for the event. Maurice is called upon. (“Móricka”/Little Maurice/ is a perennial figure in a category of jokes. The character is a smart Jewish kid whose logical critique, wrapped in innocence, demolishes the lies of the mighty.) “Maurice, what is a tragedy? – A tragedy is if my bunny dies. – That is not right, son. This is not a tragedy but something bad. A tragedy is if Comrade Kádár (the country’s dictator) dies.” Next day, the Supervisor poses the anticipated question “who can tell me what a tragedy is”? Maurice eagerly volunteers, “If comrade Kádár dies that is a tragedy but it is not bad. Bad is if my bunny dies in its cage.”  

A version of the next item has numerous mutations that are located in diverse places. (In the Fifties,) Rákosi and Gerő (Stalin‘s men in Hungary) are driven in their ZIL limousine along the Danube’s shore. They discuss the lacking commitment of the “workers and peasants” to Socialism. Rákosi “we should undertake something that would help socialism and that will also make our people happy”. The driver „Comrades, shall I crash the car into the river?” 

Many jokes work with interchangeable names. However, this one only scores with Hitler. The Führer knocks on the door to hell. When Lucifer finds out who wishes to enter, so  he tells Hitler “We have a full house. So, take this road. The climb gets you to heaven. They might be able to put you up.” Hitler leaves. A week goes by. Again, there is a knock on the door. The devil opens it and he is astonished see Moses standing there. “What are you doing here? – I have managed to escape the camp of concentration and would now like to ask for asylum”. 

 In its applied version, which differs from the speculations of ideologues in the West, the scarcity of basic goods determined life. Terms about “limited supply” and “temporarily out of stock” were used to give the bane a name. The news that toilet paper is a scarce in Bolivarian Venezuela –blamed on the conspiracy of American imperialism- gives the story below a contemporary aspect. 

Kovács dies. On his way to hell, he finds a bifurcation. “Right turn to the capitalist hell, left to the socialist hell. Mr. K. takes the right turn. Soon he meets a devil. K. asks what happens to those that come here. “We put you into a pot filled with oil. Then we turn on the fire. We end the treatment by driving nails into your rear end. K. turns and runs over to the socialist hell. There, to his surprise he finds himself at the end of a long queue. K. asks the soul in front of him about the treatment. “They put you into a pot of oil, they build a fire under you and then they drive nails into your rear end. – Hey, this is what the do in the capitalist hell. So then why, is the queue so long? – First, there are not enough pots here. Often there is no oil. Fuel is also scarce. Finally, nails are absolutely an “article of limited supply”. 

For the irreverent, heaven and hell are favored to place the “Leader”. Gyurcsány, Hungary’s post communist leftist leader dies. God processes him and then leads him to two doors. “Which one do you choose, is it heaven or do you prefer hell?” Gyurcsány hesitates. So God says, “how about trying both? Spend a week in hell and then in heaven. After that you can decide.” Gyurcsány enters hell where he sees that every imbecile is treated like a king. Drinks, women, bunga-bunga parties. Once the week has passed, God takes Gyurcsány to heaven. That turns out to be a boring place. No booze, no women. With the week over, God cites Gyurcsány. “Time to tell what you prefer”? – I choose hell! – God takes him there. Once inside, Gyurcsány finds no booze, no women, and folks gather around a cold stove. “A week ago, when I was here, all were feasting. What happened?” Thereupon the devil “old boy that was our sales campaign. This now is our reform”.

Gyurcsány is a discredited politician. He had promised in his capitalism all the goodies that socialism failed to deliver. The naïve fell for the tale and elected him. 

A man discovers that the bartender is a robot. The robot “what do you desire? – A martini. - Sir, what is your IQ? – Around 160.” Thereupon the robot discusses the theory of relativity. Eager to experiment, the man leaves and returns shortly. Again, he orders a martini. “What is your IQ? – It is about a 100”. Now the robot discusses football, the weather and movie stars. Being curious, the man leaves. He returns to order a Martini. “What is your IQ? 80 on good days”. The robot leans forward and asks slowly  “h a v e  y o u  a l s o  v o t e d  f o r  Gy u r c s á ny?” 

Alleged misunderstandings can be critical elements of subversive humor. The collection involving dead Leaders is completed with this sample. The case also eases us into the topic of the infallible Leader that is known to be an idiot. 

Four VIPs are in the plane when the pilot announces, “we will crash, but we only have three parachutes.” Brezhnev says that his is the world’s greatest country and so he takes a chute, straps it on his back and jumps. Mao leads millions and so he puts a parachute bag on his back and, Geronimo! he leaps. Ceausescu tells that his people love him, so he must live, and jumps like the others. Left behind, Pope John Paul is resigned to martyrdom. Then the pilot enters and tells the Pope to jump. “But the three chutes are gone. – Not quite, Holy Father. - ?- The ‘Genius of the Carpathians’ has sprung out with the fire extinguisher mounted on his back”.

Ceausescu, albeit uneducated, but officially “The Genius of the Carpathians” has achieved the status of “The Favorite Butt” of comic stories. A sample: Romania sends a satellite into orbit. The “Conducator” receives the returning cosmonaut. He tells how it is hard to move out there because the law of gravitation does not work. Ceausescu turns to his wife, who, due to having been a lab assistant, is now the Greatest Chemist. “Helena, when have we issued the Law of Gravitation”? 

The “Ceau’s”, being an irresistible target, deserve another tale. “This is the morning news of Radio Bucharest. Good morning comrades! Comrade Ceausescu has risen. So, get out of bed. Comrade Ceausescu is exercising. Do your gymnastics now. Comrade Ceausescu is washing himself. Follow his example. Comrade Ceausescu is having breakfast. During its duration we are broadcasting marching songs.” 

Leaders classified as dull witted are a beloved topic. Brezhnev opens the Moscow Olympic Games. The crowd waits attentively. Brezhnev “OOOOO!” Obediently, the crowd cheers. Brezhnev continues “OOOOO”.” Again, as ordered, the stadium cheers. Again Brezhnev: “OOOOO.” Then an advisor turns to the General Secretary “Comrade Brezhnev! You do not need to recite all the five circles any more.”

“Leaders”, even if once praised as infallible, have often become victims of the system. A frequent charge had been that the Leader strayed off the “party line” and abandoned “the road to Communism”. The removal of Khrushchev received this commentary: “What has happened to Khrushchev? Why is he not participating in public life? – He broke his bones when he slipped on the road to Communism”.

The threat of early retirement through incarceration or the firing squad was a well-known occupational hazard and is the subject of a Ministerial inquiry to discover how the people live. They visit a kindergarten. After the inspection, the Minister of Education finds “the kids get too much for lunch, half of it would do. They also have too many toys. Less is to be spent on them.” Next, the team visits a secondary school. Afterwards the Minister observes, “The lunches are too copious. Half of the portions will suffice. Not every school needs a computer. It is enough if very other one has one“. The next station is a prison. After the stopover, the Minister declares, “The food of the inmates is inadequate. Serve larger portions and improve the quality. A weight room should also be added. The same goes for internet access in each cell. – Comrade Minister! You cut the kid’s rations, you took away their computers but now you give the jailbirds first class treatment. Is this a joke? – No, it is not a joke. We will never again attend school. But we can still land here”.

The fear of the implied arbitrariness of the system is expressed by an animal joke. It recalls the “Purges” that have eliminated the USSR’s and the satellites’ entire leadership, such as Trotsky, Bukharin, Kun, Slansky, Rajk, Pauker). “Bunny Rabbit is sprinting at full speed when in a clearing he bumps into the Bear. - Why the panic, Bunny Rabbit? – Do not even ask! Communism has come to the forest, and now all the wolves are interned and they will be deported to a permafrost lager. – Are you demented Bunny Rabbit? You are not a wolf. – Come on, Brother Bear! In the past these guys have committed even greater errors”.

The dissatisfaction with the system had many forms. Here Tassilo and Aristid (the stupid aristocrats of jokes) meet. Count Tassilo, now a night watchman, comes from the obligatory post work party harangue. However, Tassilo is delirious. Aristid “Why are you so happy? -  The Party Secretary said that Communism will triumph in five years. – What is so good about that? – The Doctor has just told me that my cancer is terminal”.

In the world of jokes, Communism rates as a disaster. Therefore, the question of a German joke: “How did the German states (The Federal Republic and the GDR) divide Marx’ inheritance? – The East got the ‘Communist Manifesto’ and the West ‘The Capital’”. (The titles of Marx’ books.)

  The “five rules of survival in Socialism” are instructional.  “1. Do not think. 2. If you must think, do not speak. 3. If you think and speak, refrain from writing. 4. If you must think, speak and write, then do not sign chartas. 5. In case you think, speak up, write and sign, then do not be surprised by what happens to you.

The “seven wonders of Communism“ makes a point about the economy. Accordingly, in Communism, 1. All had work. 2. Even though all had a job, no one did anything.  3. Even if none of us has done anything useful, the “State Plan” was filled above 100%. 4. Although the “Plan” has been “over fulfilled”, you could not buy anything. 5. Even if nothing was offered for sale, everybody had all he needed. 6. Even if everybody had everything he needed, all were stealing. 7. Although everybody was stealing, nothing was ever discovered to be missing.

No wonder that the system-imposed ailments led to yarns, such as the one about a man that appears in the Ministry of the Interior (State Security) to request an exit permit to go to the USA. (People’s Democracies considered the wish to leave as treason). “To whom do you wish to go and why? – I want to visit my brother. – His occupation? – He is a banker. – OK, but why do you want to go to him? – My brother is blind and needs a guide. – It would be simpler if you would invite him to return home. – I have told you that he is blind but I did not say that he is demented”.

A reminder of reality plays a role in other spoofs. President Mugabe visits a landlocked country.  (Mugabe is a Marxist, the architect of one of history’s greatest inflations and of hunger in a land that used to export food.)  The Minister of the Navy receives him at the airport. Mugabe is astonished, so at the reception he says to the hosting “President for Life”, “You do not have a sea, so you should not have a Minister of the Navy either. -  Why not? After all, you have a Minister of Finance.”

This nasty realism plays a role in the closing piece of this collection. It also demonstrates an exploited weakness of the West’s political culture. (The matter relates to  Stalin’s assessment that “the death of one person is a tragedy. The death of ten million is a statistic”.)  At the Yalta Conference, Churchill finds Stalin and his KGB boss Beria in an intensive conversation. “What are you discussing? – We will kill 30 million Poles and a mailman. – Why the mailman?” Stalin turns to Beria “I have told you that all they will care for is the mailman?”

In closing, your correspondent hopes that, at least intellectually, you have found the humor of a faraway place and time instructional. This is being said when, oddly, during the preparation of this material a friend sent me a piece of American humor that he did not understand. (Nothing can kill a joke as efficiently an explanation.) The attempt to explain failed. Hopefully, these pieces will score better.