These are my recollections of a life behind the iron curtain. I do not aim to give perfect and objective evaluation of anything, but to share my personal experiences and memories. It will explain why I just cannot get misty eyed over some ideas on the political left and why I loathe many ideas on the right.
Current political climate in USA is truly horrendous, but from afar it seems that comedy thrives on Trump news, and it will thrive until comedians start getting shot for making fun of The Leader.
To my knowledge, comedians were rarely shot in former ČSSR, but they did not have easy life – but some of them managed to thrive. In fact, there was really great tradition of comedy both written and in TV/movies. The problem was more often not that comedians made fun of politics – they knew they are not allowed to do that – but that state censors were overtly sensitive. In previous Slavic Saturday I mentioned the comedy evening short stories for children “A je to!”. What I did not mention is that one of the characters had originally red pullover, and this, in conjunction of the yellow pullover of his colleague was seen as a jab at SSSR – China relations and the show was originally canceled. So the duo had to perform with grey and yellow pullovers until 1989, after which the creators could go back to original design.
But some comedians managed to both get past the censors and get a political message across – appearing to support the regime, or being apolitical, but managing to subtly criticise its unsavoury aspects whilst doing it. Especially towards the end of the socialist era, which is of course also the time from which I have the most memories.
One such group was The Jára Cimrman Theatre. You might know the movie “Kolja”, which unfortunately is probably the only Czech movie some Americans probably know. The main protagonist in that movie is played by Zdeněk Svěrák, and he is one of the founding members of The Jára Cimrman Theatre.
I will not go into depth here, but the ensemble of The Jára Cimrman Theatre has also made a few movies, which were all hugely popular. And regarding politics and critique of the regime, one of the movies – The Uncertain Season – was essentially a “Making of” documentary for the theatre group, but made as a full movie. It documents the struggles of the theatre group they had to endure in order to get their humor past the censors – even humor that was definitively and unequivocally not political. Because some censors did not only see themselves as arbiters of what is politically acceptable, but also what is funny.
The Jára Cimrman Theatre is to this day deeply embedded in Czech culture, and some of their quips became part of our wider oral tradition. To its popularity speaks the fact that the titular, fictional, character Jára Cimrman has won the contest for The Greatest Czech in 2005 and great grumbling ensued when it was announced that only real people are eligible and the honor went to Václav Havel instead.
I will part with you with one Cimrmanian quip that sums up the life of comedians in totalitarian culture pretty well:
“We are not allowed to even imply.”
This got past the censors because it is an answer given by Death to a man who is about to die and asks him about the future. But with the context of the rest of the play, the audience got what it really says.