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Soviet, U.S. Panelists Trade Gags in Summit Talks on Political Wit

October 15, 1989|BARBARA KOH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

What's in: bureaucrats, punks, pollution, stone-washed jeans, Stalin. What's out: Gorby, glasnost, Americans.

What's fair game for roasting nowadays in the Soviet Union was the hot topic at a symposium aimed at assessing the state of the wit in the two countries and how humor reflects social and cultural values.

"This is one more step in demystifying the 'Evil Empire,' " said American stand-up comedian Paul Krassner, who sat on a discussion panel recently at Antioch University Southern California in Marina del Rey. Also on the panel were American professors of humor and visiting Soviet humor magazine editors.

2-Day Visit

The Soviet editors stopped on the Westside for two days as part of the second Soviet-American Exchange of Humorists. The traveling humor summit, which also ventured to Virginia, Nebraska and New York state in its two weeks, was sponsored by the semi-satirical International Assn. of Professional Bureaucrats, a Washington-based organization that, according to its president, Jim Boren, is dedicated to dynamic inaction. The exchange also was held at UCLA with another panel featuring George Carlin. Next year, Americans will head to the Soviet Union.

The first such round of visits, in 1987 and 1988, included Americans Art Buchwald and Jim Berry.

Political satire is the primary form of humor in the Soviet Union, and the Soviet delegation reflected that. Represented were three official publications that conferees likened to National Lampoon and England's Punch and Private Eye.

Moscow-based Krokodil (crocodile), the largest humor magazine in the Soviet Union, is published every 10 days; its circulation is 5.3 million, out of the country's 287 million people. Editor Leonid Florentiev said the magazine, like its namesake, "bites, as a humor magazine should."

The two other magazines have equally pointed names: Peretz (pepper), from the Ukraine, and Pikker (a lance), from Estonia.

Glasnost, or openness, has affected almost everything in Soviet life including what gets a laugh, said Florentiev, at 35 among the youngest of Krokodil's 16 editors. Florentiev said censorship exists only "inside our editors in chief, . . . and that decides whether the magazine is brave or not brave." But, he said, "your psychology cannot change overnight."

Current targets for roasting include individual politicians--dead and alive--and the Communist Party, the visitors said, and their magazines snipe at certain ministers for incompetence and the Central Committee for its posh headquarters.

The Soviet government's penchant for secrecy provides fodder as well. One joke making the rounds recently has former Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko asking Leonid Brezhnev, "What do we do about these foreign correspondents, who lie about us?"

Brezhnev replies: "If they're lies, they're OK. But if they start speaking the truth, get them out of the country in 24 hours."

Fertile Fields

Satirists also aim at corruption, vice, alcoholism, crime and environmental problems as well as the black market, Florentiev said.

A recent Krokodil cartoon shows devils stirring a vat of stone-washed jeans, the latest craze in the Soviet Union. Harvey Mindess, an Antioch professor of psychology of humor who coordinated the visitors' Westside stay, said he sees a difference in what gets a laugh among Soviets just since the last conference two years ago. Discussing Playboy's bawdy humor, for example at that time made the Soviet delegation uneasy. This time, they roared. And Kaido Liiva, editor-in-chief of Pikker, showed some risque cartoons from his own magazine.

These Soviet humorists--except for editor Andrey Benyukh--were not the same delegates that attended two years ago. According to Krassner, even the body language this time was looser. "They kept whispering to each other the last time, to make sure they were following party line," he said.

As in America, the Soviets have some old standards.

An old woman is sitting on a Moscow street corner, with an empty shopping bag. "I've become so old, I don't remember--did I go to the store, or am I going to the store?" Benyukh, Krokodil deputy foreign editor, said the joke is decades old but "now the (shortage) situation is so bad, that (it) is up to date."

Underground jokes have sprouted above ground. Liiva told of a Soviet emigre waiting at an airport. As he waits for his flight, he hears an announcement: "The party delegation is leaving for abroad." A bit later, there's another announcement: "The delegation from the Youth Communist League is leaving." The man waits some more; the next announcement is, "The trade union delegation is leaving." The man turns to another would-be emigre and says, "Now it makes sense to stay here."

Range of Topics

Recent Krokodil issues show the range of humor in Russia: everything from cartoons to poetry to articles, poking fun at aging politicians, the Soviet drug problem, rock music, artists and liubers, gangs of hooligans from the suburbs who beat up Muscovites.

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