ASTANA – Humor knows no boundaries. Every country has its own army of comedians and satirists whose performances attract a spectrum of viewers – and now, social media allows its millions of users who poke fun at everything a chance at fame by means of a camera and a good sense of humor.
Humor is a reflection of human behavior, according to Dutch psychologist Geert Hofstede. A society’s humor tends to emphasize the most dominant features of its culture, and Kazakh culture is no exception. Beneath the humor and laughs is a rich layer of social narration about the country’s realities.
In Kazakhstan today, the television and film industry produce a variety of original shows and comedies for all tastes. Windy weather in Astana, the behavior of local taxi drivers, funny dances at weddings and the importance of family ties are among the subjects that draw laughs. The fact that people not only know but laugh at modern society’s drawbacks and weak point indicates that humor serves as an instrument to neutralize the power of these clichés and situations.
Kazakh culture has number of vivacious folklore characters, including Aldar Kose, Zhirenshe and Yer-Tostik. They may not seem to be heroic and brave but their kindness and ability to face difficult situations with a smile make them many people’s favorite heroes.
Traditionally, Kazakhs led a nomadic way of life, moving with their livestock from one pasture to another. To balance this wandering life, there were celebrations that drew far-flung kin together to feast and practice their wit. At these events, there would be a special person, the “ku” (“comic”) whose job was to tell jokes and entertain people at festivals.
Aitys, a type of oral folk poetry, appeared in the 19th century. This period was a truly spiritual renaissance of the nation, and led to the development of the main musical traditions known today, in particular singing and akyn performances.
Aitys is a competition between the two akyns (songwriters) who sing in a form of dialogue. Their mostly satirical songs include social and political satire. They were courageous, straightforward and socially conscious performers who jokingly sang about the lives of ordinary people – and the foibles of unjust rulers. During an aitys, the ability to quickly, accurately, and with humor and wit respond to the lyrics of the other contestant is the most important skill. The best akyns became famous: Orynbai, Shozhe, Zhanaka, Birzhan and Sara, Asset, Yryszhan, Suyumbai, Zhambyl and others are still known in Kazakhstan today. Aitys remains a respected art, with a huge crowd of traditional culture connoisseurs.
The “Tamasha” show was the first comedy television program in the Kazakh language and first aired in 1978. The show was very popular among viewers. The project’s authors were director Lukpan Yessenov and editor Koishigul Zhylkyshiyev. Great actors of the Auezov Kazakh Drama Theatre Tungyshbai Zhamankulov and Kudaibergen Sultanbayev participated in most of its prepared sketches.
The program’s audience were viewers over 40 years old, and stand-up performances were mostly about pension-age related issues, arguments between spouses and misunderstandings between parents and children. Clear and accessible language conquered the hearts of the adult audience.
“We have different topics, including family problems, the current political situation in our country and even abroad. But all our sketches are humorous and have no aggression or criticism. We just show the real thoughts of real people. There are no taboo subjects, but only high-quality jokes,” said current director of “Tamasha” Assylbek Boranbai in an interview with the KTK channel.
The Klub Veselykkh I Nakhodchivykh or KVN (“Funny and inventive people’s club”), a Russian television show, is very popular with young audiences. A Kazakh team participates each year in the show. Member of Astana Kz Yaroslav Melekhin told EdgeKZ about the KVN phenomenon in post-Soviet countries. Melekhin is pursuing a career as a TV presenter. He is often invited to run official and corporate events. The born improviser says he never writes jokes or makes a script of his show.
“I do not write jokes to rely on the rating. As a performer, I always like to improvise. A particular joke is born in a particular event. I consider myself an aitysker [performer] rather than a comedian,” said Melekhin.
For young people, KVN is an opportunity to express their attitude to today’s reality. Thousands of students take part in the project and millions of viewers watch it on TV.
“At present, it is difficult to write a good joke because there are no borders at all. There are no boundaries to what you want to poke fun at. Astana Kz was a world-class team. We had no choice. Of course, we couldn’t joke about our lives, as the audience living in Moscow had their own reality. We used as sources instead common things such as friendships among peoples, politics, women’s and men’s relationships, family affairs, etc. Therefore, our team received so much recognition,” he said.
According to Melekhin, there are some themes that always strike home, no matter whether you’re in your own country or abroad. Then there are jokes on specific daily routines or political themes that are trendy at one moment in one specific society.
“I never criticize or make fun of someone,” Melekhin said. “I am inclined to a more peaceable genre of humor. George Carlin is a model to me. I admire his freedom of speech and his comments, the sharpness of his mind and the spiritual and the physical part of his world.”
There are also a great number of entertainment television programs on local channels, including the popular shows “Du kol shokolad” (which is a word play on the word ‘Applause” and can roughly be translated as ‘Chocolate Applause’) “Azil Alemi” (“Planet of Humour”) and “Nasha Kazasha,” which is another word play, this time in Russian, and can be roughly translated as “Our Kazakh-land.”
Kazbek Orazbek, who is involved in the production of numerous shows for Channel Seven, including Aina Online, Svideteli, Miss Sense of Humor, says social media is a great source of original, topical jokes.
“Mostly young people post this information online. Thanks to them, the news resonates in society. There are, of course, good and bad topics for jokes. … The best jokes are about current topics; for example, the opening of McDonald’s in Kazakhstan, a ban on the import of lace lingerie, et cetera,” he noted.
According to Orazbek, the most difficult thing about jokes is to make them understandable for all.
“For example, when you are telling jokes in the company of your friends, you know what things they like to talk about. When the audience becomes larger, it becomes difficult to find a thing to laugh about. In writing humorous programs, it is important to find a middle ground. There are also some universal themes for jokes, such as daily routines or common lifestyles. To joke about things we face every day. For example, you think that only you lick the foil lid of the yogurt. But when you do it onstage, the audience starts to laugh and you see that everybody does it,” he said.
Relations between people are also a universal theme for jokes, especially the connections between lovers, friends or parents. People see themselves in these jokes.
Kazakhstan’s film industry is experiencing a boom in wedding comedies with the release of films including “Svadba na Troikh” (“Wedding for Three”), “Zamuzh v 30” (“To Get Married at 30”), “Super Toi ili Zamuzh po Kazakski” (“Great Wedding or Get Married the Kazakh Way”) and “72 Sagatta Uilenu” (“To Get Married in 72 Hours”).
Director Kanagat Mustafin, who released the most-watched comedy “16 Kyz” (“16 Girls”) said that Kazakh audiences miss Soviet films that had a sort of gentle humor for all ages.
“There is no criticism in my film. I show the advantages of living in the village, especially the spiritual wealth and inner happiness of its inhabitants. These people are not obsessed with things and gadgets,” he said.
The film director was inspired by classical Kazakh comedies like “Angel v Tubeteike” (“Angel in a Hat”) and “Nash Milyi Doctor” (“Our Kind Doctor”).
The plot of the film revolves around a 32-year-old English teacher whose girlfriend once left him. He was embittered by the experience, but his parents dream of grandchildren and seek a wife for him. The main characters travel across the country in search of a bride.
“The theme of marriage will always be relevant in our country. Now, most people are careerists, and in no hurry to get married. But our society and close relatives do everything they can to force people to marry,” he stated.
Mustafin feels that comedy is the most difficult genre.
“I am working for the first time in this genre. It is not easy to make people laugh. But I like to shoot in this genre. During the filming, a positive atmosphere reigned, thanks to the cast. This is a romantic road trip comedy for the family,” he said.
Tons of bloggers, viners and online communities use humor and jokes to attract subscribers. They prank people, make funny videos, dress in costumes and poke fun at something or somebody currently in the news. Their subjects change with the trends and the news cycle, but such hot-topic humor is popular with Kazakhstan’s youth.
Artem Deryagin is a popular blogger in Kazakhstan with more than 11,000 subscribers on Twitter and Facebook. This year, he was invited as an author to the Russian stand-up program “Comedy Club.” A lawyer by occupation, once he thought about a stand-up career and performing on the stage, but at present enjoys his activities as a network user. His publications are mostly dedicated to social and everyday anecdotes.
His most popular tweet says “Childhood ends the moment you cease to be scared of blood tests and begin to fear the results.” Deryagin also makes fun of human nature, saying “A pessimist loses weight with one day left before summer. An optimist loses weight with 366 days left before summer.”
“I make jokes accidentally. I have a different outlook on life, and life itself is a solid reason for joking. Funny and amusing situations that happen to my friends and relatives sometimes are a source of inspiration for me. As the practice shows, the reality-based jokes are very popular among readers. Current events in the world also inspire me. I read the news and think how to make something funny out of it. Due to this, I think, the social satire is still alive,” said Deryagin in an interview with Info-tses.kz.
Kazakh comedies and comic writers avoid offensive topics such as sex, religion, bad language and dark humor, as they’re deemed unacceptable in polite society. Part of this comes from having gotten used to Soviet-era censorship; part is traditional Kazakh conservatism.
Still, comedy, whether one-liners or feature films, has earned a devoted audience in Kazakhstan and is increasingly in demand. Stories and sketches with social critiques especially help society to confront the realities they would often refuse to take notice of.
[Michelle 1]Translate all, please. (The last is “our Kazakhstan”? The first is … something about chocolate? Ha.