Communism and humor aren’t exactly two things you’d expect to go together. When confronted with an onslaught of death, despair, and dictatorship, one doesn’t usually think: Laugh riot!
And with good reason: Over the last hundred years, Communism was responsible for the death and imprisonment of millions. It was the source of measureless suffering and despair, a worldwide scourge that dominated much of the 20th century. In other words, it was about as far from funny as you can get. In fact, Soviet Communists were so humorless that they locked up thousands of individuals just for telling jokes. In the words of Animal House’s Dean Wormer: “No more fun of any kind!”
But regarding an ideology with deadly seriousness doesn’t mean that it can’t also be laughed at. Director/co-writer Ben Lewis’s new documentary Hammer & Tickle, which was co-produced by the Moving Picture Institute, chronicles the long history of jokes about Communism, in which those who lived under Communist oppressors were — when they managed to sneak it past the authorities — able to wring some humor out of the system that surrounded them. Communism’s all-encompassing terror, the film suggests, may even have given its humor a boost. As one of the film’s subjects wryly states, “The worse the government, the better the jokes.”
The documentary recounts a number of the many, many jokes that spread, often secretly, throughout the communist citizenry during the long tenure of Soviet Communism and its various offshoots. But Hammer & Tickle isn’t merely a joke book on film. It’s a brisk, concise lesson in the grim history of Soviet Communism told through a series of joke-centered anecdotes.
The history aspect is fortunate, for in truth, many of the jokes aren’t all that funny. Unlike another recent joke-based documentary, The Aristocrats, Hammer and Tickle doesn’t bring on the bellyaches. Its jokes — the jokes of men and women live in a harsh society under tremendous political restrictions — are of a fundamentally different kind. Instead of raunchy amusements, they’re grim observations on life under communist rule, sarcastic remarks and scathing commentary on Communism’s punishing, soul-crushing infringements on freedom and personal choice.
The film notes that, because Communism controlled all aspects of life, nearly all the jokes from the time were about Communism in some way or another; there was nothing else to joke about. So we see jokes about the lack of free expression, jokes about the character of Communist leaders, and, mostly, jokes about the pervasive lack of resources. For example:
(A man stands outside the gate to Capitalist Hell.)
Man: Before I come in, tell me, what’s it like in here?
Gatekeeper: In capitalist hell, we flay you alive, then we boil you alive, then we skin you alive, then we cut you up in little pieces.
Man: That’s terrible. I’m going to check out Communist Hell.
(Arriving in Communist Hell.)
Gatekeeper: In Communist Hell, we flay you alive, then we boil you alive, then we skin you alive, then we cut you up in little pieces.
Man: But, that’s the same as capitalist hell. How come you have so many people waiting to get in?
Gatekeeper: Well, sometimes we don’t have oil, sometimes we don’t have knives, sometimes no hot water.
And that’s all there is to the joke, if you even can call it that. Often, these bits seem less like outright attempts at comedy and more, as the film tells us, like “reactions to the little changes in Soviet life” that occurred after the advent of Communism. Humor, or at least darkly comic observation, was a coping mechanism for a deeply oppressed people.
But for many years, even that was forbidden. Under Communist rule, joke telling was cause for imprisonment up until the late 50s. Some of the film’s best sequences are with a former dissident whose father was arrested for joking. Forgetting the question of whether it was funny or not, humor in Russia was, all too often, a very serious matter.
Eventually, even the Communists got in on the joke business. After most joking ceased to be a crime, Communist governments began to publish their own satirical magazines, and party bureaucrats would collect and catalog jokes for reports on the public mood to their superiors. The Communist leader in Poland during the 80s, General Witold Jaruzelski, hoping to avoid the bland bureaucratic pronouncements of many governments, even hired a satirical writer to serve as the state spokesperson.
The narration by writer/director Ben Lewis is often just as dry and sarcastic as the jokes. “Stalin was the best dictator in history,” he intones flatly, “because he killed 21.5 million people — more than perhaps any other dictator except Mao.” Talking about détente, he explains some of the U.S.-Russian talks by explaining, “There were the ‘start talks,’ so-called because the Russians and Americans agreed to start starting to start talking about having less nuclear missiles.” It’s more a chuckle than a barrel of laughs, but it effectively captures the skeptical, bleak wit of the time.
Many of the jokes are dramatized by animated cartoon characters. And although not all of them work, they do serve to keep the film light and fast-paced, breaking up the talking heads and historical footage.
Not that any of the more sober material is unwelcome. For the film’s strength isn’t in its humor, but rather in its unique retelling of Communism’s long, tyrannical history. In our comfortably post-Communist era, it’s sometimes easy to forget how central and pervasive a threat Communism was for much of the last century. That threat has given way to one from terrorism and radical Islam. One can only hope that, not too long from now, we’ll be able to look back with the same sort of levity at the threats we face today.
As is often the case, it’s instructive to look at the example of President Reagan. Toward the end of the film, we learn that he assigned a State Department official to collect Communist jokes for him. Many of these were then used in speeches as a way of brightening an otherwise gloomy subject. The few videos of Reagan retelling those jokes are some of the documentary’s funniest moments. Reagan’s willingness to joke, even while recognizing the seriousness of the threat, should remind us that although we have many weapons in our arsenal against fear and oppression, one of the most powerful is a sense of humor — and the freedom to use it.