LVIV, Ukraine — Some bits of news are so stark and absurd that they sound like they were invented in the twisted imaginations of bored satirists. Like the headline from Belarus a few weeks ago, which reported that 10th graders there were taught how to aim guns – using shovels.
“What do you think of that?” asks the comedian Vadym Dziunko.
Dziunko is on stage with two other comedians and a well-known singer. All sit and hold microphones, playfully trying to find humor in a place and a moment when the tragic drowns out the funny by a spectacular margin.
It’s a recent Saturday night at the Cult Comedy Hall, a comedy club in central Lviv, near Ukraine’s relatively quiet western border. Some 100 people have spent about $13 each to eat, drink and listen to comics about whatever comes to their mind, often breaking news of the war with Russia. Or in the case of this shovel-as-gun business, the subject is the idiosyncrasy of life in Belarus, a dictatorship just 240 miles to the north.
“What do you expect from a country where a potato is a weapon?” says the comedian Oleksandr Dmytrovych. Then he imagines an instructor who gives the children tips.
“‘We can’t give you guns yet–‘
“‘Because we only have one,'” ends the third strip, Maksym Kravets.
This is Cultural Defense, an evening of unscripted and free-flowing humor performed every few nights in Lviv. It started two weeks after the Russian invasion, when Kravets, a Ukrainian intelligence officer by day and a comedian by night, called the show’s co-creator Bohdan Slepkura and pointed out that the Cult Comedy Hall was in a basement.
“I said, ‘You know, the place is a bomb shelter,'” recalls Kravets, a burly and bearded 42-year-old.
Kravets, dressed in a T-shirt with ‘Wildness’ on it, and Dmytrovych were recently in another room in the club after the show. At first, they said they weren’t sure anyone in the country was in the mood for a chuckle. The shock of the invasion was then fresh and hundreds of thousands of residents from the east of the country poured into the city.
“Before the first show, we thought, maybe this isn’t the right time for comedy,” said Dmytrovych, who is also 30 and also has a beard. (“Without beards, we’re ugly,” he explained.)
“We were terrified,” he continued. “But after the first show, we got into this room and realized that people want to laugh. They want to hear jokes about our enemy. From that first night, we understood that this would be bigger than we imagined.”
There has been exactly one international breakout star in Ukrainian comedy and he just happens to be the country’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky. If this puts pressure on others in the business, it wasn’t apparent on stage this Saturday, when no one seemed particularly stocky to land on a punch line and a singer, Mykhailo Khoma, spent a lot of time brooding over his childhood.
Ukraine has long had a modest live comedy scene, although anyone accustomed to the standard setup in American clubs will find novelty in the format of the show. There is no warm-up and at no point is anyone alone on the podium. Every night there are different guests. The evening kicks off with four men leading a raucous call and response in Ukrainian, just like the rest of the show.
Hosts: “Glory to the Nation!”
Audience: “Death to enemies!”
Audience: “Above all.”
Audience: Unprintable putdown!
Then the stars sit down and start talking.
Part of the humor is self-mockery. On a previous show – they are all available on YouTube – Dmytrovych raved about the news that Ukrainian soldiers had mastered a single-use anti-tank missile called an NLAW. This was astonishing, he said, because Ukrainians, by nature and necessity, are used to using everything over and over again.
“I got slippers in a hotel in Egypt a year and a half ago and I still wear them,” he said. “If they got dirty, I washed them. When they fell apart in the washing machine, I glued them together. These are now slippers that I offer to guests.”
There are plenty of jokes at the expense of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who is scorned as a rambunctious idiot who has underestimated the spirit and determination of the Ukrainians. The Russian army, on the other hand, is largely spared. The point, Dmytrovych explained, isn’t to belittle the invading forces, which Ukrainians view as formidable and horrific. It is to lift the spirits of people who are not on the front lines, or who once lived near the front lines and have since moved.
So during a show, Kravets praised the surprisingly polished beauty of checkpoints in Lviv (“I wouldn’t be surprised if they served lattes”), some of which have exceptionally long lines. (“I thought at the beginning they would take my order and at the end I would get a Big Mac”).
Internal politics is a recurring theme. On a show a few weeks ago, a poll was cited showing that 90 percent of Ukrainians want to join the European Union.
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“What’s the first thing you’ll do when we join the European Union?” asked a guest on stage.
“Look at the 10 percent who didn’t want to join the European Union,” Dmytrovych said. “Who are these people?”
The shows also act as fundraisers for Ukraine’s war effort. Each performance is streamed live on YouTube and viewers can send donations online. Throughout the evening, an offstage host shares details about some of the larger donations, along with messages for the performers. On this Saturday night, a donor poked the hosts for the scarcity of jokes.
The goal of the evening was to raise enough money to buy a car for border guards, and by the time the public went home, about an hour before the war-imposed curfew of 11 p.m., the goal was almost reached. In more than 50 shows, Cultural Defense has raised nearly $70,000.
The audience at these shows is young, with most in the 20-35 age range. There are rows of seats near the stage and tables in the back for those wanting to sample the Cult menu, which, somewhat incongruously, leads with a long list of sushi offerings, including rolls and nigiri. In short interviews for the show, a few onlookers said that laughing seemed essential due to the deluge of depressing news.
“I think it’s three for one,” said Petro Diavoliuk, who was drinking and eating with friends. “All the money goes to the military, people relax and it’s cheaper than a psychiatrist.”
But here too reality sets in. A few minutes before the final ovation on this Saturday night, a number of cell phones simultaneously started broadcasting the classic air raid siren, that rising and falling sound that is a staple of every World War II movie in which soldiers scramble for an attack. Everyone checked their phones and opened an app — there are several available — that tracks government warnings about missile strikes.
“Warning! Air Raid Alert!” read a text in both Ukrainian and English on a Telegram channel called Notifications CD, for civil defense.
No one seemed remotely concerned, and the stream of chatter onstage never stopped. Air raid sirens are quite common in Lviv; there have been 10 at Cultural Defense shows. And anyway, the place is a certified air raid shelter. If there was any real danger, this would be a great place to wait it out.
An hour or so later, well after the show ended, a second message appeared: “The air raid siren has stopped.”
In a post-show interview, both comedians said they hoped the war would end before the fall, for purely career reasons. They have some business appearances in other countries and as long as hostilities rage, men are not allowed to leave the country.
This was a joke. Humor in Ukraine is both a prayer for normality and a form of resistance. It is also, somehow, uniquely empowering. As Dmytrovych put it: “As long as we laugh, we don’t give up.”