Summer’s over, and so it’s time for me to get back to blog-posting. Let’s ease into it gently, shall we? Instead of discussing some ultra-serious topic, I’ve chosen humor. That has to be easy and fun, right?

Well, not always so easy. When I first came to Russia, I quickly discovered that some very funny, American-audience-tested jokes fell flat. I didn’t always get their jokes either. There are various reasons for this.

Anecdotes based on double senses of words and folk culture are usually best left alone. Not long ago I read in a free newspaper a joke that translates something like this: “Just because your eggs are in a duck doesn’t mean you’ll live forever.” Clever? Only if you pick up the reference to a Russian fairy tale and know the double senses of “eggs” and “duck.” It’s too complex to go into here. It took someone about half an hour to explain it to me.

Other jokes are more understandable, but are dependent on a basic knowledge of the language and culture. Here’s a bit of dry humor I can more easily explain: “Under the fur coat there turned out not to be a herring.” What, you don’t get it? In Russia there’s a popular salad made of beets and salted fish called “selyodka pod shuboi,” “herring under a fur coat.” Our narrator obviously had something else in mind.

“Dear, I’ve made you some mush.”
“Good girl! What’s it made of?”

Not funny until you know that “pelmyeni” is a traditional Siberian miniature meat dumpling with a resemblance to ravioli.

Or this one, which is probably hilarious in Moscow, with its rapid influx of people from other places. It may be humorous to other Russians, and … well, you just have to be there: “Muscovites are like teeth. With every passing year, fewer have roots.”

Americans usually don’t much care for dark humor, but, as the previous example hints at, Russians do: “He was only 16, and his whole future lay before him: hardening of the arteries, high blood pressure, arthritis ….”

Russian humor can differ essentially from American in reflecting a fundamental pessimism about the homeland: “The birthrate in Russia is declining. More and more, people are realizing that it’s better to make your appearance on earth in a different place.”

Then there are the kind of jokes whose humor is almost universal.

“I’m smarter than everyone. It just isn’t obvious.”

“Yes, this is my child. Although school has spoiled him.”

“I beg you not to believe the whole truth about me.”

“Like everyone else, I’m against conformity.”