When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. - Hunter S. Thompson

01 June 2008

Tough crowd

Significant arrests for joke-telling probably began in 1933, when “anekdot-telling” is first described as an anti-Soviet activity in the proceedings of the Communist Party at the Central Committee Plenum of January 1933. Matvei Shkiriatov, a Stalinist zealot and future member of the Central Committee, gave a speech which presaged the purges of the Great Terror, warning of “those within our ranks who ... go about clandestinely organising operations against the party”. Among the activities of these unwelcome communists he declared: “I would like to speak of one other anti-Party method of operation, namely, the so-called jokes [anekdoty]. What are these jokes? Who among us Bolsheviks does not know how we fought against Tsarism in the old days, how we told jokes in order to undermine the authority of the existing system? ... [Now] this has also been employed as a keen weapon against the Central Committee of the party.”

As the arrests began, the joke-tellers imagined the following scenario:

A clerk hears laughing behind the door of a courtroom. He opens the door. At the other end of the room the judge is sitting on the podium convulsed in laughter.

“What’s so funny?” asks the clerk.

“I’ve just heard the funniest joke of my life,” says the judge.

“Tell it to me.”

“I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“I just sentenced someone to five years’ hard labour for doing that.”

Comedy of terrors (Financial Times, 30 May 2008)

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