Communism is the only political system to have created its own international brand of comedy. The standard interpretation is that communist jokes were a form of resistance. But they were also a safety valve for the regimes and jokes were told by the rulers as well as the ruled—even Stalin told some good onesby Ben Lewis / May 20, 2006 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2006 issue of Prospect Magazine
A man dies and goes to hell. There he discovers that he has a choice: he can go to capitalist hell or to communist hell. Naturally, he wants to compare the two, so he goes over to capitalist hell. There outside the door is the devil, who looks a bit like Ronald Reagan. “What’s it like in there?” asks the visitor. “Well,” the devil replies, “in capitalist hell, they flay you alive, then they boil you in oil and then they cut you up into small pieces with sharp knives.”
“That’s terrible!” he gasps. “I’m going to check out communist hell!” He goes over to communist hell, where he discovers a huge queue of people waiting to get in. He waits in line. Eventually he gets to the front and there at the door to communist hell is a little old man who looks a bit like Karl Marx. “I’m still in the free world, Karl,” he says, “and before I come in, I want to know what it’s like in there.”
“In communist hell,” says Marx impatiently, “they flay you alive, then they boil you in oil, and then they cut you up into small pieces with sharp knives.”
“But… but that’s the same as capitalist hell!” protests the visitor, “Why such a long queue?”
“Well,” sighs Marx, “Sometimes we’re out of oil, sometimes we don’t have knives, sometimes no hot water…”
It was in Romania, while making a film about Ceausescu, that I first stumbled across the historical legacy of the communist joke. There I learned that a clerk from the Bucharest transport system, Calin Bogdan Stefanescu, had spent the last ten years of Ceausescu’s regime collecting political jokes. He noted down which joke he heard and when, and analysed his total of over 900 jokes statistically. He measured the time gap between a political event and a joke about that event, and then drew up a graph measuring the varying velocity of Romanian communist jokes. He was also able to assert—somewhat tenuously—that there was a link between jokes and the fall of Ceausescu, since jokes about the leader doubled in the last three years of the regime. The story of Stefanescu, the statistician of jokes, was, ironically, much funnier than the jokes themselves. It seemed to capture the prosaic reality of the little man struggling against the communist universe.