Stand Up: The Old New Humor

Stand Up: The Old New Humor


A rumination on the place of stand-up comedy in contemporary Ukraine.

For a long time stand-up as a comic style did not really have a well defined form. The first acts that could be considered stand-up comedy took place in British music halls in the 18th and 19th centuries, where comedians filled the pauses between performers with freestyle jokes. The emergence of “The Fringe” arts festival in the middle of the 20th century marked the dawn of real British stand-up. With the post-war decline of music hall entertainment, stand-up eventually moved on to clubs where it could reach a wider audience of ordinary people, which in turn necessitated a constant flow of new comedic material. At this point, stand-up comedy acquired a regulated conventional structure and the monologues became a unique form of modern philosophy, shaping it into the genre of humor that we know today.

Despite the inception of stand-up comedy in Great Britain, some of the profession’s most famous practitioners have come from the United States, going as far back as Mark Twain, who was known to read his monologues in public. In the 60’s and 70’s, there was a breakthrough in American stand-up with Lenny Bruce, who was famous for having a great deal of profanity in his outspoken monologues, being the most iconic comedian of the era. Due to the success of such artists as Woody Allen, Bob Hope, and Bill Cosby, stand-up became an essential part of American culture. Comedy clubs sprung up around New York, Los Angeles, and with time, around the world. Now, elements of stand-up comedy are used by world famous talk show hosts, at the most glamorous awards ceremonies, and even by President Barak Obama in his speeches.

The incredible popularity of the genre can probably be explained by the fact that the subject matter of the jokes comes from everyday life – relationships with loved ones, situations at work, getting along with neighbors, politics, religion, education. Stand-up comedians address topics that are most current and salient – for example, national and racial stereotypes in the past, modern technology and our dependence on it these days. With such relatable humor, members of the audience can recognize themselves in jokes, but not only that — the fundamental purpose of every stand-up comedian is not just to entertain, but to encourage self-reflection.

Stand-up comedy arrived in Ukraine only rather recently. In the Soviet Union, a few traditional comedy shows and the KVN (roughly translated as the Club for the Funny and the Inventive) used satire comedy, which has some characteristics in common with stand-up. After the decline of the popularity of KVN, artistic youth was looking for new creativity outlets, leading to the appearance of the show “Comedy Club” on national television, and the emergence of small local clubs using the same skit format. Odessa had its own “Comedy Club”, and later “Posidim, posmeemsya” (“Let’s hang out and laugh”). There, seasoned KVN performers were able to try themselves in the stand-up genre. As the wave of its popularity grew, it was picked up by the Odessan TV personality Andrey Shabanov, who compiled the first editions of the “Stand Up Show”. Recently more comedy clubs have been opening in Kharkov, Sumy, Zaporizzhya, Odessa, Kiyv, Dnepropetrovsk, and Lviv. There are two notable stand-up comedy festivals in Kiyv, and at the end of August Odessa will host its own annual “Stand Up O’Fest” that will feature more than 100 participants from all over Ukraine. The first day of the fest features an open mic, allowing anyone to have 4 minutes on stage to try and make the audience laugh. The best comedians from the open mic will be selected to perform in a gala-concert on the second day. The main purpose of the “Stand Up O’Fest” is to bring together all of the comedy clubs of the city.

Today, stand-up is a trendy form of modern humor and philosophy among the creative artistic youth. It is a large community of people who appreciate a high quality of humor — occasionally uncensored and toeing the line of the appropriate, sometimes very intellectual and subtle, but always honest and provoking. Every club and room is different – Jewish humor gets a very warm reception in Odessa, but falls flat in Kharkiv. Stand-up is a difficult style of comedy, because the performer has to get a feeling for the audience, to predict what kind of jokes would get the best feedback and to judge what issues could be too sensitive. Nevertheless, Odessan comics are actively conquering the genre, taking top prizes at festivals and appearing in TV shows, not only in Ukraine but in other countries. The Ukrainian stand-up fanbase is growing to include people of every age, social status and world view, and Odessa, as the capital of humor, is in the lead of the trend.