If you’re Russia’s first stand-up comedian making your debut in the West while Moscow indiscriminately annexes chunks of Eastern Europe, perhaps there’s only one way to open the show: “Hello, potential enemies,” Igor Meerson cries.
Meerson is here to tell us there’s a funny side to both sides of this story, even if the comedy is dark behind the cultural iron curtain.
He is holding up a box of raspberries. “These are banned in Russia,” he says. “Like drugs—or homosexuals.” During his first month-long tour in the West, he intends to enjoy as many berries as possible before returning to Russia, where Vladimir Putin has imposed tit-for-tat sanctions on Europe.
“My God, the high-technology British raspberry,” he says. “This is a very Russian style of doing things. Britain, Europe, U.S.A. made their own sanctions against Russia. They say, ‘We won’t buy rockets, we won’t buy your weapons.’ Now Russia answers: ‘Yeah? Then we won’t buy your cucumbers!’”
Meerson stars in Russia’s first televised stand-up show, and there are plans to open the country’s first comedy club in the next year, but he admits after the performance that Russia’s audiences have not yet grasped the joy of going to see comedy. “The Russian audience doesn’t laugh. If they like a joke they will give you applause,” he told The Daily Beast. “Russians laugh with their hands.”
There have been Russian sketch troupes and comic ensembles but never stand-up comedians. Meerson traces this scarcity of one-man performers back to a culture of collectivism that predates even the Communist revolution. “In the Protestant Church I can phone God from my apartment, you know? But in Russian Orthodox Church to have a talk with God you should bring all your family, all your neighbors and when hundreds of people at the same time are in church, then you will talk to God. This is Russian culture, and in Communist times it became more powerful, this idea of collectivism. So it was mixed and it was doubled.”
The Jewish comedian from St. Petersburg is working hard to change all that. He has been involved in efforts to bring Western stars including Eddie Izzard (Hannibal and Valkyrie) and the Irish comedian Dylan Moran to theaters in Russia, where they’ve been wildly successful—even if nobody laughed.
Unlike many of those stoic audiences, Meerson has traveled extensively. He says he’s fond of America but prefers Britain, where the people are more honest. “Britain tells us foreigners: ‘We don’t need you, you don’t stand a chance, come here if you want—you’ll be cleaning streets and washing cars.’ America tells us: “We want you! You are welcome, you will find an opportunity here, come! And you’ll be cleaning streets and washing cars!’”
Honesty can be a problem in Russia, of course, but sitting with a cup of tea after his show in Edinburgh, Meerson insisted that he is not constrained by any outright censorship. He said Moran had expected to be muffled by state observers when he did a slot on their show. “We have no editor from our broadcasting network—it was surprising for me as well. He said everything that he wanted, and after our show in a couple of months he went to U.S.A. and performed there on a late night show. He phones me from the U.S. and he said, ‘Can you imagine this? They wanted me to show them all the material I wanted to say and they cut half of it. They said, ‘No, no, no.’”
That may have been the case, but it hardly counters allegations of intimidation against the Russian media and an institutionalized pro-Kremlin bias.
I asked whether he and his new wave of comedian colleagues dared to mock Vladimir Putin for his affinity for shirtless fishing and horseback riding. “Of course, this is old. We did these jokes three years ago,” he said. “It is about self-censorship. So we had a lot of such jokes, but the point of view was not laughing at him personally, we were laughing at his advisers for thinking this looked good.”
And would he have dared to say, “I hate Putin, he is making the world unsafe?”
“In a theater, yes. On television, no,” Meerson conceded. “It would be impossible for me to make a media career because media bosses, top managers—they are scared.”
Despite that limitation, Meerson is desperate to persuade his Western audiences that their media’s version of what goes on in Russia is an exaggeration. “What we have now is a real international media war—because what you have in your newspapers and on your radio this is only half the truth. This is only half of information—what we have in our newspapers is only half of information,” he said. “I’ll explain; it’s like when you’re in Thailand. You go to a bar and meet a pretty girl, but this is only half of information. When you know the truth it could be too late.”