The Jokes Have Vanished

ANDREI CODRESCU

April 12, 1993|By ANDREI CODRESCU

NEW ORLEANS. — New Orleans -- The editor of a Romanian humor magazine, Ioan Morar, came to visit me around Mardi Gras. I asked him what happened to all the jokes that people used to tell before the fall of communism.

It seemed to me that there were no new political jokes, a worrisome development that indicated some deep spiritual malaise. Before 1989 people used to live on jokes. There wasn't anything else.

At the joke contest back then, there were three prizes: third prize, $100, second prize, $50, first prize, ten years at hard labor.

You can write the history of communism in jokes; they had them for every phase. Now they don't even have a joke contest anymore. People scream, swear, weep over stupid nationalist songs and beat each other up. They don't tell jokes.

Mr. Morar said that it was true, jokes had disappeared, but that Romanians had other venues for political humor now: satirical-political magazines like his own, stand-up comics and musical-comedic revues that played to sold-out crowds.

I pointed out that these things were OK, but that they were rather highbrow affairs, while jokes are for everyone.

I kept thinking about this phenomenon later, while we watched a Mardi Gras parade. Mr. Morar enjoyed the carnival immensely; he jumped up and down like a kid when floats went by.

But when the navy bands and the ROTC drill teams appeared, he drew back with a worried expression on his face.

I reassured him that these military types were not out to harm us. Some of them, in fact, had beads and feathers on their rifles.

I don't know if my explanation satisfied him, but I had an inkling about why there may be no more jokes in Eastern Europe.

On the one hand, everybody still jumps up and down about being rid of tyrants. On the other, the uniforms keep marching by.

At least, during the familiar misery of the past, the rifles were within constant view.

But this odd alternation of clowns and rifles, exaltation and anxiety, this is too unsettling for jokes.

Jokes need stability.

Andrei Codrescu is editor of Exquisite Corpse.

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