Monday, April 14, 2008

The Josef Stalin Comedy Hour

In the 1988 movie Punchline, Tom Hanks, playing a troubled comedian, explains to Sally Fields, a wannabe comedian, that certain things are funny and certain other things are not, even if they seem to be almost identical and maybe not particularly funny at all. Charles Manson, says Hanks, can be made funny; the Son of Sam cannot. (In the movie, he turns out to be right.)

Josef Stalin is one of those seemingly unfunny topics that can be made very funny, despite the fact that he is credited with the deaths of so many millions of people that historians groan in despair even thinking about how to go about counting them. Attila the Hun is similarly funny, as per Monty Python's Flying Circus. Adolf Hitler is a hard comic sell, but The Producers did a fine job on him anyway. Timothy McVeigh, however, is damn near impossible to make funny, proving Punchline right in the end.

Back to Josef Stalin. Stalin became a comic meme on Daria early on, starting with "The Big House."

    Helen: Bureaucracy is the price we pay for impartiality.

    Jake: Jefferson!

    Helen: Stalin.

Did Stalin really say this? I can't prove it, but that's not the point. Merely saying that he is the source of a reasonable quote is the funny part, especially coming out of the mouth of Daria's lawyer mother. I can put "Stalin" and "quotes" into any search engine and come up with dozens of eye-opening things that he is alleged to have said. Did he really say them? Who cares? This is comedy. Make it up if you have to, it doesn't matter. If it's funny, it's funny.

The Stalin meme is picked up again, twice, in "Fire!" in the conversation Daria has with Tom.

    Tom: Personally, I always had a soft spot for Stalin. Any dictator who changes his name from Dzhugashvili to "Man of Steel" has my vote, so to speak.

    Daria: Come on, you and I both know he only did it so his name would fit on his luggage tags.


    Tom: Hey, did you know Stalin had Trotsky killed with an ice pick to the skull?

    Daria: Good thing they didn't put him in a glass coffin.

The Stalin-is-funny idea caught on. The following are only some of the Daria fanfics that include a Stalin joke or snide remark referencing the same. I'll let you do the word search ("Stalin") to find them. Some of them are actually pretty good.

Angela Li gets tagged with Stalinism fairly often, which to be fair she deserves. A glance at her memo to the Lawndale High students and faculty in The Daria Diaries sets the matter to rest.

Lest you think Daria is the only medium that considers the real-life Big Brother humorous, be advised that Russians are known to tell Stalin jokes (which are a bit on the dark side), and the book that won the 1997 Thurber Prize for American Humor, Coyote v. Acme by Ian Frazier, includes a short piece called "Stalin's Chuckle," in which a host of comedians try to make Stalin laugh.

Why would anyone think Stalin, or any other character like him, is funny? Amy Barksdale said it best: "Hey, what's the point of a senseless tragedy if you can't find a little humor in it?" (Your mileage may vary, of course. It works for Amy and Daria, at least.)

More memes later. Need to catch up on the fanfics soon.


Anonymous said...

didn't you see South Park episode that everything is funny after a number of years.... even AIDS

Stalin is a dissgusting person, the one which dissisions saved Russia with nazzis

E. A. Smith said...

An update on the student who asked to interview me for her paper: She sent me a list of questions today, so it looks like she was on the up-and-up.