SLAPSTICK COMEDY WITH PLENTY OF BALKAN PEPPER

by Lenko Lenkov

Bulgarians often laugh at things you wouldn't imagine mentioning in the West

chilli peppers book.jpg

Bulgarian humour can be tough, cynical, vulgar, sexist, anti-Semitic, anti-everybody – and all too often coprophilic. Have you heard the one about the man who went to city hall and wanted to change his name? The clerk refused: “Sorry, no name changes allowed.” But the poor guy insisted, “Look, I can't go on living with this name, I have to change it!” Finally, the clerk gave in and asked, “OK, what's your name?” “Ivan Shitsky,” answered the man. “Oh, in that case,” said the clerk, “I understand. What would you like your new name to be? “ “Petar Shitsky,” the man replied.

To understand why Bulgarians would laugh at this you need to grasp the peculiar historical circumstances that have made Bulgarians into a nation unique not only in the Balkans, but in the world – in their own minds, at least.

The “case” of Ivan Shitsky dates back to the Revival Process in the mid-1980s, when Communist leaders forced Bulgarian Turks, sometimes at gunpoint, to change their names to Slavic ones. Designed to deflect public attention from the growing economic crisis, propaganda presented the Revival Process to the Bulgarian majority as “a voluntary return to Bulgarian roots”.

Many felt there was something fishy afoot, however, so they thought up the joke about Ivan Shitsky. In recent years, the latest quips circulating on the Internet have been steadily replacing home-grown Bulgarian jokes. Stories about blondes and lawyers are relatively new to Bulgaria; so Bulgarians have not yet entirely given up their traditional comic heroes, which include Jews, Armenians, Gypsies, mutri, politicians and the police.

Beware, however, that most Bulgarian humour is R-rated, so make sure your kids aren't within earshot when your Bulgar buddies are trading wisecracks with you. Authority figures of all kinds are the favourite butts of Bulgarian jokes. Although there is no way to know for sure what made 19th Century Bulgarians chuckle, time-honoured anecdotes about Hitar Petar, or Sneaky Peter, are telling. This wily character always manages to make fools out of Ottoman rulers, wealthy Bulgarians, gullible priests and even Nastradin Hodzha, his Turkish protagonist.

When Bulgarians gained independence in 1878, they had to come up with new personages to poke fun at. Aleko Konstantinov's literary figure Bay Ganyo, invented in the 1890s, quickly became the star of jokes that portrayed Bulgarians in a self-sustained, if comic, light. You may have heard some of these anecdotes, which all begin: “Once upon a time, an Englishman, a Russian and Bay Ganyo… “ Even Bay Ganyo's popularity could not overcome Bulgarians' love of making fun of those in power.

After the First World War and the abdication of King Ferdinand – grandfather of the former Prime Minister Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha – the new king Boris III set out for his residence at Tsarska Bistritsa in Chamkoriya, now the Borovets ski resort. His car broke down along the way, so the king disguised himself and asked a local villager to tow him with his oxcart to the nearby town of Samokov. The monarch and his subject struck up a conversation: “How's life in these parts?” asked the king. “Difficult. We've had years of drought,” the villager answered. “Is there any way I can help?” the king inquired. “Nobody can help against the drought!” Boris continued: “Maybe I can. Do you know who I am?” “No matter who you are, you still won't be able to help me!” the farmer insisted. “But I'm the king!” Boris said. The villager calmly replied: “Well, since so many jerks became lieutenants during the war, I guess it's possible that you became king.”

When the Communists came to power in 1944, the police, or militsioneri as they would be called until the early 1990s, quickly became a favourite target of Bulgarian ridicule. In the years following the “revolution,” a popular anecdote spread around the country about an angry militsioner, who cornered a Gypsy boy at a market. “What are you selling here? Do you have a permit? These aren't stolen, by any chance?” the cop menacingly inquired. “They're just apple seeds, mister!” the boy replied. “Apple seeds? Who buys them? And why do they buy them?” the policeman asked. “Oh, they're very popular. They make you smarter!” (In Bulgarian jokes, cops are always extremely stupid, not unlike their Keystone counterparts) “Really? How much do they cost?” “One lev per seed,” said the young vendor. The policeman immediately bought five seeds, swallowed them and after a short silence asked, “But if I buy a kilogram of apples for two leva, then I'll get a lot more seeds.” “See? You've got smarter already!” the Gypsy boy replied and dashed away.

Bulgarians quickly realised, however, that the Communist leaders did not tolerate such mockery. After an evening out with his comrades in Plovdiv, the dictator Valko Chervenkov said to the musicians who had entertained them all night: “Well, I guess it's time for us to leave.” One of them, the notorious wag Aleksandar Nikolov, also known as “Sladura” Sasho, or “Sweetheart” Sasho, replied: “If you only knew how long we've been waiting!”

Wisecracks of that sort would soon end Sladura's career. He was soon hauled off to a labour camp near Lovech, where he died in 1961. Since 2002, a statue in his memory has stood in the centre of Plovdiv near the Antique Theatre. Yes, those were the years when people were put into concentration camps for telling jokes and listening to “decadent” jazz music.

Gradually the popular jokes of the day became more subtle, disguising their discontent in hidden subtexts. For example, one Russian joke parodies a poem by Vladimir Mayakovsky, a naivist apologist for the Bolshevik Revolution: “Mayakovsky says: When we say Lenin, we mean Party, and when we say Party, we mean Lenin. The same is true today – we say one thing, and mean another.”

Despite the risks, Bulgarians continued to mock the powers that be, although the ridicule – and hypocrisy – seemed to cut both ways. One joke, for example, describes the dictator Todor Zhivkov's meeting with a group of workers. “How's life?” Zhivkov jokes. “Life's great!” the workers joke in response.

Zhivkov himself was the ideal laughingstock, a Margaret Thatcher of sorts for those who knew him. On the one hand, he flaunted his modest origin, while on the other he possessed a rare talent for making a public faux pas every time he deviated from his scripted speeches. On one particularly memorable occasion at the opening of a semi-conductor factory, he said, “This year, a factory for semi-conductors, and next year – a factory for full conductors!” Jokes at his expense, however, were risky.

In the late 1960s, authorities banned satirist Radoy Ralin's book of epigrams Lyuti chushki, or Hot Peppers, shortly after its publication and yanked all existing copies off library and bookstore shelves. The reason for censorship? The epigram Gluh, no poslushen, or “Deaf but Dutiful”. Underneath the line Sit tarbuh, za nauka gluh, meaning “Full stomach/empty mind,” artist Boris Dimovski had drawn a pig whose curly tail resembled Zhivkov's signature. Bulgarian jokes about Socialism eventually became blunter.

In the 1970s Zhivkov bolstered the political career of his daughter Lyudmila, who with lightening speed became minister of culture and a member of the highest party leadership. Because of her interest in mysticism, she often appeared in public wearing a turban. Bulgarians quickly came up with a way of mocking her, thanks to the popular Bulgarian phrase razpasan poyas, which literally means “untied belt,” referring to the long sashes villagers traditionally wore. Used as an idiom, it means the lack of control or disrespect for the rule of law, hence the joke: “Do you know what Lyudmila's turban is made out of? Her father's untied belt!”

In 1989, the transition to democracy began. In just a few months, however, Bulgarians realised that once again they had been duped. Many of the fieriest speakers at the early democratic rallies in fact still had close ties to the Communist Party - or to its feared State Security. One such politician was Green Party leader Aleksandar Karakachanov, who earned himself the derisive moniker “The Watermelon”: green on the outside, red on the inside.

Politicians quickly disappeared from Bulgarian anecdotes, however, thanks to the arrival of new characters who made Bulgarians' lives even more miserable, thus earning their ridicule: mutri, or gangsters. Until the mid-1990s, these beefcakes were the main targets of jokes, which poked fun at their stupidity – many were merely recycled policeman stories. One popular tale tells of a mutra leader who spotted one of his men wearing a new suit. “Hey, Pesho,” he said, slapping him on the back, “this is one of Armani's, right?” “No way, boss! It's mine,” Pesho replied. Blondes and lawyers dominate today's anecdotes.

Political humour has all but disappeared; one of the few recent jokes in that vein refers to Bulgaria's post-EU accession inflation. While giving a campaign speech, Prime Minister Sergey Stanishev said: “Dear comrades, dear ladies and gentlemen, dear teachers, dear children… Good God, everything really has got quite dear, hasn't it!” So why do Bulgarians love making fun of the police, politicians and mutri? The answer is simple, if unpleasant: telling jokes about the dim-witted Zhivkov and idiotic mutri helps them avoid actually doing anything about Zhivkov and the mutri. Despite the flood of political jokes during the Communist era, Bulgaria never developed a true opposition or any dissident leaders such as Vaclav Havel or Lech Walesa. It never had anything like the Prague Spring. Little wonder, then, that the Socialists are still in power. Significantly, one thing has changed: the mutri sure know who Armani is now.

A MIXED BAG OF BULGARIAN JOKES

Not for the Squeamish


by Petar Popdimitrov

SURREAL
A mutra went for a walk in a field and came upon a well. He looked into the well but couldn't see the bottom. “It must be a deep well,” thought the mutra, picking up a pebble and throwing it into the well to hear how deep it was.

There was no sound.

“It must be a really deep well,” the mutra said to himself, picking up a large boulder and throwing it into the well.

There was no sound.

“It must be a really, really deep well,” said the mutra. In befuddlement, he walked around and found a railroad sleeper. He brought it to the well and hurled it in.

There was no sound.

The mutra was completely taken aback. He roamed around for a while and just when he was about to lose interest he saw a sheep on the horizon. The sheep was running very fast straight towards the well. When she reached it, she jumped in.The mutra at this point had no idea what to make of the situation. Then he saw a man approaching.

“Excuse me,” said the man, “but have you seen a sheep?”

“Yes,” replied the mutra in astonishment. “It just jumped into this well.”

“That can't be,” said the man. “I'd tied it to a railroad sleeper.”

RIGHT-HAND MAN

At a press conference a journalist asked Economy and Energy Minister Rumen Ovcharov (who later resigned amidst a corruption scandal), “Is it true, Mr Ovcharov, that Sergey Stanishev is a jerk?”

“That's none of your business,” replied Ovcharov. “What the hell makes you think he is?”

“Well,” said the journalist, “you are reputed to be his right-hand man.”

SENILITY

Two elderly ladies, friends for many years, sat down for coffee. They were chatting the afternoon away when one of them turned to the other and said: “My dear, may I ask you a question? But you have to promise me you won't be offended.”

“Go ahead, darling, ask!”

“But you really have to promise you won't be offended. We have been good friends for such a long time.”

“Go ahead, dear, I promise I won't be offended.”“Well, what is your name?”

The lady thought for a while, then replied: “That's not really all that urgent, now is it?”

CHANGING YOUR MIND

A man came home drunk in the middle of the night. He woke up his wife and shouted: “I'm drunk! Bring me a bucket, I'm going to puke!”

The woman got the bucket and brought it to him.

“Forget it,” said the man. “I changed my mind. I shat my pants instead.”

MID-1990S

During the severe economic crisis of the mid-1990s, when the majority of Bulgarians could hardly survive at home, but couldn't travel abroad because no one would give them visas, someone asked Radio Yerevan, a favourite Bulgarian mouthpiece for wisdom, what the differences were between Bulgaria and Auschwitz.

“Not many,” replied Radio Yerevan, “but in Auschwitz they always had electricity and gas.”

MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS

Pesho and Gosho, a professor of philosophy and a plumber, emigrated to the United States. A year later Pesho was still unemployed and living on the dole while Gosho had a prosperous business selling Bulgarian mekitsi, or doughnuts, in front of Citibank in Manhattan.

One day Pesho went to see Gosho: “Hi, Gosho, can you lend me $100?”“I'd really like to,” replied Gosho, “but I can't. I have my contractual obligations.”

“Come on, Gosho, lend me 100 bucks, we've been friends for so long. I'll pay you back someday.”

“I would love to,” repeated Gosho, “but I really can't. I can't break my contract.”

“Cut the crap, Gosho,” said Pesho. “What sort of a contract could you have?”

“Well,” Gosho said, “it's really quite simple. I have a contract with Citibank. Under that contract Citibank promises not to produce any mekitsi. And I am obliged not to give out any loans. If you need cash – well, there is Citibank, that's their business. My business is doughnuts.”

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