In my previous post I stated that Ukrainian President Zelensky was not funny even when he was a professional clown. But I admit I have to retract that statement, it was unfair because I had not seen any of his comic oeuvres, and especially after seeing this sketch (below) that Zelensky produced in 2014 — actually, more like a short film (18 minutes long), in conjunction with a Ukrainian comedy collective called Kvartal-95. The sketch is, a the same time, a parody of the Hollywood blockbuster “Noah“, as well as a satirical treatment of the Ukrainian Nationalist penchant to rewrite all of ancient history in their favor.
The sketch is called “Not Noah” (which also means “Stop whining” in Russian). Zelensky, showing good acting as well as comedic skills, hilariously portrays the Biblical patriarch Noah (Russian Ной – pronounced Noy). In this ensemble, Zelensky is backed by a female comic who acts as the straight man; a male comic in drag portraying the mother-in-law; and an off-scene voice (of God) who delivers both straight lines and punchlines.
I had to admit that Zelensky is a funny guy.
The sketch is quite funny, and even rather brilliant in certain ways. It certainly ticked off a lot of Ukrainians at the time, especially the svidomites and the oh-so-pious ones who take their Bibles literally. The premise is that the Ukrainian nation is very old, dating back to Biblical times; and that Noah was the “first Ukrainian on the planet”.
A lot of Jewish literature and humor involves the notion of challenging the Biblical God. Which Zelensky does here, to perfection. In his conversations with God, Noah speaks a heavily accented surzhik (khokhol) dialect; whereas God replies in perfect Russian! I wish I comprehended surzhik better so that I could get all the rapid-fire jokes tossed out at us. Humor-wise, this is what I would call broad, Jewish-type shtick (English people used to call this type of humor “end of the pier”), with rampant mother-in-law jokes, drug jokes, ethnic jokes, quite a lot of misogyny, but also clever ripostes at religion and mocking the silliness of the Bible stories. None of this would be permissible in “Western” culture any more.
The comedy collective of Kvartal 95.
But here is the main thing, from a Russian point of view: There is an ironic geopolitical moment towards the end, as you shall see. I’ll save that for my punchline. The sketch, and the irony, were brought to my attention when I came across this piece by reporter Olga Nikitina. President Zelensky is called a prophet and urged to listen to his former self from 2014. You’ll see why!
For the benefit of my non-Russian-speaking readers, I hereby recap the sketch, I recommend they set up two sessions on the computer, flip back and forth and watch the video, alongside my summary. I stipulate that I don’t really know surzhik to the ear, but I try to translate the best I can.
In The Beginning….
As the sketch starts, subtitles inform us that, as Ternopol scholars have explained, all of mankind has descended from proto-Ukrainians. The first Ukrainian was Noah. (Or “not Noah”.)
Noah, in his primitive hut (or cave), is sleeping and snoring in a drunken stupor, alongside his wife. God wakes him up by repeatedly out his name in a booming and authoritative voice: “Noah! Noah!”
“Who’s that?!” “This is God!” God informs him, speaking in Russian. Noah: “Can you keep it down a bit? Can’t you see that my wife is sleeping?” God: “Noah! A flood is about to engulf the world. People need to be punished. Everyone will perish. Only you, Noah, will be spared.” Noah: “Why me?” God: “Because you are righteous. I chose you among all people because you have led a virtuous life.”
[Noah stealthily tosses away his rum bottle.]
“That’s for starters,” God continues. Secondly, you are a very good person.” Noah: “Oh wait a sec, can you give me a moment to wake up my wife, I want her to hear this…” Wife just groans and rolls over.
God continues: “Your virtuous deeds have brought you holy fame. And your name will be immortalized in the Book.”
Noah: “I don’t have time to read books…” God: “Shut up and listen!” Noah: “Okay, okay…” Eventually God gets to his point: “You must construct a wooden ark 200 meters in length and 50 in height…” God goes on to specify the dimensions and construction materials in great detail…
Noah is not thrilled. He is basically a lazy man, and realizes that this will be quite a lot of work for him. “I have a better idea, can’t you just snap your fingers and boil everyone alive instead. Sparing me, of course.”
God: “A flood is more effective.”
Noah: “Here’s another idea, can’t you just snap your fingers and build the ark yourself? You don’t need me…”
God yells at him. NO! HE HAS TO BUILD THE ARK!
Noah decides on a different approach. With that cunning-peasant look in his eye, he demands some kind of proof that God is really who He says He is. What kind of proof? “Well, for example, you could make my mother-in-law stand up and walk.” “She can walk already.” “I know, but I could specify where exactly she goes.” [nice setup for a mother-in-law joke!] God yells at him again and keeps hammering on about the ark.
Next God tells him that he has to load up the boat with two of each type of creature. Noah: “Fantastic! That means I don’t have to take my mother-in-law, because there is only one of that type of creature.” God: “Noah, I could snap my fingers and make it so there are two of her!” Noah: “Thanks, never mind, that’s okay.
“Just to make sure I am understanding the plan….” Noah recaps. As he lists off the bullet points [unpleasant bit of slapstick here] Noah breaks 4 fingers on his sleeping wife’s hand, ticking them off: “One: I have to build a boat. Two: Fill it up with animals, just like the Kiev Zoo. Three: Ah! What am I supposed to feed them?” God: “You don’t need to feed them.” Noah: “Aha, just like the Kiev Zoo. Four: Never mind, there is no four.”
Noah has one final request: “God, can I take my beloved with me on the boat?” God: “Of course!” “And my wife?” “Noah!” God roars at him. “Fine, fine... I’ll bring the bear… [referring to his wife] I get it…”
The Ark [4:20 minutes in]
The first part of this section, between the three comics, is in surzhik dialect, so I don’t necessarily get all the jokes. Noah is building a model ark that is clearly out of proportions. His wife and mother-in-law [clearly a man in drag, and if I didn’t know better I would swear that was Benny Hill come back from the grave!] come to find out what he’s doing. His mother-in-law, Alla Australopithekovna, berates him mercilessly. Wife: “Noah, do you want to tell us what you’re doing here?” He explains to the two women that God came to him in a beam of light and spoke to him; told him about a great flood that is to come and wipe out humanity. Only he, Noah, will be spared, because he is such a wonderful and righteous man. [Mother-in-law rolls her eyes.] Afterwards, he will be the ruler of the world, and his descendants will inherit the Earth. Mother-in-law shoves him rudely and makes a sarcastic remark.
Wife: “Mama! But what if it’s all true?” Mother-in-Law: “Why do you even listen to this alcoholic?” Wife: “Mama! But we will be saved, right?” Noah: “Of course. But just you and me. We’ll leave your mother behind.” Wife objects to this, at her teary pleading Noah agrees to bring mother-in-law along with them, but she will have to live in a separate cabin which he will build for her. Noah: “Fine, we’ll bring your mom. In a way, I have to thank her, because I needed a container in which to carry two moths, two lice, and two tapeworms.”
In the Jewish tradition, man is allowed to challenge God, but rarely wins the debate.
Noah sits down to have a bit of rest and smoke his pipe; interrupted by God’s booming voice again: “Noah! Noah!” God wants to know what he is smoking. “It’s Frankincense.” “Don’t lie to me, is that grass?!” Noah: “You can’t blame me that they haven’t invented tobacco yet…” [Footnote: Zelensky was accused, during his presidential campaign, of being a drug user. Being in show business at the time, that goes without saying…]
God: “Noah, I see that you have been selling tickets for the Ark.” “Me? No! I mean, yes, but not expensive ones… I mean, just enough to cover my expenses…” “Noah! I explicitly told you that you alone will be saved from the flood.” Noah: “I know that, but they don’t know that [chuckles].” God: “Noah! Are you actually a Ukrainian?” Noah [dithering]: “Well, on my papa’s side, of course…” [Hava Nagila plays in the background.] God bursts out laughing. [Inside joke here is that Zelensky is half Jewish, on his mother’s side which, according to Jewish law, makes him fully Jewish.] Noah gets suspicious and challenges God again: “Are you actually God? Maybe just some trick, speaking through a microphone…” “No! I am God!”
Noah: “Then prove it!” “Well, I could make it start raining…” “That’s too easy, you could be up there on the balcony and dribbling some water down… Seriously! What are you capable of?” “I could make it rain toads, I could release clouds of locusts…” Noah: “Fine, but release them over that way, on the territory of my neighbor.” God: “Noah, you are too cruel.” Noah: “ME cruel? Look who’s talking! Somebody who wants to rain toads, release clouds of locusts and plague on everyone.” [yalensis: to my view, this was the funniest bit in the whole sketch. I love the look on Zel’s face when he goes: ME Cruel? I literally laughed my ass off.]
God: “Stop bugging me, and start loading those animals into your ark [pun using the same verb gruzit with two different meanings]. Also, it wouldn’t hurt you to toss a couple of joints on that fiery altar and share some of that fragrant smoke…” God gets high and starts chuckling uncontrollably.
On-Boarding [8:50 minutes in]
Once again Noah in a drunken stupor, this time with a woman who is not his wife. God comes to him in a beam of light and rouses him again: “Noah! Noah! Are you drunk again?” “A little bit. I had to attend a function.” “What kind of function?” “The christening of a child of a friend.” God: “What is a christening?” Noah: “You mean you didn’t get the memo?” [bit of Jewish-Christian humor there…]
“Are we there yet?”
God wants to know what’s with the girl. Noah: “Lord, you forbade me to sell tickets to the Ark, but I gave some away for free, and people just want to thank me, in their own way…” “I don’t understand, you want to take her with you?” “No, no, not at all. I don’t need her any more after last night… One little request… Could we put this flood off for 400-500 years?” God: “NO! Get your things together and get into the Ark!”
The storm begins with lightning and rain. With clipboard in hand, Noah officiously proceeds to board the animals. “Proceed in an orderly fashion, two by two. Elephants! Giraffes! Lions! Monkeys! Mammoths! Cats! Goats! Camels!” [There is some slapstick involving giraffes hitting their heads on the low ceilings, and camels spitting all over Noah.]
Some bit in surzhik involving Noah and his wife, and what he did with her mom. “When I locked her in her cabin she scratched her name on the wall… with two mistakes in spelling.”
Life On Board [12:30 minutes in]
Noah and wife enjoying the cruising life, petting the goats and spitting out sunflower seeds. Suddenly they are alarmed by a loud noise; Mother-in-law emerges from the hold, all wet and ripping mad. Even when saved from certain death, she expects to be treated like a human being. Noah stuffs a rag in her mouth to shut her up.
Noah looks out the porthole: “Land!” Some slapstick comedy ensues as the boat comes crashing onto the shores of Mount Ararat. Inhabitants of the Ark start rejoining. A setup for some mild ethnic humor: A guy yelling at them from outside, speaking Russian in a thick Armenian accent: “Beep beep, turn around and go away, this is my land!”
Russian ethnic stereotype of Armenian gangster, who is usually named “Ashot” or “Ashotik”
Noah [roars]: “I’m Noah!”
“You think so? I’m Noah’s son-in-law. Get out of here, or I’ll call Ashotik.”
Noah appeals to a higher authority: “God!”
God (in annoyed tone): “What?” Noah: “What do you mean, what? — you told me there was going to be a flood, and that everybody was going to die except for me, alone. And now there’s this Noah’s son-in-law, and he’s going to sic Ashot on me.”
God: “Well, what do you want me to do? He has a lot of connections in high places. But never mind, I have prepared for you an earthly paradise to the North and West of here…”
Cry Me A Punchline [15:05 minutes in]
Noah and his family end up in a beautiful paradise, a green meadow with wavy grasses and flowers. Noah: “God?” God (benevolently): “Yes, yes.” God appears to them in a beam of sunshine. Noah: “God, thank you for this beautiful land. What do you want me to do for you in return?” “Be fruitful and multiply…. Noah, you will be the founder of a new race of humans.”
According to God, Noah only gets the blue part, from the Carpathian Mountains to the Dnipr River.
Noah: “I am at your service. Do me a favor and tell me, what is my nationality?
God: “You are a khokhol.”
Noah: “Well, thank goodness I am not a Moskal.”
God: “Noah. These are the borders of your land. Do you see that mountain over there? That’s your mountain. It’s called Hoverla. And do you see that river over there? That is your river. It’s called the Dnipr. These are the boundaries of your territory.” Noah: “Great. [pointing] Lord, what about that peninsula over there?”
[Drumroll… Get ready for the punchline]
God: “Never mind about that, it’s not important.”
Noah: “One final thing. Are there useful minerals or natural resources on this land?” God: “What did you have in mind? Noah: “Well, for example, porridge, like my mother-in-law makes…. Okay, I know that’s not a mineral, nor is it useful…. What about oil? “No oil, that will go the Avars.” “What about gas?” “That’s for the Russians.” Noah: “What about gemstones?” God: “Gemstones are for the Africans.”
Noah: What kind of country doesn’t have anything in it?”
God: “This great country is called the Ukraine!”
Noah: “Wife, collect the animals, we’re getting out of here, we have been deceived…”
God: “Stop, stop! Okay, I’ll give you gemstones. I’ll give you oil… Okay, I’ll give you gas.”
Noah: “Never mind. You don’t need to give us anything. Even though you are God, you don’t understand us [soaring emotions]. We have our souls, our big hearts…. You don’t need to give us anything, instead we will give things to you.”
God (skeptically): “And what could you give me?”
Noah: “Take my mother-in-law…”
[ends in chaos]
The main Russia punchline, of course, and worthy of a rimshot, is that bit where God tells Noah to forget about that “peninsula”, Crimea of course! Like Homer Simpson says, it’s funny because it’s true.
Aksynov: Doesn’t know much about art, but knows what he doesn’t like.
Now that he is President of the Ukraine, Zelensky has to pretend that “Crimea is ours” and that the khokhols will get it back from Russia, eventually. In response, the actual leader of the Crimea Republic, Sergei Aksyonov, reminded Zelensky on his social media page, of this 6-year-old sketch, and how God himself advised Zelensky to “forget about Crimea”. All the more so, after Crimeans voted overwhelmingly (90%) for the new Russian Constitution. Among whose provisions, will NEVER allow Crimea to be given away again.
Aksyonov adds that Zelensky fully understands that Crimea belongs to Russia, but has to pretend otherwise. Zelensky has to speak lines written by foreign producers, and act parts in scenarios crafted by “Western directors”, meaning the United States, of course. “What can you do?” Aksyonov concludes. “Such is the life of an artist.”
Actually, a true artist would have almost total freedom of expression. All the more so, a jester, who, by universal custom, is endowed with the right to speak truth to power. And Zelensky used to be a jester; and quite a good one too. But now, alas, the joke is on him!
[THE END… of the world in fire, flood, plague and giant moths…]