The current state of bilateral relations between Russia and the U.S. may be nothing to laugh about, but somehow throughout the year, comedians from the two nations always found a way to brighten the mood.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, right, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov laughing, during their meeting, at Villa Taverna, in Rome. Kerry and Lavrov discussed the ongoing Middle East peace process, and rising tensions in Ukraine. Photo: Reuters
Throughout 2014, American and Russian comedians have not shied away from making fun of the most serious topics in U.S.-Russian relations, from the annexation of Crimea to the collapse of the ruble. As the rift between the two countries widened, late night American comedy skits or comic sketches on Russian television could not help but reflect the growing confrontational tones.
Here are some of the most memorable comedy skits on U.S.-Russia relations in 2014 from both sides.
#1: Portrayal of a miserable life in Russia by SNL
In 2013, the American audience of popular comedy TV show Saturday Night Live was introduced to Olya Povlatsky, a character portrayed by Kate McKinnon. Povlatsky, a Russian woman from a fictional Russian village, makes her life sound so miserable that the prospect of being hit by a meteorite and wiped off the universe is appealing.
Saturday Night Live with Olya Povlatsky. For those outside the U.S., view video here.
In 2014, after commenting on the Winter Olympics held in Sochi (“How could Olympics pick Russia? What was the other option? Haiti or middle of ocean?”), she had some wisdom to share on the Russian military presence in Ukraine. When asked about her plans for the holidays, she expressed her distress at finding out that her planned trip abroad is no longer going to happen, since her destination of choice, Eastern Ukraine, “is now Russia.”
#2: Jimmy Fallon playing Putin
Source: Youtube / The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon
Meanwhile, American television host Jimmy Fallon pulled off a rather entertaining impersonation of Russian president Vladimir Putin for a series of sketches on The Tonight Show. He even convinced Sarah Palin and Dr. Phil to make cameo appearances in a couple of segments.
Fallon’s vodka chugging, prone-to-anger-outbursts Putin was much more reminiscent of former president Boris Yeltsin. His rendition, however, proved one thing - even the stony-eyed Russian president can be turned into an endearing character you might wind up secretly rooting for.
#3: Working out vs. Putincizing by Jimmy Kimmel Live!
Source: Youtube / Jimmy Kimmel Live
Jimmy Kimmel, on the contrary, focused on Putin’s image as a macho man. After a video showing U.S. president Barack Obama exercising in a gym was leaked, many made fun of him, including the popular comedian and TV host. In a clip aired on Jimmy Kimmel Live! his awkward workout routine was compared to Putin’s much manlier style, and Obama is invited to take off his shirt and “Putincize.”
#4: Jon Stewart’s political satire on Russia
While sketch comedians might not necessarily be concerned with accuracy and consistency, Jon Stewart’s political satire does rely much more closely on facts and current affairs. Through his celebrated collages of news reports and sarcastic commentary on The Daily Show, Stewart repeatedly discussed the topics that were most debated in the U.S. media, from Russia’s stand over Crimea to its actions in relations to East Ukraine.
Stewart mostly took aim at the Russian leadership, but was also able to provide some useful insight on the ways in which the U.S. talks about Russia (“we care about Crimea…because Russia taking it over makes us look weak!”).
As it is often the case with his work, most of his segments on Russia exposed the difficulties in drawing the line between satire and journalism. From a journalistic point of view his comments could be superficial and lacking in context. As far as satire goes, however, it was a critically acclaimed success.
#5: Russians making fun of American newscasts
Source: Youtube / Official Channel of KVN
Some of the best comedy from Russia can arguably be said to originate from KVN (Klub Vesyólykh i Nakhódchivykh, or Club of the Funny and Inventive), a Soviet-era comedy game show for students which continues to be held to this day and has become a classic form of entertainment among Russians.
KVN skits, the best of which air on the Russian TV station Channel One, are disarmingly honest forays into the Russian psyche. Naturally, the subject of U.S.-Russian bilateral relations was among those favored by the contestants.
For example, the KVN team from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO-University), a prestigious school for future Russian diplomats with the current Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov as one of their alumni, made fun of “a typical newscast in the U.S.” They spoofed a CNN newscast that can be seen as an incredibly meta commentary on how Russians perceive the way in which the rest of the world relates to them.
In the skit, Russia comes across as the victim of two American news anchors who talk about Russia with seemingly gratuitous disdain. At the same time, the comedians do not prove entirely oblivious to self-deprecation, as they end their sketch mocking Putin’s topless superman image.
#6 : U.S. and Russia as a quarreling couple
Another KVN skit from a team at the Peoples' Friendship University of Russia presents a hypothetical G7 summit after Russia has been suspended from its membership. A man in the middle plays the U.S. and asks other countries to vote for various resolutions, from imposing sanctions on Iran to issuing an ultimatum to North Korea. When other countries eagerly agree to virtually everything, the U.S. sighs: “It’s so boring without Russia!”
Then the man excuses himself to make a call to his girlfriend, who appears to be Russia. “Why are you mad at me? Because of the sanctions? Oh c’mon, it’s just a show-off in front of my buddies,” he says. Crimea is presented as an extra weight that Russia has gained and any mention of it offends her. “No, this becomes you well; not everybody wants to admit it, though…”
#7: Typical portrayal of Obama on Russian Comedy Club
Just like American comedians like to take digs at Putin, Russian comedians often target Obama. On Comedy Club, a Russian stand-up comedy show on Russian TV station TNT, Obama (played by Alexey Smirnov, wearing a white T-shirt in the video) is portrayed as an insecure, clueless and easily fooled head of state who falls prey to a Russian spy acting as an advisor to the U.S. (who later appears to be former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev). Similarly, spokesperson for the United States Department of State Jen Psaki is assigned a rather unflattering alter ego – an inflatable doll, while Secretary of State John Kerry is mistaken for Hollywood actor Jim Carrey.
#8: A Russian calls Radio of Detroit
Source: Youtube / Comedy Club. American Radio
Here is another skit from Comedy Club’s popular resident members: Garik Kharlamov as an American, Andrei Skorohod as a Brit, Garik Martirosyan as an Indian. This sketch is entirely in English (or sometimes in what Russians think sounds like English) and makes fun of different accents and how hard it is for the American radio host to understand them. In the middle of the skit, the situation becomes worse when a call from Russia comes through.