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"Tell the chef, the beer is on me."
Russia is the funniest country in the world. Some countries, like America and England, are funny mostly on purpose, while others, like Germany and France, can be funny only unintentionally. (But that counts! Being funny is tricky, so any way you do it counts.) Russia, however, is funny both intentionally (Gogol, Zoshchenko, Bulgakov) and unintentionally (Vladimir Putin singing, as he did at a televised event a few years ago, “I found my thrill on Blueberry Hill”). Given the disaster Russian history has been more or less continuously for the last five centuries, its humor is of the darkest, most extreme kind. Russian humor is to ordinary humor what backwoods fundamentalist poisonous snake handling is to a petting zoo. Russian humor is slapstick, only you actually die.
Surveys that measure such distinctions often rate Russians among the world’s least happy people. To judge from the Russians I know, this information would hold little interest one way or the other. To Russians, happiness is not the big deal it is to us; the Declaration of Independence they don’t have makes no statement about it. On the street or otherwise encountering strangers Russians don’t paste big grins on their faces, the way we tend to do. They look sternly upon reflex smilers. Their humor is powerful without a lot of jollity, and it’s hard to imagine Bulgakov, say, convulsed and weeping with laughter, as I have been when reading certain scenes in his novel Heart of a Dog.
Daniil Kharms, a Russian writer who came of age in the worst of Soviet times, is categorized as an absurdist, partly (I think) because it’s hard to know what else to call him. To me he makes more sense as a religious writer. He is really funny and completely not ingratiating, simultaneously. I believe he knew he was funny and tried to be funny in his work, but I can’t find a single instance of him using the word “funny” in any of his writings, except at some distance from its straightforward meaning. In his personal notebooks, published for the first time in English in 2013, he never exults in how funny he has been or boasts that a witticism he said or wrote had ’em rolling in the aisles. For an American humorist or comedy writer such diffidence would be out of character, if not unheard of.
Kharms’s life gave him a lot not to be jolly about. He was born Daniil Ivanovich Yuvachov in St. Petersburg in 1905. Formerly his father had been one of many young revolutionaries plotting against the life of Tsar Alexander III, a pastime that got him imprisoned for four years and then sent to a labor camp on Sakhalin Island for another eight. Later, Ivan Yuvachov became a Soviet in good standing and head of accounting at a power station. Kharms’s mother, Nadezhda Kolyubakina, was from an aristocratic background and a graduate of St. Petersburg’s Smolny Institute for Noble Girls.
Kharms offered a number of stories about his birth, such as that he was pushed back in after he came out, or that he hatched from caviar. Hunger to the point of starvation recurred in his youth, as he moved among relatives during World War I, and in his twenties and thirties in Leningrad when his notebooks record periods of going without food for days. He often got kicked out of things: from the city’s preparatory-level Peterschule at sixteen, from a college of engineering at twenty, and from the Leningrad Union of Poets at twenty-three.
He took the name Kharms when he was nineteen and he wrote under it for the rest of his life. A connection may have existed between it and the English words “charm” and “harm,” both evoking his interest in magic. It is pronounced with the same hard, throaty h that enlivens the Russian pronunciation of names like Hemingway and Huckleberry Finn. At that point his life was more than halfway over. The next year he met Alexander Vvedensky, Leonid Lipavsky, Yakov Druskin, and Andrei Oleinikov, his future literary collaborators and friends. Kharms wrote hard-to-categorize plays, published two poems (the only works of his for adults to come out in his lifetime), and with Vvedensky, Nikolai Zabolotsky, and others formed a movement called OBERIU, an abbreviation made from letters in the words “Union for Real Art.” Public performances by OBERIU participants angered audiences to near riot and received threateningly negative reviews. ...A Strangely Funny Russian Genius by Ian Frazier | The New York Review of Books
Detroit - once a manufacturing giant - went bust in 2013. An innovative crowd-funding project called Detroit Soup is helping the city get back on its feet.
It's a typical winter's night in Michigan. Snow is falling, and so is the temperature - it's -15C at last count. Unsociable conditions such as these would put paid to plans for many people, but not in Detroit.
"Winter 'Soups' always do well," says Detroit Soup founder Amy Kaherl, preparing for the latest of her fundraising events. "People are grateful for a chance to come out of hibernation."
With a small team of dedicated volunteers, an empty hall is quickly filled with tables laden with huge loaves of bread, and the waft of soup. Kaherl and friends started Detroit Soup to help local artists fulfil their creative ambition. Five years on, "Soup", as it's more commonly known, is a city-wide movement which has reached well beyond the artistic community.
"Tonight is our 95th soup, and in total we've raised over $85,000 (£57,000)," she says proudly.
The 33-year-old Kaherl is a master multi-tasker - with her rapid-fire speech she is the kind of person who can answer three questions in one sentence. "Check one, check two - pah-tub, pah-tub- pah-tub-PAH. I wish I could beat-box," she rues during the sound-check.
As predicted, despite the cold, people come out in force, bringing with them trays of cupcakes, pastries and pots of hot food to add to the standard fare of soup and salad which gave Detroit Soup its name.
It's a simple concept: people turn up, pay $5 (£3.30) at the door, and listen to three or four people pitch an idea to improve the local community. Pitchers may not talk for more than four minutes, and definitely must not use PowerPoint. The audience can then ask a maximum of four questions.
With the presentations over, soup is served. People mull over the ideas and then they vote on their favourite. The winner gets to take home all the money taken at the door and use it to fund their plan, with the promise they will come back three months later to report on their progress.
The ideas bidding for funding tonight include an urban farming project, an adult literacy programme, a community library for Black History Month, and a support group helping people facing repossession. ...
"Tell the chef, the beer is on me."
"Basically the price of a night on the town!"
"I'd love to help kickstart continued development! And 0 EUR/month really does make fiscal sense too... maybe I'll even get a shirt?" (there will be limited edition shirts for two and other goodies for each supporter as soon as we sold the 200)