‘I’m no fighter. Really.’ Vera Kotelnikova describes how she learned to make it as a standup comic in Russia
At 27, Vera Kotelnikova is one of the stars of Russia’s independent standup comedy scene. Late last year, she released a half-hour special where she riffed on feminism, masturbation, relationships, weight loss, and other sensitive topics. On YouTube, the show now has more than 1.4 million views. Kotelnikova has appeared on several other popular comedy programs, as well. Meduza special correspondent Alexandra Sivtsova spoke to Kotelnikova to find out how comedians in Russia come up with their jokes, cope with self-doubts, manage creative stagnation, and navigate various forms of censorship.
Vera Kotelnikova moved to Moscow when she was seven years old. For the first few years, before she made friends and grew old enough to go out on her own, she says she dreamed of returning home to Kemerovo. If that had happened, it’s anyone’s guess if she would have found her way to standup comedy. Her gateway into the industry, she told Meduza, was a friend during her first year of college who performed on the school’s KVN team —a “Club of the Funny and Inventive” where students design sketches and present at tournaments. Kotelnikova says the lack of polish on the group’s work appealed to her as a looser, more grounded version of the KVN competitions she’d watched on television as a child.
In 2012, she joined a KVN team herself, but not before performing a set at an open mic at a café run by standup comedian Kirill Seatlov, who edits the YouTube comedy channel Tsarvideo. “It was neither a disaster nor a triumph, but I didn’t understand how to develop it any further,” she recalls. “I performed and then what? At KVN, there was a straightforward framework for where to go and what to do.” On the team, Kotelnikova learned the discipline of standup comedy, realizing the need to understand the context of her jokes in order to develop them professionally.
When she was just starting out, Kotelnikova maintained a day job as a junior editor at the state-run television network Pervyi Kanal. The work, she says, was simple but time-consuming. She began performing at an open mic run by Standup House founder Ruslan Mukhtarov, who took a liking to her act and invited her to write jokes together. This led to more invitations to perform at other venues. She was also busy with another project called “Open Microphone” (a launching pad for young, up-and-coming comics to perform on the TNT show “Stand Up”), and she appeared in popular YouTube videos with her friends.
Vera Kotelnikova’s comedy career was taking off.
Around this time, the creative director at the TNT4 television show “Prozharka” (Roast) invited her to join the program during its first season. Later, she briefly collaborated with another TV show, “Zhensky Standup” (Women’s Standup). These rapid-fire opportunities made it clear to Kotelnikova that she does not enjoy remaining with any one project for very long.
Kotelnikova is self-effacing to the point that she acknowledges her unfiltered standup potentially violates Russia’s laws against promoting suicide. Speaking to Meduza, she repeatedly named colleagues with better work ethics and more energy. “I’m not very efficient,” she says. “There are people who can mobilize and that’s cool. If you can’t, though, you probably need to put yourself on a schedule that is comfortable for your life.” There are days, she says, when her greatest achievement is getting out of bed.
She admits to entertaining thoughts of leaving standup, citing fears that she’s run out of things to say and lost any sense of her comedy’s meaning. Even as an “inefficient” comic, however, Kotelnikova manages a grueling workload to assemble a single performance, conducting interviews, recording footage, and consulting with lawyers, viewers, and other comics.
Asked how she’d film a documentary about standup comedy in Russia, Kotelnikova rejected the concept outright, insisting that there’s nothing cinematic about her work. “When you film musicians, let’s say when inspiration seizes them, they start playing. If inspiration seizes a standup comic, all you’re left with is just somebody sitting there, expressionless,” she explained to Meduza.
Her favorite shows about standup comedy are all American: “I'm Dying Up Here,” “Louie,” and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” She also praises Pete Holmes’s HBO series “Crashing,” a semi-autobiographical show about his early struggles in the business. “it’s the most realistic series I’ve seen,” says Kotelnikova. “What does the main character do? He drifts around, depressed, and his shows go poorly.”
And yet, by all accounts, Kotelnikova is a success. She says she’s managed to double her income from doing comedy in the past year. “I’m no fighter or warrior,” she claims, explaining that she managed to enter the standup business and do well without fighting any righteous battles against injustice in the industry. The apparent simplicity with which Kotelnikova has landed gigs and won over audiences gives her some feminist guilt, she told Meduza: “I’m ashamed to talk about it because I’ve been enlisted in their ranks, but it’s all been easy for me.”
But Kotelnikova has encountered some obstacles. The lawyers who review her jokes are always on the lookout for material that might violate one of Russia’s many restrictions on speech. Jokes about drugs, it turns out, are virtually impossible without risking trouble from state officials.
She also acknowledges her powerlessness in the face of crackdowns on comedians in Russia who have crossed a line with conservative groups and the authorities. In early August, for example, a Russian court jailed comedian Idrak Mirzalizade (a Belarusian citizen of Azerbaijani descent) for 10 days for allegedly inciting hatred against ethnic Russians because of remarks he made about xenophobia during a comedy program (while observing that Moscow landlords prefer Slavic tenants, Mirzalizade joked that ethnic Russians smear themselves in feces before sleeping).
“The essence of his joke was very humane,” says Kotelnikova. “But nobody knew what to say that wouldn’t be misinterpreted in the context of a story where other people’s words were already being taken out of context and then twisted.” She says she worries “constantly” that anything she says about such incidents could end up harming others.
Threats against the standup comics Ariana Lolaeva and Alexander Ni following a suggestive joke about “Ossetian pie between her thighs” are another cause for concern. “This was the first time when independent comics apologized,” noted Kotelnikova. “Before that, if it happened, it was with a TV channel or people affiliated with a network. Everything is different there: you’re part of a team and it’s all decided internally.”
Kotelnikova says she’s had material over the years that she decided was too unsafe to perform in public, including some about religion and even a series of “very rude” jokes about Chechnya’s famously thin-skinned ruler, Ramzan Kadyrov. “They weren’t only about Kadyrov — they were just rude. They would have been rude about anyone, but they were especially so about Kadyrov. I recorded them but didn’t upload it,” she told Meduza.
What does the future hold for Vera? Will she still be doing standup, a decade from now? The weight of the question sends her into another bout of self-doubt. “I’m not sure about anything so far ahead — not standup or anything else,” she says. “I’m at a moment now when I’m not really sure about anything. But I see myself as someone who does what she loves. Right now that’s standup, but I don’t know what happens to me later.”
Abridged summary by Kevin Rothrock