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Not afraid to joke about Lukashenko, Navalny, or ‘lil’ Putin’ Russian standup comic Denis Chuzhoi’s third special gets dark and political, provoking an immediate police response

Source: Meduza
Denis Chuzhoi / YouTube

The Russian authorities have taken an interest in another standup comic. Denis Chuzhoi revealed last week that the police in his hometown started questioning his friends, immediately following the release of his third solo performance, which includes jokes about Alexey Navalny, corruption, and even President Putin. At Meduza’s request, comedy critic Ashot Danelyan reviewed Chuzhoi’s act, arguing that it’s a worthy show, despite some obvious shortcomings. Generally, there are three avenues to success in Russian standup: television, alternative clubs (like Stand-up Club № 1, Outside Stand-up, and others), and the indie scene, where a comic builds a relationship directly with the audience. Denis Chuzhoi is traveling this latter route.

Early in his career, Denis Chuzhoi auditioned for a spot in a standup-comedy competition televised on TNT. It was an instructive experience: He walked away knowing that he wasn’t interested in working under the control of TV editors or producers. Most of Chuzhoi’s fans would come to know him from his YouTube content, like “Class of the People” (where he curated reactions to various events from users of the social network Odnoklassniki) and “Bad Books” (where, as you’d expect, he mocked bad books). Chuzhoi also established a presence on other platforms, winning readers on Twitter and Telegram.

Before long, all without a presence on TV, Denis Chuzhoi was selling out concert halls.

Chuzhoi’s fast track to the big stage reflects wider developments in Russia’s standup comedy over the past five years. Jerry Seinfeld once observed that a comic’s material coincides roughly with the number of years that person has spent in the industry. In other words, a comic who’s been performing for 15 years will likely radiate the maturity and awareness of an adolescent.

Russian comics tend to “grow up” a lot faster, however, and it’s not always to their credit.

In 2016 and 2017, comedian Idrak Mirzalizade (the same one who was recently jailed for an ethnic joke) changed the face of Russian standup with the release of two solo specials, inspiring a frenzy of imitators. Many of the little-known comics who seized on this format weren’t ready for the spotlight. They flooded Russia’s comedy market with raw, poorly produced, and often dull material that froze the standup scene’s development for some time. (American comedy witnessed a similar crisis in the 1990s, when expanded access to large audiences suddenly created opportunities for unprepared comics.)

In his first special, released in 2019, Denis Chuzhoi modeled his intonations, pauses, and even his filler words largely on Russia’s most popular TV comedians at the time. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this — comics have always taken inspiration from their predecessors. After all, Woody Allen borrowed from Mort Sahl, Louis C. K. has imitated George Carlin, and so on.

“On My Own From Here”
Denis Chuzhoi

Two years later, with the release of his third special, Chuzhoi has begun to come into his own. In the new show, he tackles issues like death, suicide, and depression —issues that most Russian comics avoid because they alienate broad television audiences. Chuzhoi even dares to joke about politics, jabbing at Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, opposition leader Alexey Navalny, and Vladimir Putin. His political commentary is harmless enough, however, landing less as criticism than as absurdist gags that just happen to feature these public figures.

For example, in the final minutes of the show, Chuzhoi laments that Boris Yeltsin missed the chance in 1999, when announcing Putin as his successor, to stage a grand ceremony in Red Square. “He could have gathered thousands and come out on the roof of Lenin’s Mausoleum. Yeltsin, standing there, just under two meters tall [he was about 6’2”], and Putin alongside him, so tiny. The two could have acted out the scene from The Lion King.”

The humor is so surreal that it’s seemingly impossible to find it offensive. And, yet, immediately after the show, police officers in Chuzhoi’s hometown reportedly started questioning his friends, trying to decipher his true surname.

Despite the resonance that Chuzhoi has achieved with his third special, it’s still hard to call it a breakthrough performance.

When it comes to solo comedy concerts, shows with a unified theme that links the jokes into a larger story (like Evgeny Chebatkov’s “Get Out of the Room,” released in March 2021) are relatively rare. These shows are also better remembered and more beloved, but they’re far harder to create.

Denis Chuzhoi’s third special, titled “On My Own From Here,” is a case in point. The show’s name has remarkably personal roots: Chuzhoi is now 33 years old, which is as old as his father ever lived. He’s lost his “reference point in life” and finds himself on a frightening new path. It’s a gripping, provocative concept, but he doesn’t develop it (though he does return to the title a few times for some admittedly good jokes). In fact, Chuzhoi ends the entire show with six minutes on “lil’ Putin.” The segment is ludicrous and hilarious, but what does it have to do with his life crisis at the age of 33? When the credits finally roll, you realize that the show’s touching and intriguing opening was a gun that never fired.

The problem isn’t the jokes themselves but the fact that each bit is barely connected to the one that came before it.

On the other hand, maybe Chuzhoi’s show is about the destruction of authority. After all, he breaks from his father’s life experiences, he snubs Russia’s most famous comedians, and he rejects even the president. Admittedly, this interpretation is a stretch. In the end, “On My Own From Here” is a confused performance for confused people. Chuzhoi tackles important issues here by laughing them off, but he’s nevertheless a promising entertainer, and the show gives viewers a sense of who he is as a comic, though it won’t be enough for love at first sight.

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Review by Ashot Danelyan

English-language version by Kevin Rothrock

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