I was recently performing my one-man Broadway show "Happily Ever Laughter" at a theater in Los Angeles. With great expectation (a feeling every professional comedian knows so well), I delivered a new joke. "In Ukraine, they now have a new ice cream called Rootin' Tootin' Putin. The flavor will take your freedom away, and you don't even have to eat it. They'll just shove it down your throat."
As the crowd roared with laughter, it dawned on me that I haven't written a joke like this in twenty-five years. In that moment of reflection it became clear that the reason people were laughing is because a good joke is only ten-percent joke -- and 90 percent truth. And the truth is that what Putin is doing in Russia now -- by restricting the freedom of expression -- is very similar to what I experienced being an entertainer in the former Soviet Union.
As a comedian in the Soviet Union, I was censored by the "Department of Jokes." Well, actually it was called the Humor Department of the Censorship Apparatus of Soviet Ministry of Culture. I think they were hoping that by the time you finished saying their name, you'd be too exhausted to tell more jokes. Once a year, we had to submit our material to the Department of Humor for authorization, and we were prohibited from deviating in any way from the approved material in our acts. Nothing could be adlibbed, not even dealing with hecklers. If somebody yelled something from the audience, I would say, "Come back in a year, and I'll have a government-approved response for you."
We even had pretty strict guidelines on what we could submit for approval. We could not write jokes about government, politics, sex or religion. The rest was fine. We could talk about mothers-in- laws, animals and fish. And there are only so many scale jokes you can do about your mother-in-law. If the government didn't get you, she would.
So I would deliver the material that was approved because I wanted to live. Like a joke about a little ant that got married to a female elephant, and after their first wedding night, the elephant died. The little ant said, "Only one night I enjoyed myself, and now, for the rest of my life, I have to dig this grave." That joke passed the censorship, and I was now officially approved to do a performance at the zoo.
Here are a couple of jokes that did not make it. The Soviet government was cracking down on the alcohol problem that was escalating. So, a communist party official goes to a factory and says to one of the workers, "If you had a glass of vodka could you work today?" The worker said, "I guess I could." "If you had two glasses of vodka, could you work?" He said, "I guess I could." "If you had three glasses of vodka, could you work?" He said, "I'm here, aren't I?" That joke did not pass.
Or another one that I thought was funny was about buying a car. It could take years to get a car in Soviet Russia at that time. So the guy goes to the car dealer and says, "I'd like to buy a car." The sales manager said, "Okay, put your name on the list, and come back in 20 years to pick up your car." The guy said, "Do I come back in the morning or in the afternoon?" The manager said, "What's the difference? It's 20 years from now." The guy said, "The plumber is scheduled to come that morning." That joke did not pass either.
They controlled 250 million people by brainwashing us from the time we were born. And that machine did not have a gentle cycle. It was more like permanent press cycle. With heavy starch. When I was a little boy, my dad told me that I would grow up to be just like him -- a suspect. He was definitely on the radar of the KGB (which stands for "Kiss Goodbye your Butt") because he wanted to know more than what the average Soviet citizen was told.
He was dangerous to the regime because at night, when everyone was asleep, he was listening to the Voice of America on a short-wave radio. In the morning, he would be considered an outlaw because he made up a joke. He told me, "In Soviet Russia, they claim that we have freedom of speech. But in America, they have freedom after they speak. That's a nice little feature."
In those days, the Soviet government wanted to control all the information that people were given because information is power. I used to joke that when we got our first TV it had two channels: channel one was propaganda; channel two was a KGB officer telling you to turn back to channel one.
It's funny but the truth. It is an old, proven formula that dictators use: divide and conquer. It gets rid of all the things that might influence people. Then you're the sole source of information, and that's the key part of the plan. Putin is like a chess player. He understands that there are strategic moves he has to make and certain elements he needs to be able to control to have ultimate power, and the media is one of them. That's how the old Russian regimes -- Lenin, Stalin and all those guys with a unibrow -- were functioning at the time.
I see the same thing that I grew up with starting to happen again in Russia. There is a new law requiring bloggers to register with the government. In addition to registering, bloggers can also no longer remain anonymous.
Putin signed another law that criminalizes profanity in TV, movies, books or plays. Any publication with profanity has to be delivered in a sealed package. And the danger is the writer also will be delivered in a sealed package.
Because of such restrictions, Twitter in Russia has not caught on as it has in the United States. This is probably because in America, if you have a lot of followers, you're considered popular. In Russia, if you have followers, it means you're under surveillance.
Putin is trying to make these changes appear subtle. Just like pharmaceutical companies in America do in their commercials. They convince you that your life will be better if you take their medication. Then they disguise the side effects with nice music, happy people and images that distract you from the severity of the situation.
A "Putin Extra Strength" commercial may sound like this: One Putin a day makes you obey and keeps morticians away. It will protect you from the evil empire, Kardashians and Honey Boo Boo. But there are some minor side effects such as loss of friends and family, relocation to cold places, severe stress, depression and homelessness. If you experience loss of freedom for more than a year, keep your mouth shut. Your doctor may prescribe you to move to a different country. Tell your doctor to keep his mouth shut. You may experience loss of sleep, or the possibility of not waking up at all.
P.S. This material has not been censored by the Department of Jokes.