Chytomo Spotlights

From tragedy to comedy: Ukraine sees rise of stand-up comedy focused on reviving classic literature


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At the Basement of Culture in Kyiv, all the seats are taken. Most of the guests arrived early, eager to chat over snacks or beverages. This bustling venue serves as the backdrop for the recording of the comedy and educational show, “Reader’s Diary,” where, according to the program’s creators, comedians and special guests discuss Ukrainian literature, offering fresh perspectives on works commonly found in school curriculums. This recording marks the eighth installment in the series, and “Reader’s Diary” has cultivated a dedicated YouTube audience. This time, the show has traveled from Lviv to the capital.


As it often is the case, literature teaching in Ukrainian schools provokes a firm dislike of native books. However, the outbreak of the war in 2014 ignited a fervent interest in and demand for Ukrainian culture. Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022 accelerated the process of Ukrainization even further. Ukrainian literature is now trending. Stand-up comedian Serhii Chyrkov alludes to the works of Mykola Khvylyovy, a classical figure of Ukrainian literature, in his shows, and the audience not only fully understands these references but embraces and supports the contextual depth they bring.



“Reader’s Diary”


The start of the recording is announced. Valentyn Peruz, a stand-up comedian and a regular participant of the Reader’s Diary “a Jesus-like boy who likes third-wave coffee shops,” as one member of the audience describes him, takes his place on stage. He asks the guests to share their expectations for the evening. Will it be engaging, fun, even sexy maybe? The small talk is followed by the popular Ukrainian song “Chervona Ruta” (Red Rue) written by Ukrainian songwriter, composer and poet Volodymyr Ivasyuk in 1968. Everybody sings. The show begins.


“The Girl with the Bear” by Viktor Domontovych is the literary work slated for discussion during today’s show. The audience is pre-informed, making it easier for them to grasp and appreciate the jokes and references.


The participants exchange jokes extensively, and the guests find themselves laughing heartily. All indications suggest the show will have many more episodes.



V. Domontovych, The Girl with the Bear. Doctor Seraphicus (Ukrainian edition)



In the comments below various videos of the “Reader’s Diary” show, the audience shares their impressions. Some suggest that such literature lessons would have been their favorite at school. They say the show is an example of “subtle Ukrainization,” and request reviews of many more classic works of Ukrainian literature.



“Well, we were trying to correct what school education has failed to do,” the “Reader’s Diary” creators shared.




“Anton Sokolov finds sex in Ukrainian literature”



Anton Sokolov


Stand-up comedian and creator of the “Reader’s Diary” Anton Sokolov says they wanted to create meaningful content that would still be relevant a month, and even in a couple of years after its release. Initially intended for school children and students in creative writing classes, it turned out that the primary audience was adults aged 25 to 35 years.


“These might be the people like me who grew up in a Russian-speaking environment, read Mikhail Bulgakov and Sergei Yesenin, but then decided to fill in this educational gap with Ukrainian content, to discover it anew or even for the first time.”


We asked Anton how stand-up shows help Ukrainian literature, and he joked:



“Just like a three-year-old boy helps on a house construction site — he doesn’t. He’s somewhere around, but not getting in the way, and that’s good.”



While discussing books, Anton Sokolov frequently incorporates humor related to intimate topics, to the extent that his colleagues would joke: “And here’s our regular column: “Anton Sokolov finds sex in Ukrainian literature.” Sokolov believes it’s not the quantity of such jokes about it that matters, but their relevance.



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While recording the programs, Anton Sokolov rediscovered Ukrainian literature of the 1920s. As a result, he recommends “The City” by Ukrainian modernist Valerian Pidmohylnyi, which was also discussed on the show.



Yevhenii Stasinevych and intellectual dare from re-reading books


Yevhenii Stasinevych


Right now we are often not rediscovering, but discovering literature for the first time. Among the authors, we encounter a wide range of names, spanning those from the 1920s, who we’ve highlighted today, to the 1980s, the classics of the 19th century, and even ancient literature as well.



“Speaking about rediscovery, it evokes a sense of thrill. There is even a certain intellectual dare in it — in rediscovering what you thought you already knew. What you may have once disliked, thought was dull and boring. And there you go: someone illuminates it from a completely different and unexpected angle, and you find such a truly intellectual joy in this,” literary critic Yevhenii Stasinevych reflects.



In “The Smell of the Word,” the first podcast by Yevhenii Stasinevych and stand-up comedian Serhii Chyrkov, they discuss why Ukrainian classics are sometimes more interesting than Hollywood directed films.



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Serhii Chyrkov says that he often refers to literary themes in his stand-up show, from Bulgakov to postmodernism. Yevhenii Stasinevych explains how these two creative realms can reinforce each other: “Literature is important not only as a topic for a stand-up performance, but as inspiration. The one who reads more has more chances to write better texts. Serhii Chyrkov is popular and renowned as an intelligent stand-up comedian because he reads.”



I think stand-up shows remind us that literature can be funny. It possesses this comic modus within which stand-up performance works. We have forgotten about it. We haven’t had funny texts for a long time, and good stand-up performances should remind us about this. It is to the point even in the middle of the full scale invasion. It doesn’t mean laughing at or scoffing, it only means using laughter as therapy. Don’t we need it right now? That is exactly what we could learn from stand-up shows.



Serhii Chyrkov: Birds of feather flock together!


Serhii Chyrkov


There is a prevailing notion that the reputation of Ukrainian literature is that of sadness and tragedy. Stand-up, on the other hand, is about humor. However, Chyrkov dispels these stereotypes:



“Stand-up performance is about jokes, but they are often based on some personal sadness and tragedy. Literature reinterprets human emotions, processes them, and stand-up works with human emotions, experiences and events in a person’s life. All this combines perfectly. Both stand-up and literature are primarily texts, but one text is recited and the other is printed.”



We posed a question to our interlocutors: why it is necessary to rediscover Ukrainian literature now.


“Birds of feather flock together!” — was Serhii Chyrkov’s immediate reply. This was the principle practiced by Ukrainians in Galicia during the times of Austria-Hungary alliance and Polish occupations to counteract economic and political expansion. It is what conscious Ukrainians are practicing now to counteract the Russians.



Vasyl Baidak: A stand-up show is an individual personalized comedy


Vasyl Baidak


Vasyl Baidak, a former participant in the “Reader’s Diary” show, says he did not understand the seriousness of the literature he encountered in school. But living through the current tragic reality, the comedian re-reads literature with new perspectives and contexts: “I have always thought that “The Tiger Trappers” (“The Hunters and the Hunted”) by Ukrainian writer, essay and novel author and politician Ivan Bahriany was just an adventure tale. But now I started reading it and I was like, “Yeah, Siberia…” It didn’t even register before. I was so focused on the adventure itself that I didn’t pay attention to the fact that Russians were once again present , that they were killing and destroying again. Because there is so much of this in literature that you perceive it as a bedrock, as a foundation, which you haven’t experienced and haven’t felt.”



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Vasyl Baidak suggests that reading helps to learn different language structures and vocabulary, which can then be used in a stand-up: “How does stand-up help literature? It doesn’t,” he replies with a laugh. “In fact, stand-up shows popularize literature. Serhii Chyrkov, of all the Ukrainian stand-up comedians, is probably the most focused on literature. And you can learn something new from his stand-up shows.”


The comedian also believes that the “tragic nature of Ukrainian literature” can easily be juxtaposed with humor, but context remains critical. At the same time, everyone determines what is appropriate for them: “It is impossible to derive a formula for an appropriate joke. A stand-up show is an individual personalized comedy, and everyone feels and does it their own way. So it combines perfectly, but not everyone is able to perfectly combine it.”




Chytomo spotlights:Ukrainian culture on and after frontline” project. The project is funded by the Stabilisation Fund for Culture and Education of the German Federal Foreign Office
and the Goethe-Institut.