A reporter remembers Odessa as a place of humor, not violence

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Marco Werman: Iâ’m Marco Werman, this is The World. We want to go back to our top story today, Ukraine, to Odessa, specifically. On Friday, more than 40 people were killed there after violence broke out. Most of the dead were pro-Russia protestors killed in a building fire. Itâ’s hard to imagine all of this in Odessa. The charming port city on the Black Sea isnâ’t known for such scenes of violence, but for its literature, its arts and humor. The Worldâ’s Jason Margolis is with me now. Jason, you were in Odessa a few years ago, right?

Jason Margolis: Yeah, I was there in 2008. I was on a two week reporting trip in Ukraine and I took an overnight train from Kiev to Odessa.

Werman: Yeah, so what is Odessa like? Tell us about it.

Margolis: Itâ’s just one of those cities, you know, whenever you hear about San Francisco, people say oh, I love San Francisco. Itâ’s the same way with Odessa. Everybody loves Odessa and it lives up to the hype. Itâ’s right on the Black Sea. The architecture is amazing with these grand colorful buildings. The city has gardens and parks and wide walking paths covered by leafy green trees, cafes, museums. And the people there, itâ’s a mix of people from different cultures. You have Greeks, Turks, Bulgarians, Russians, Ukrainians. There used to be a lot of Jews, but a small Jewish population now. Itâ’s just a wonderful cosmopolitan place.

Werman: So what strikes you when you hear about the violence thatâ’s happening there right now? What do you think?

Margolis: Itâ’s just hard to imagine or visualize, so when youâ’ve been hearing about this violence in these small towns in eastern Ukraine, okay, Iâ’ve never heard about these places, but when the violence has come home to Odessa, this is like violence in Paris. This is the cultural center of Ukraine. For me, it makes the story much more real and much harder to accept that violence is happening in this incredibly culturally rich place.

Werman: Which makes the contrast even sharper with the story that you were reporting in Odessa, which was about humor.

Margolis: Yeah, I was doing a story on humor. A lot of Jewish comedians in the United States, in New York, 120 years ago they emigrated from Odessa. And you can make the argument and academics have and comedians have that much of todayâ’s modern Jewish humor from Jerry Seinfeld to Mel Brooks to Larry David, the roots of this neurotic, pessimistic humor begins in Odessa.

Werman: I remember your story which eâ’ll hear in a second, I imagine it was pretty fun to report.

Margolis: Oh, it was great. Iâ’d have to say this was one of my all-time favorites. When we came up with the idea to do this story, oh well this is a pretty easy assignment. I go talk to some comedians, visit some comedy clubs. Mm, it didnâ’t work out that way, so take a listen, and again, this was from 2008. On a hot sticky morning, middle-aged women in filthy aprons are taking out their aggression on fish. The women are hurling insults at each other. One woman calls another an old pig. Then a few smile and chuckle. Iâ’ve come here to Privoz fish market, the heart of Odessa, to try and learn about Odessaâ’s humor. To best do that, several women tell me talk to Larissa. Larissa is a skirt woman with a menacing scowl, but sheâ’s sort of friendly.

Larissa: [speaking Russian]

Margolis: She starts to give me my lesson. My translator, Sasha, tries to explain.

Sasha: So the people in Odessa have always been very relaxed, funny in a way, and this is just a very nice and pleasant city, and thatâ’s why people are nice and pleasant.

Margolis: But theyâ’re not nice and pleasant.

Sasha: Well, to them, itâ’s nice and pleasant.

Margolis: I see. But I donâ’t see. I ask Larissa a few more questions. Then in the middle of a sentence she spots a friend across the market. She yells out, hey Masha! You owe me something! Larissa dashes after her friend, leaving me standing there holding my microphone, interview over. I try a new tack. I meet up with Zhenya Yakovchenko. He works in TV. I asked him to give me an example of Odessa humor, show, donâ’t tell. He describes a scene from the TV show, “Odessa Prepares Dinner.”

Zhenya Yakovchenko: And old guy, probably Jewish, is walking around in the market touching everything, putting his nose in it.

Margolis: Honest to God, my recorder runs out of batteries right here. Sorry about that. Zhenya picks up the tale.

Yakovchenko: He asks, why do you buy the veal?”

Margolis: Veal.

Yakovchenko: Veal, yes, thatâ’s right.

Margolis: Iâ’ll speed things up a bit. The old man says why donâ’t you buy the pork? Hereâ’s Zhenya with the punchline.

Yakovchenko: He turns to camera and to the microphones and says, “She buys veal, sheâ’s short of money.” You see?

Margolis: Thatâ’s me laughing. Itâ’s nervous laughter. I donâ’t get the joke. Zhenya senses that Iâ’m confused.

Yakovchenko: Do you think itâ’s funny?

Margolis: Yes, I think itâ’s funny. Itâ’s different. Itâ’s a different type of humor than Iâ’m used to. Iâ’m lying. I donâ’t get it. Now, I know that humor doesnâ’t always translate across cultures, but if Odessan humor is the basis of New York humor, and I get New York humor, something isnâ’t adding up. I have another idea. I make my way to the comedy club, House of Clowns and the attached restaurant called Manah-Manah. Irena Stadnichenko runs Manah-Manah. I explain the problems Iâ’m having. She says itâ’s not me.

Irena Stadnichenko: [speaking Russian] Odessa humor is Jewish humor. Jewish humor is Odessa humor. When the Jews left after the Soviet Union collapsed, humor left with them. Now, we have these new comedy clubs, these comedians are trying to recreate the same humor, pretending they have the Jewish accent. Itâ’s not the same thing. Odessan humor used to be about making fun of yourself, not insulting somebody else.

Margolis: As Iâ’m about to thank her for the interview and leave, she adds one point for good measure.

Stadnichenko: [speaking Russian] Americans, pure Americans born in America, they donâ’t know how to joke. Theyâ’re not funny at all. Itâ’s true, no?

Margolis: At this point, Iâ’m feeling a big deflated. I report my findings back to Zhenya, the guy who made the veal joke. He assures me that Odessans are hysterical, the problem, he says, is me. Iâ’m not funny, but thereâ’s hope.

Yakovchenko: If you come again in a couple years and youâ’re an Odessan too. Itâ’s going to be fun.

Margolis: Youâ’re going to be fun. The parting words of encouragement as Iâ’m leaving Odessa. I gotta admit, thatâ’s a pretty amusing thing to say to somebody. Maybe these Odessans are pretty funny. For The World, Iâ’m Jason Margolis, Odessa, Ukraine.

Muppets: That was wonderful! Bravo! I loved that! That was great. Well, it was pretty good. Well, it wasnâ’t bad. Well, there were parts of it that werenâ’t very good. It couldâ’ve been a lot better, right? I didnâ’t really like it. It was pretty terrible. It was bad! It was awful. Take him away! Boo!

Werman: Now thatâ’s funny. That story is from Jasonâ’s 2008 trip to the Ukrainian port city of Odessa. With any hope these days, the city will be able to keep some sense of humor about itself. No punchline there. From Manana, Bill Harris Studios, at WGBH, Iâ’m Marco Werman. Back with you tomorrow.