Stalin's Chuckle

Seldom did anyone see Stalin laugh. When he did, it was more like a chuckle, as though to himself. — G. Zhukov, Marshall of the Soviet Union: Reminiscences an;l Reflections

by IAN FRAZIER

Irwin C. Brown,
TV and Radio Entertainers’ Retirement Home
Stalin’s dacha, his summer place or whatever—now, that was a hard room. I worked it just the one time when I was on my world tour in the fifties. No stage or nothin’, only a little, like, conference table with a lectern. I pushed the lectern aside, didn’t need that for my act. They offered me some herring, but herring dries up my pipes. I just started right in. They was all sittin’ there, right in the front row. Matter of fact, it was the only row, these big high-backed chairs: Beria, Khrushchev, Poskrebyshev, Litvinov, Molotov. Stalin sat on the aisle. Kept his hat on. I thought I saw the moustache go up when I did my “Go get yourself your own white man!” It just sort of went up, oh, ‘bout a quarter inch. That room was quiet, man. I could see Beria holdin’ it in, face turnin’ purple. And Molotov was makin’ these little chokin’ sounds, kinda snortin’ out the nose every once in a while. But if Joe don’t laugh, don’t nobody laugh.

Freddie Drake, Friars Club
I worked ten days at the old Flamingo in Las Vegas and then flew straight to Moscow. A. N. Poskrebyshev, the personal secretary, booked me. They put me up in a Godawful hotel, hot and cold running soot. At eleven at night some guy called for me and took me to the private apartment in the Kremlin where Stalin stayed when he couldn’t get home. A lot of guys were sitting around with cigars and wine. It was a smoker, basically. I took one look and told myself, “Freddie, tonight you work blue.” I used material so adult it would have gotten me kicked off American TV for life. Stalin was tanked but he didn’t show it. I did the Shorty’s joke, I did “Run. Harold, Run!,” I did “Death or Chi-Chi"—nothing. I ended with my killer, really hit the punch line hard: “So the plumber says, I can save your wife, Mr. Schonstein—but I’m afraid it’s too late for the rabbi/!” Stalin wanted to laugh, I know that. He did laugh, sort of, in that there was possibly a slightly redder color in his face. He gave off a strong feeling as if he might have been laughing. But did he laugh laugh? Not per se, no.

A. N. Poskrebyshev, Palace of Party Members, Moscow I remember he used to play Allan Sherman’s “Hello Muddah. Hello Fadduh!” over and over again on the phonograph. This story-song of the young boy’s letter home from summer camp made him helpless with laughing. Sometimes his moustache would rise perhaps half a centimeter. As his personal secretary, I had the job of replacing the needle at the beginning of each recording after it had reached the end. He especially liked the song “God Rest You, Gary Mandelbaum,” and sometimes you would think he was almost humming along. Many other so-called novelty songs from America had a similarly strong effect on him. He often spoke of his desire to meet the man who wrote the song “I’m My Own Grandpaw.”

Kayla T., Los Angeles
As a humor therapist, I immediately got a sense that all these men at the Kremlin were very stiff and rigid, and that uninhibited laughter might break up the rigidity—as it so often does. So I had the idea of getting everybody on the floor for a game of Ha. Now, in Ha what you do is you lie on the floor on your back, and somebody lies on his back perpendicular to you and rests his head on your stomach, and so on across the floor in sort of a herringbone pattern, and then the first person says “Ha.”and the second person says “Ha, ha,” and the third person is supposed to say “Ha, ha, ha,”and so on. And the way your head bobs up and down on the other person’s stomach when he says “Ha,”it generally has everybody laughing hysterically by the time you get to three “Ha’s. I laid them out carefully—Mr. Molotov, Mr. Beria, Mr. Malenkov, and the others, with Mr. Stalin at the end. I told them all to relax and take deep breaths. Then Mr. Molotov said “Ha,”Mr. Beria, suppressing giggles, continued with “Ha, ha.”Mr. Malenkov strained to control his dignity as he added his “Ha, ha, ha.”Mr. Khrushchev’s attempt at “Ha, ha, ha, ha" became an uncontrollable fit of belly laughs, which violently bounced Mr. Mikoyan’s head, causing him to laugh until he wept, which in turn set off Mr. Yagoda. In a minute the whole line was howling with nonstop laughter—all except Mr. Stalin. His head bounced and bounced on his neighbor’s stomach, but his expression didn’t change. He stood, excused himself, and walked over to the men’s room. He closed the door and slid the bolt. Gradually his colleagues on the floor began to calm down, and one by one they sat up. Soon we all fell completely silent. From the men’s room we heard a faint sound. 1 am of the belief that what we heard was Mr. Stalin chuckling as though to himself.

A. N. Poskrebyshev
Booking comedy acts added greatly to my secretarial responsibilities, and I often neglected it in favor of more-regular tasks. Comrade Stalin noticed this, imprisoned my wife, Bronislava, and then asked me to obtain at all costs a performance by a Mexican comedian. Through our embassy in Mexico City, I got in touch with ex-Comrade Trotsky, who was living there at the time. As it happened, Trotsky knew the Mexican comedy circuit well and had even contributed a few gags to some of its leading members.

So in a manner of speaking certain comedians owed Trotsky a favor, and here was a perfect opportunity to make use of it. I was delighted with all these developments, and did not conceal my pleasure from Comrade Stalin. At the mention of Comrade Trotsky’s name, however, Comrade Stalin grew agitated and began to chuckle, as though to himself. Still chuckling, he insisted that I telephone immediately to Comrade Beria at his flat and summon him. When Beria arrived, Stalin rushed to the door, answered it, chuckled again, and screamed at Beria for his slowness. Chuckling very loudly as though to himself, he pushed Beria before him into the inner office and slammed the door. Soon after this he told me he would prefer to be entertained only by comedians from cold countries. “A Finn, for example, is always funny,” he advised.

Though others may disagree, I have always maintained that Comrade Stalin knew funny. Hidden among his many attributes was a sure comedic sense. “You must never forget,”he exhorted me, “a comic is one who says things funny, while a comedian is one who says funny things. Both of these phases, however, must be passed through on the way to the third and final phase: good stand-up. When we as a society attain really good stand-up, every evening will be open mike and the state as we know it will wither away. For jokes, we will require new ones appropriate to our modern times, and on modern themes—airplane food, for example, that syphilitic abomination! Or how about the vapid and syphilitic listings of television programs published in the newspapers? Such a form, if used in proper satiric style, could be most effective. A master of stand-up should possess a full repertoire of funny voices—Negro, sports announcer, and robot, to name only a few. Draw your comedy from daily life if you wish to reach the true audience: the people. Enough of the syphilitic vaudeviliians’ noise! The modern comedian will instead find his subjects at airports, in the behavior of overbearing shop clerks, and in the differences between one’s own city and Los Angeles. Let us develop a scientific system for the production of trenchant comedy riffs, using as our models the best comedians of the past. Let our youngsters who wish to perform stand-up devote hours, years, to the watching of films of these masters. The true comic is the revolutionary, sticking swords in the stuffed shirts of the bourgeoisie. Let the comedy revolution never end, let it fill entire television channels, let it grow until everything is thoroughly funny!”

Eventually Comrade Stalin began to question my own sense of humor, and I was dismissed from his service. My wife. Bronislava, remained in prison until she was shot, I believe. Toward the end, the splendid theories of comedy Comrade Stalin had developed were under attack. Saddened as I was by his treatment of my wife and me. I did not lose faith in the soundness of these theories. Properly applied, they could have provided uproarious material on an international scale for years to come. The noise resembling a chuckle that we delighted to hear from Comrade Stalin’s lips could have spread to every land. But, unfortunately for the cause of world humor, such a result was not to be.