Between Literary and Subliterary Paradigms: Skaz and Contemporary Russian Estrada Comedy

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ABSTRACT:

The present article contends that literary skaz has significantly influenced the narrative framework of contemporary Russian estrada comedy. Skaz's "theatricality," "orality," ambiguous authorship, spontaneity, and "folksiness" have the potential to add a rich, conversation-like complexity to the generally non-improvisational Russian comedy performance. Skaz's allocutional projection of the audience into a comedian's performance also creates an illusion of mutual communication between performer and public. While relying on Bakhtin's treatment of skaz as a double-voiced narrative, I argue that skaz allows the comedian to deliver sharp social commentary through a provincial or uneducated persona. Of particular interest for this study is the practical motivation for Russian comedians to resort to the mask of skaz narrators in the 1990s, an era of seemingly open public discourse. I argue that the continuing appropriation of a written, literary text (skaz) by an oral, popular performance (estrada comedy) suggests the versatility of the literary form, while simultaneously testifying to the on-going health of the written and spoken word in contemporary Russia.

Skaz (from the Russian skazyvat'/skazat' - to tell, to narrate) refers to "a narrative devised as specifically oral in terms of style" and "fashioned to give the illusion of spontaneous speech." At the beginning of the twentieth century, formalist critic Boris Eikhenbaum saw the "spoken" word of skaz as the pattern for the evolution of Russian literature. Writing in the 1920s Eikhenbaum believed that narrative prose could not further develop without a connection to oral, living language as clearly exemplified in the technique of ska2. Despite Eikhenbaum's prophecy skaz has not gained much prominence among twentieth and twenty-first century Russian writers, although it has influenced some works of Liudmila Petrushevskaia, luz Aleshkovskii, and several other contemporary Russian prose writers.3 At the same time, skaz seems to have spun off into a "post-literary" venue through a particular genre of Russian popular culture, namely estrada monologue comedy. Skaz's "theatricality," "orality," ambiguous authorship, spontaneity, and "folksiness" have found a new life in a form that one could call estrada comedy skaz.

As opposed to written skaz (which mimics effects of extra-literary communication), Russian monologue comedy presents an oral reproduction of a pre-scripted text. As a performative act, a Russian comedy show usually incorporates a variety of theatrical elements (such as adoption of voices and the occasional use of costuming and props) but remains essentially unimprovised. Many estrada comics read their monologues directly from a script. Their routines tend to be lengthier and more complex (stylistically and thematically) than a traditional American stand-up show. In this sense, Russian estrada comedy represents a hybrid of short stories enacted by a comedian.5

This "literature-centricity" of Russian monologue comedy dates back to the early days of the genre. On the one hand, estrada comedy has a clear connection to Russian folk festivals (raek, balagan, performances of skomorokhi) and certain urban popular forms (such as variety halls and the circus).6 At the same time, in its contemporary form, estrada comedy has emerged from the art of the so-called konferans'e (master of ceremonies) who entertained audiences between musical numbers in cabarets and variety halls in the early decades of the 20th century. Since general audiences tended to consider those inter-act jokes to be in "poor taste," some konferans'e-in reaction to this attitude-began to use texts written by prominent and respected writers. It is significant that one of the first satirical writers whose works were "read" on estrada stage was Mikhail Zoshchenko, a master of literary ska7.

In line with this tradition of early comedy routines, most Russian comedians to this day do not ad-lib and rarely use their audience's feedback as a possible source for impromptu humour. …