What do you call Yugoslavia after Tito? Titanic.
It’s the end of the year, time to get serious about humor. What did people in the former Yugoslavia joke about and, most importantly, why? What about the post-Yugoslav landscape of laughter?
With Zenit Djozić (Top Lista Nadrealista) and Marina Orsag (Croatian stand-up). Featuring music by Los Kretenos.
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PETER KORCHNAK: This is Remembering Yugoslavia, the show exploring the memory of a country that no longer exists. I’m your emcee Peter Korchnak.
If you’ve listened to even a single episode of this podcast, you know it’s a serious one. And so when I was thinking about my end of year schedule, I realized I had to get serious about humor.
I’ve told a few jokes on the show, here and there, in episodes about the Yugo and the Fića, about emigration from Bosnia, and also in the recent episode about burek. But this sampling of jokes tells you very little about the state of humor in the former Yugoslavia, what people laughed about and when and, most importantly, why.
To answer these questions, I’ve called on a couple of old friends, Mujo and Haso, and a couple of new ones, Zenit and Marina. And to dig a little deeper, I consulted academic literature (yes, there’s scholarly discourse about humor), media articles, online joke databases and listicles, and of course Reddit.
Before we begin, let me point out that this is the last episode of 2022. At least if you don’t count the bonus that will be available only to my Patreon and PayPal supporters, who also have access to an extended version of this episode, with extra interview footage and even more jokes.
It’s been a good year for the podcast: 15 episodes, 5 of which were extended, including this one; 28 awesome guests; and an ever-growing listenership taking us to the top 10 percent of podcasts on our hosting platform. I’ve received some great positive feedback and kind notes of gratitude that both got me verklempt and reinforced my determination to keep the show going. Thank you for listening, for your messages, for your stories, and for your generous contributions.
I should also say that when selecting jokes for this episode, I had to leave many many more on the table. They were too vulgar, or they required background knowledge of politics or culture that would take too long to explain, or they were built around word plays or puns that would be even harder to translate. Still, beware of some rough stuff, that’s just how Balkan humor is. This has been your trigger warning.
Doctorates have been made on the backs of socialism-era jokes. I have a friend who wrote his thesis about humor in the Eastern Bloc. Jonathan Waterlow’s dissertation at Oxford University about Stalin-era humor is an early version of the very good book It’s Only a Joke, Comrade. And there’s even a history of communism told through jokes, called Hammer and Tickle.
If this dogged-style pursuit of humor analysis reveals anything it’s that humor in state socialism was, indeed, no laughing matter.
Political jokes were extremely popular in the Soviet Union as well as the Eastern Bloc, where they allowed people to vent their frustration with the regime and its social and economic outcomes.
In this regard, Yugoslavia was no different.
First, humor was for the people of Yugoslavia a way of coping with the realities of real existing socialism. Jokes critiquing or expressing dissatisfaction with different facets of socialism proliferated.
[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Through the Doors of the Circus” by Ergo Phizmiz]
- After WWII most of the surviving Jews from Yugoslavia moved to Israel. Only Shlomo decided to stay to test the new regime. He only lasted a year and moved to Israel, too. A friend asked him, “Shlomo, long time no see, how is it in Yugoslavia?” “I couldn’t complain,” Shlomo replies. “Why did you move here then?” “I couldn’t complain.”
- An American, a Russian, and a Yugoslav doctor meet at a conference and boast about the accomplishments of their medicine. The American says, “There was a man who had both legs severed under a train and our surgeons reattached them so expertly the patient went on to become an Olympic running champion.” The Russian says, “When a worker had his hands cut off by a machine, our surgeons reattached them so expertly that he became the most productive worker in the whole country.” To which the Yugoslav says, “That’s all excellent but our surgeons are even better. In the war, a mine tore a partisan into pieces. Our surgeons put him back together but they couldn’t find his brain so they put a cow pie inside his skull. And look at him, he’s now a minister in Belgrade!”
A set of comparative jokes highlighted the differences between the Yugoslav and developed countries’ economies.
- A delegation of enterprise directors returns from a fact-finding trip in the U.S. and their workers ask them how things were in America. “They are at least ten years behind us.” “And how is that?” ask the workers. “They still have everything!”
- A delegation returns from a study trip to Japan and tells an assembly of factory workers about a Japanese laborer who was asked why he worked so diligently. “I work two hours for me, two hours for my family, and four hours for the progress of Japan.” To which a Yugoslav worker raises his hand and says, “I also follow the same formula. I work two hours for myself, two hours for my family, and four hours I don’t work at all.” And why not? The Yugoslav worker replies, “Who cares about the progress of Japan?”
There were, of course, jokes that portrayed Tito as a funny guy. Perhaps they were seeded by the party’s propaganda apparatus, or perhaps people invented them to make themselves feel better about their leader.
- In 1944, Tito visited Vršac and some surrounding villages, because he was interested in how people live, how they get along with their neighbors. “We are surviving, comrade Tito,” say the villagers, “but those jerks from the next village over are stealing our horses!” “And what do you do?” “We’re stealing them back.” “Well, then good,” Tito says with a smile, “it means, there is a mutual understanding.”
Tito was often portrayed smiling or laughing, enjoying a good joke, and watching comedies. There’s a famous photo from 1960 of Tito and the Egyptian leader Gamal Abdul Nasser laughing together after a meeting.
Tito allegedly had famous actors visiting him tell jokes about himself to gauge the mood across the nation.
And there’s of course the anecdote where Tito sent Stalin a note advising, “Stop sending assassins after me or we’ll send one of ours and we won’t need to send another.”
Indeed, quite a few jokes circulated around Yugoslavia about Stalin as well, some of them maybe imported from the Soviet Union.
Jokes featuring Tito and his right hand man for the economy, Edvard Kardelj, roasted both and went a little further.
- Tito, his wife Jovanka, and Kardelj visit the White House. At dinner, Jovanka says to her husband, “Joza, Kardelj swiped a golden plate. I want one too.” To which Tito gets up and says, “Friends, before I was a great leader, I was a magician. I’m going to perform a magic trick for you.” He takes a golden plate and tucks it under his shirt. “Now, friends,” asks Tito, “where is the plate?” Everybody points at his shirt. And he says, “Wrong, my friends, Kardelj has it.”
- Before his troops cross the Neretva river at the famous World War II battle, a partisan says to Tito, “Comrade Tito, we only have 10 sandwiches left to eat for all of us.” Tito replies, “Feed them to the wounded. After we cross we’ll go to a restaurant for roasted lamb.”
- After the war Tito is walking down the street and meets an old woman. “Death to fascism!” he says. To which she replies, “To you too, son, to you too!” Tito meets his fellow presidents at a Non Aligned Movement summit. All of them are worried about worker strikes but he remains cheerful. So they ask him, “Tito, aren’t you afraid of striking in your country?” And Tito says, “Not at all, most of my workers are abroad.”
- Every day a man comes to the newsstand, buys a paper, scans the front page, and puts it back. After a few years of this practice, the saleswoman asks him, “Excuse me, sir, but why do you do this all these years?” And the man explains, “You know, I only look at who died.” The saleswoman shakes her head and says, “Sir, but obituaries are way in the back of the paper.” “I know that,” says the man, “but the one I’m waiting for to die will be on the front page.”
What’s important to note here is that as liberal as Yugoslavia may have been on the cultural front, political critique was much less tolerated, especially until the mid-1950s, and that included jokes. Many a Goli Otok prisoner ended up there because of a mistimed vic.
Tito’s death and the ensuing loosening of the public discourse spurred a number of jokes. As a side note I’ll say it’s unclear whether these are from the 80s or from any later period. Generally it’s impossible to trace a joke’s birthdate except by guesstimation. With political jokes, the only thing we know for sure and by definition is that they are from a period following the event they reference; likely they were created shortly after, while they were still salient.
- What do you call Yugoslavia after Tito? Titanic!
- What’s the difference between students and earthworms? Students chant, “We are Tito’s!” and earthworms chant, “Tito is ours!”
- A man walks across a main square and sees black flags everywhere. He asks a policeman, “Why are there black flags everywhere?” “Tito died,” says the cop. The man goes shopping, returns to the square, and again asks the policeman, “Why are the black flags everywhere?” “Tito died.” The man goes for a stroll in the park, again returns to the square, and asks the cop: “Why are the black flags everywhere?” The cop says, “I already told you twice, Tito died.” And the man replies, “I know, I just like hearing it.”
Aside from political jokes, there was another huge category of jokes in the former Yugoslavia that persists to this day, a category of humor second only to sex jokes.
Religion and language were the principal markers of the various ethnic and national identities across the former Yugoslavia. Jokes concerning stereotypes about Yugoslavia’s constituent nations was an additional one.
In these jokes and anecdotes, Montenegrins were portrayed as lazy and sometimes also uncouth and backward mountain people.
- Why does a Montenegrin put a full glass and an empty glass on his night stand? In case he wakes up at night and can’t be bothered to decide if he’s thirsty or not.
- How do two Montenegrins wash a car? One holds the sponge and the other drives back and forth.
Kosovars are portrayed as thieves.
- How does an Albanian recipe start? Steal two eggs…
But there are also jokes reflecting on Kosovo’s status in Yugoslavia.
- A Kosovar goes to Slovenia for a Yugoslav education. They tell him: “You know, Yugoslavia is like a train: Slovenia is the locomotive that pulls all the other republics, which are the wagons. And Kosovo is the brake that slows us all down.” The Kosovar returns home and shares what he learned. “You know, Yugoslavia is like a train, Slovenia is a locomotive, the other republics are wagons, and without us everything would go to hell.”
The Slovenes are misers.
- A Slovenian farmer saves a goldfish which grants him three wishes. He says, “First, let my first neighbor’s cow die.” Check. “Next, let my other neighbor’s cow die also.” Check. “And third, Let my cow die as well.” The goldfish says, “But why would you want your cow dead?” “So that my two neighbors won’t come to my house asking for milk.”
And of course, Slovenia is small.
- Why do Slovenians use only three speeds on their cars? If they used the fourth, they’d be across the border.
- Why is it forbidden to jump into swimming pools in Slovenia? Because Italians would complain about water splashing.
Jokes about Serbs reflect their advantageous political status and, later, nationalism.
- A Serb and a Montenegrin find a pile of money in the middle of the forest. The Serb: “Let’s divide the money in a brotherly fashion.” The Montenegrin objects, “No, let’s split it in half.”
- A Serb comes to the library and asks the librarian: “Excuse me, where can I find books about Greater Serbia?” And the librarian says, “Young man, fairy tales are on the second floor!”
When it comes to Macedonians, many jokes about them actually come from Bulgaria, which is disputing the mere existence of the Macedonian nation.
- Why did they want to cut a 100 year old tree in Macedonia? Because it had Bulgarian roots.
- A Macedonian train is heading to Skopje. Suddenly the train leaves the rails, slides down a slope, drives through a river, winds through a forest, climbs up a hill and finally comes to a halt again on the rails. The conductor asks the engineer, “What the heck happened?” “There was a Bulgarian on the track!” “Then just run him over!” “I wanted to but then he slid down the slope, jumped in the river, fled into the forest and ran up the hill!”
But by far a majority of Yugoslav interethnic jokes are about Bosnians. Some 80 percent of ethnic jokes at joke sites are about Bosnians, observed the political scientist Srdjan Vučetić in his research into interethnic humor in Yugoslavia.
There’s a map meme showing what country Europeans allegedly joke about the most. Slovenes, Croats, Serbs, and Montenegrins all joke about Bosnians the most; Bosnians target Germans, Macedonians target Greeks.
At any rate, in these jokes Bosnians are most often portrayed as dim.
- What does the Bosnian do after he’s finished the School of Economics? He moves the scaffolding to the Medical School.
- “I think, therefore I am,” says a Bosnian—and poof, he disappears without a trace.
Mujo, short for Mustafa, and Haso (Hasan) or Suljo (Sulejman), are frequently the protagonists of these jokes, standing in for all Bosnians, or I should say Bosnian Muslims. Their female counterpart, often Mujo’s or Haso’s or Suljo’s wife, is Fata (Fatima).
- Mujo gets a digital watch from Fata for his birthday. Fata asks him, “What time is it, birthday boy?” “I have no idea,” Mujo says. “What’s 18 divided by 29?”
But the portrayal of Bosnians as slow-witted is just the surface, argues Vučetić, whom you may remember from Episode 37, “Yugosplaining the World.” Quote, “As far as regional and ethnic stereotyping goes in the former Yugoslavia, Bosnians are seen as simple, forthright and fun-loving and, as such, are taken to be great raconteurs and connoisseurs of jokes.” More on this later.
Bosnians are also portrayed as sexually adept, if not promiscuous, and as alcoholic.
- A Montenegrin marries Fata. The first night they go to bed and the Montenegrin says, “If a Montenegrin woman were here, she would now take off my clothes.” Fata, a little upset, takes off his clothes. The Montenegrin, again, “If a Montenegrin woman were here, she would now help me get it on.” Fata, annoyed, helps him again. The Montenegrin says, “If a Montenegrin woman were here, she would now get on top.” Fata, completely exasperated, gets up and goes to the door. The Montenegrin, says, “Where are you going?” “What do you mean, where I’m going? If Mujo were here, he would have already done both me and you and would be going out looking for more.”
- Bosnian television is shooting a documentary for children about village life. The crew visit Mujo at his farm. “How do you start your day?” asks the reporter. Mujo responds: “Well, when I get up, I drink one shot of rakija.” “Wait,” says the reporter, “this program is for children. We want you to say something that’s good for them. For example, when I get up, I read a book.” “OK, I get it,” says Mujo, “When I get up, I read a book. Then when I go to work on the farm, I read another one. Then when I get back home, I read two books. A little later, Suljo and I go to the library and there we read five to six books. When the librarian kicks us out before closing time, we go to Haso, he owns a publishing house.”
Some of the jokes lampoon only one group, some two, and quite a few lampoon three or more, offering a nice comparative look at the different groups.
- Why did the Montenegrin become so lazy? Because the Bosnian once told him, “Let me explain…”
- A Slovene, a Bosnian, and a Montenegrin run a 100-meter race. The Slovene wins. Why? The Montenegrin gave up and the Bosnian got lost.
- Why did the Bosnian go to Slovenia? To find work. Why did the Slovenian go to Bosnia? To find his dad.
Now if you think that perpetuating negative stereotypes is a bad thing, you would be right. But, it has also been argued, these jokes not only stigmatized the Other, they also made them familiar, which in turn helped bring the diverse and disparate peoples together. This kind of humor is, according to one analysis, “an important binding factor in the region.” Hey, we’re laughing at each other, but the point is we’re laughing and we’re doing so together.
Indeed, you could argue that telling these jokes about the Other in their presence actually says, Hey I know you, I feel comfortable joking about you, there are stereotype jokes about my people that you tell, we can laugh about it and be friends. So the circle closes and the jokes bring us all together.
Besides, as you can already tell, the stereotypes were quite over the top. The hyperbole would help blunt the edge of the jokes or whatever truth they contained. I mean, if you hear yet another joke about a lazy Montenegrin, you’re going to dismiss that narrative as just that, a funny story.
- How do they build a highway in Montenegro? They build a kilometer and put up a sign that says: And so on and so on.
- What is the Montenegrin record in the 100 meter sprint? 43 meters.
What these jokes also did was reinforce group boundaries. We are joking about them who are like this and they’re not us who are like something else, and better than them in those regards.
As Ivan Marković wrote in a paper on Croatian jokes about Bosnians, “laughing at another group is an act by which a group nurtures, establishes, and maintains itself.”
There’s a power relationship involved in this practice. Whosoever does the telling of jokes divides the world into in-groups, which are shown to be superior, and out-groups, which are inferior in some way.
Moreover, economically or culturally dominant groups joke about the less powerful ones that are either present within them as a minority or located in very close proximity.
There’s a reason why there are so many jokes in the former Yugoslavia about Bosnians but not as many about Croats or Slovenes and none about Slovaks or Belorussians. They were right there and way too similar, so they had to be distinguished somehow so that we’d also know who we are.
“By means of ethnic jokes,” writes Marković, “the dominant group legitimizes and demarcates itself, draws more sharply the boundaries, on the margins of which various ambiguous groups dwell, [people] that are a ‘somewhat lesser version’ of the dominant group, like ‘an image in a distorting mirror.’
All the characteristics I talked about earlier portray Bosnians as backward, provincial, rural, as opposed to the progressive, central, urban joke tellers. As people who spoke the same language but were also Muslims, Bosniaks were both understandable and the most different and least privileged. Jokes marginalized this marginalized group.
Thus, concludes Marković, the ethnic stereotype jokes, “tell us more about the laughing group than about the one laughed at; a joke tells us more about the joker, the joke-teller, than about the target, the butt of the joke.”
Additionally, this kind of intergroup humor, writes Vučetić, “is essentially about identities: jokes serve to alleviate some sort of…anxiety, a fear of the unknown and uncontrollable.” They make both the targets and the sources of jokes more familiar, knowable in some way.
Interestingly, it’s been observed that Bosnians themselves rarely joke about other nationalities. Rather, they make jokes about and laugh at themselves; common knowledge has it that Bosnians wrote most of the Mujo and Haso jokes themselves, similar to what Jews, Newfoundlanders, Scots, and Australians have been said to have done.
Telling self-deprecating jokes shows the awareness of imperfection and status. Hey, we’re laughing at ourselves, it’s all good. Indeed, minorities tend to tell the most jokes, particularly self-deprecating ones. Perhaps it’s a way for them to deal with their inferior status within a larger collective or compared to their national significant others, or a way to gain moral victory. We can laugh at our own expense, which says we’re above it all and perhaps above other groups in some way.
Vučetić claims that these jokes “can be seen as stories the Bosnians tell about themselves but perhaps also to themselves. Their self-mocking style emerges perhaps from a preoccupation with physical and social security, which is discussed in a non-threatening, humorous vein.”
Finally, even within Bosnians as a group, the butt of the jokes is the villagers or lower-educated classes, suggesting that one, the observation about power relations obtains, and two, that while other groups tell Bosnian jokes to delineate ethnicity, Bosnians tell them to delineate class and regional divides.
So why are there so many jokes about Bosnians?
Mujo answers: “Well, the better the horse, the more dust it kicks up.”
In the country that, on the official level, worked to downplay, if not outright erase ethnic identities and replace them with a supranational Yugoslav one as well as with class identities, intergroup jokes were a relatively harmless outlet for discussing ethnicity. The lighthearted, hyperbolic fashion of such discourse then in turn helped avoid any official scrutiny or persecution. As with jokes about socialism, ethnic jokes served as a pressure valve.
These jokes persist, they’ve survived the end of both socialism and Yugoslavia. Given the time and place where the genre originated, perhaps these jokes help keep the disappeared country alive in some way and the relationship the jokers and jokees used to have.
- A team of scientists researching human organs visits the Balkans to get some samples. They first come to Serbia and ask the Serbs: “How much for an average Serbian brain?” “100 euros,” say the Serbs. Too expensive, so the scientists go to Croatia. “200 euros,” say the Croats. The scientist protest but the Croats say, “We are now a European nation, we have made a lot of progress compared to those Serbs.” So the scientists decide to try their luck in Montenegro. “1,000 euros,” say the Montenegrins. “But why so much? In Serbia it’s 100, in Croatia it’s 200.” And the Montenegrins say, “Yeah, but ours are mint, they have never been used.”
Stereotyping about ethnic groups extended into stereotyping about humorousness in general. The dominant groups, Slovenes and Croats, consider Bosnian humor to be funnier than their own, claim humor researchers Željko Pavić and Nataša Krivokapić. I’d speculate that people who don’t take themselves too seriously are funnier, capable of joking about themselves, and are then in turn perceived as funnier.
Pavić and Krivokapić found that Slovenes are perceived by other nations of the former Yugoslavia as the least funny, closely followed by Croats; Slovenes and Croats are also perceived as the least appreciative of humor. In turn, Croats perceive themselves to be the least funny nation, while Montenegrins and Bosnians consider themselves the funniest. Pavić and Krivokapić also theorize that the Croats’ appreciation of Bosnian, Montenegrin, and Serbian humor in fact stems from those jokes being darker and more sarcastic and vulgar compared to Croatian humor, which is, quote “less edgy and transgressive and more frequently ‘good-natured’ and trying to offer a positive outlook on bad things in life.”
Pavić and Krivokapić trace the high esteem of so-called Bosnian humor among the other Yugoslav nations to a single source: Top Lista Nadrealista and the New Primitives movement they co-founded.
Top Lista Nadrealista, which translates to something like the Surrealists’ Chart Toppers or Hit Parade, was a radio and television sketch show running off and on between 1979 and 1992.
Top Lista first appeared in 1979 as a segment in a program of Radio Sarajevo showcasing new talent from around the city.
But it wasn’t until May 9th, 1981 that the troupe truly exploded into the local consciousness. They staged a hoax terrorist takeover with the skit listing demands like more young bands and punk music featured on the radio or the resignation of old radio executives.
Their segments were unscripted, created literally a couple of hours before airing in a cafe near the radio building. They were unrehearsed, they were chaotic, they were raw. They aired on Saturday morning. The guys often brought in random cafe patrons when the regulars couldn’t make it due to oversleeping.
Yet they took the city by the storm. Kids would tape their program and play it in bars. Many troupe members were parallelly involved in popular bands, including Zabranjeno Pušenje, Elvis J. Kurtović and His Meteors, and Crvena Jabuka, which gave them additional exposure.
Soon they made a jump to TV, making a debut in April 1984, two months after Zabranjeno Pušenje’s first album came out. In the Top Lista Nadrealista show, sketches alternated with folk song performances by popular singers. Many sketches were presented as installments. The first season of Top Lista Nadrealista ran for 11 episodes on TV Sarajevo, and it was broadcast across Yugoslavia. The production mimicked the radio show: unscripted, unrehearsed, to the point of chaotic, amateurish in both the direction and acting. Their sketches parodied everything and everybody. Decades later, one of the Top Lista core members, Nele Karajlić, said the show had been, quote, “the result of a youthful hysteria relying more on raw energy than brains.”
The very first episode featured a long skit about football training, with players learning how to advance with enthusiasm—
—how to react to penalties—
—and at the end they kicked a giant teddy bear around.
The Bosnian Romeo and Juliet, Sejo and Seada, were introduced, each rooting for a different Sarajevo football team.
A joke put a stop to Top Lista’s meteoric rise.
At a Zabranjeno Pušenje concert in Rijeka, in November 1984, the band’s frontman, the very same Nele Karajlić, made a comment when a Marshall amplifier broke down and some power went out. He told the crowd, “There’s no electricity, the Marshal has croaked.” Marshal was, of course, the late president Tito’s military rank.
A veritable shitshow ensued. The band were interrogated and Karajlić ended up in court for the verbal offense (he got off a couple of years later with a fine). The print media condemned the band. Concerts were canceled. And so was Top Lista Nadrealista.
It took five years for the show to make a return to Yugoslav television. By then Karajlić was a star, as Zabranjeno Pušenje’s frontman, and another member, Branko Djurić, was building a successful acting career for himself.
By 1989, nationalist discourse had taken hold of the land, which on the flipside, provided the troupe with a lot of material to work with. The second and third seasons of Top Lista were better produced, the themes deeper, the humor more absurd and dark and scathing. This was the period when Top Lista Nadrealista created some of its best known and most prescient, if not prophetic sketches. Though in the early days the media were mostly critical, even calling for canceling the show, Top Lista became a countrywide hit. Many lines and words entered the vernacular. In 1990 the troupe even went on tour.
In one of my favorite sketches, a linguist highlights the differences between the Bosnian, Herzegovinian, Croatian, Monten, Negrin, and Serbian languages with the word for “to read” which is essentially the same word in all six supposedly separate languages.
There’s a dictionary of the languages, translating the same words into the same words.
And a live interpreter pops up in conversations, to repeat verbatim the exact same words the protagonists say and supposedly don’t understand because they’re from different groups.
In another sketch a nationalism detector goes off the charts when it comes close to a man carrying a communist party ID card.
Yugoslav Humor: Top Lista Nadrealista with Zenit Djozić
That very first episode of Top Lista Nadrealista also introduced to the audiences Captain Zenit, whom you heard in the previous episode about burek, as leading an expedition of extraterrestrials seeking the pastry across the vast universe and discovering it in Sarajevo.
“Burek in Space” starred my first guest, Zenit Djozić.
Zenit Djozić was born in 1961 in Bugojno where he lived through fourth grade when his family moved to Sarajevo. At the Second Gymnasium high school he joined a group of youths who later formed the band Zabranjeno Pušenje, where he played drums and later assisted with back vocals, and other now famous Sarajevo bands. You already heard Djozić in Episode 63, “Ex-YU Rock Center,” where I spoke to him in his capacity as a co-founder of Zabranjeno Pušenje.
Membership in those bands overlapped with Top Lista Nadrealista, where Djozić was quite prominent and which features his most commonly known work. Together these guys spawned the New Primitives movement, which foregrounded the local Sarajevo culture and language, while using humor as its vehicle.
PETER KORCHNAK: Why do you think it was created in Sarajevo in the 80s and not another republican capital in the country? What makes Sarajevo such a good source for that.
ZENIT DJOZIĆ: That is a question for all of us, actually, we are often thinking about that. If we [are] speaking about Top Lista Nadrealista I think we can speak about seven, six people who are important for the whole stuff. And also there is a lot of others who go to this organization.
But I think one of the greatest things for Top Lista Nadrealista [was] that we came from completely different backgrounds. We have Serbs, Croats, Muslims, and Jewish and Hara Krishna, and every religion in our group. But on the other side, we completely ignore that fact and we work as a kind of united team. So, it was a formula for succeed [sic] because we can speak about every subject because every idea goes through these filters of all these hats and the culture. So that brings real richness of the ideas and the richness of the content of our jokes. So, that is recognized by the rest of the world, I mean, the rest of the ex-Yugoslavia, and it was something what people really liked.
PETER KORCHNAK: Djozić is on the record saying the troupe and its program emerged organically, out of a group of friends who loved having fun together.
ZENIT DJOZIĆ: We have so [sic] mixed population here and it really makes us strong to make a joke on ourselves and make jokes on others. It was really cathartic, I can say, we really speak [sic] openly on many hard subjects in that time. And everybody believe[d] in that what we speak.
So, our major, I can say, achievement in our group is actually that we speak about the war before the war start[ed], actually [a] few years. It is easy to speak about war after the war and after the war ended. But it was important to speak the war before it starts, and we, in our jokes, we try to make clear that you if we go into that nationalistic lunatics and craziness that there is a lot of dangerous things could happen to us. In our process of creativity we always try to imagine the most strange and most paradoxical things. And that’s why some of our jokes are very strange for that time. For example, the present the splitted Yugoslavia on a TV, first, probably first time, the actual it’s probably definitely first. So in that time, when we splitted [sic] the Yugoslavia in half, two halves, everybody thinks, Okay, this is not possible, this is very funny, you know, this is very funny, but it really happened, so…
I mean the reason why we still have an audience and enjoy some kind of popularity is actually that our jokes are really not only about humor, it’s also about message, about sending some important ideas about social and philosophical subjects.
So all this happens in Sarajevo because there is a mixture of the culture and there was also [a] strong potential of ideas and inventions and things like that.
PETER KORCHNAK: With the show, Djozić has said in a documentary about Top Lista, the troupe countered the stereotypical image of Mujo and Suljo and managed to flip the script around with humor that showed Bosnians as having their own identity that’s both funny and smart even as they mocked the stereotype with their sketches.
It was almost a public service that these Bosnians provided the rest of the country. There’s a sketch featuring a wall dividing eastern and western Sarajevo, with each side throwing trash at the other while a street sweeper keeps the top of the wall itself clean. It was in this sketch that they predicted Yugoslavia would be divided in November 1995, which of course is when the Dayton Peace Agreement would be concluded.
It was funny because it was absurd. People thought those things could never happen. “We laughed until our laughter stopped, and everything that once seemed impossible became our reality,” one Top Lista fan told the Calvert Journal.
As Tamara Vujinović underscored in that publication, “the work of [Top Lista Nadrealista] is an ode to surrealism: the spirit of irreverence and absurdity, making sense of a world that no longer makes sense.”
PETER KORCHNAK: Top Lista Nadrealista did predict or prophesied a lot of the stuff that happened in the area, in the region, in the country, sometimes in a kind of an almost scary way, like several years before it happened. So that was kind of amazing.
What’s also amazing to me that some of the, if not a lot of the material, a lot of the jokes, a lot of the sketches, work even today. What makes that comedy timeless, you know, 30, 40 years later? How come something you did as young men in the 80s or early 90s it works now still?
ZENIT DJOZIĆ: The reason for that is actually that we want to go deeper in some problems. We don’t want to stay on the surface of problems.
We find that actually the line which splitted all this space in physical and psychological ways is actually existing [sic] for the long period. It is a line between the separation of the Eastern countries and Western countries. Even in a religious way there was a line of separation of the Eastern Church and Western church.
And when [the] Berlin Wall fell down, we think, okay, where’s the next place where these awful things will happen? And we find that there is a lot of sources and a lot of possible material for that trouble here. So as I said earlier, I mean, we always try to make the worst combination of the things, what’s really what we think that’s happened because it was most funny, I mean, more abstract, more craziness. So it was very strange that some of these things happens [sic].
So I think that that’s the reason why we [are] still actual [sic] now.
I will give you some example, maybe that’s the best way. When was the first free elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina, we make some comedy sketch where we predicted the results of the next seven or six future winners of these elections. So we think, knowing very well in our people and knowing very well our politicians, that all things will be very predictable, that they are always very easy, fell into the same mistakes. And we predicted one winner will come with a harmonica, that president of country will come to the president’s [office] with that. So we have that in the sketches. And a few months ago, it happened.
PETER KORCHNAK: Indeed, in 2021, the Bosnian Serb member of the country’s three-person co-presidency, Milorad Dodik, brought an accordionist to the Presidency building before a session.
ZENIT DJOZIĆ: Maybe our people or our politicians are predictable. It wasn’t so hard to see what is our future.
There is a, you know, recent elections in Bosnia [a] few weeks ago, and there was all again, a lot of pressure on our politician[s], on our society. And there was a joke, which is circling around. When one prominent politician come to the some far distance village and he says, “Okay, I came here to help you. Please tell me your two major problem[s] in your village and I will try to solve for you today. And they says, okay, villager says, “Okay, our first problem: that we don’t have [a] doctor in the village. And the politician takes his phone and calls someone, make a two, three calls, and he says, “Okay, I fixed that. In the next Monday, you will have a doctor in your village. Tell me what is your second biggest problem.” And the villager says, “Okay, cell signal has not worked in the village for the long time.” I mean, this is a typical picture of our society.
PETER KORCHNAK: As they became more and more famous, the surrealists also grew egos—and apart. The troupe’s breakup was, quote, “fractious.” You could say the troupe fell apart like their country.
Top Lista returned to the radio waves during the Siege of Sarajevo, with some 50 segments, and four TV episodes were made as well. By then some of the original members, including Karajlić and Djurić, had left the city. In 2007, 2012, and 2018, various TV shows purporting to be successors to and reunions of Top Lista were made, on Bosnian TV featuring Djozić and on Serbian TV featuring Karaljić. But they never achieved the success of the original series. And yet, Djozić has told the media that the story of the surrealists is not and will never be finished.
PETER KORCHNAK: The comedy still works but at the same time, of course, it is, those 30, 40 years later. Is there any chance or any plans to revive Top Lista Nadrealista, make another series, you know, bring it back in some way.
ZENIT DJOZIĆ: It is [a] very hard question. I think, honestly, I don’t believe in that. It is not possible, for the many reason[s]. It is like a river, the one water comes and the other comes.
We all have very emotional feelings about Top Lista Nadrealista because it was a great time and a great time of cooperating and making good things together. And honestly, I really would like to make that cooperation again, but I don’t know. Could we have that energy or could we find that understanding between each other, between us?
And also I don’t believe that there there is a planet, Uran[us] must be in one position and Saturn in others and the Moon must be in third position. So maybe in the next some next period, maybe something else will exist. I hope so that will work but I don’t know.
PETER KORCHNAK: Going back to the show, there are a lot of sketches. Which one of those is at the top of your list? This is a very American question, what’s your favorite sketch?
ZENIT DJOZIĆ: There is different favorite things, you know. There is sketches which are very funny. And on the other side, there is [sic] sketches which is not funny much but very significant and, you know, very important, with a really clear and strong message.
We are speaking about hundreds and hundreds [of] sketches.
PETER KORCHNAK: Djozić is known for a number of memorable roles. In addition to Captain Zenit from “Burek in Space,” he played Fu-Do, a righteous vigilante well-versed in martial arts who protects the citizens of several local Sarajevo neighborhoods from various ills—including smugglers of counterfeit clothing or market vendors charging exorbitant prices. In fact, one of Djozić’s nicknames to this day is Fudo.
Another set of memorable sketches featuring Djozić involves hepek, a log with some embedded electronics that has nearly magical powers. Djozić is a villager named Djipalo Junuz who appears out of nowhere and resolves conflicts with hepek.
If you zap people with the hepek log the situation resolves.
In another sketch, hepek helps to pick the new anthem for Yugoslavia. The whole process devolves into a brawl, until Junuz hepeks the whole assembly. Everyone collapses and when they come to they all love each other and dance the kolo.
ZENIT DJOZIĆ: I really appreciated [the] sketches where we have war in one one family flat. So, there was the sketch which was made before the war start[ed], and we make a sketch about one family who was separated. The father and one son is one side and mother is on the other side, and they are fighting on a fighting line between the kitchen and the living room. So, in that way, we want to try [to] explain that, you know, to our people that we are all family and that there is no reason to fight. But, you know, the result, it wasn’t enough for our people.
PETER KORCHNAK: I’ve heard Top Lista Nadrealista be compared to Monty Python in the UK that a lot of people are familiar with for their absurd, surreal humor. What do you think about that comparison?
ZENIT DJOZIĆ: Yes, I’m first of all, I’m very honored that someone compare us with Monty Python. Yes, we have such a kind of formula for humor. I can describe that formula like insisting on the impossible, insisting on unusual things, insisting on going to the end of absurdity, something like that. And it was a lot of a lot of sketches in our production, which looks like that.
For example, we in ex-Yugoslavia, we have [a] factory for producing nothing.
So, it was very funny, when you have some movement of some workers were they [are] producing nothing. So we insist [on] that to the end of the joke. It was connected with, in that time, [the] state of socialistic economy and factories. In that time there was a big crisis and huge inflation, and in that context that factory producing nothing it’s really funny.
But one of the biggest killers of the humor is explanation.
PETER KORCHNAK: Yes.
ZENIT DJOZIĆ: When you must explain some jokes, you completely kill that.
I ask myself, am I really funny guy, actually, because, is it that funny? But it doesn’t matter.
PETER KORCHNAK: One thing about jokes from that area [is] that the best ones are really connected to what’s happening on the ground, they’re not just abstract situations or related to other things. There’s always some sort of a, if not political but then definitely a social context that you know, you do best if you understand that to understand the joke or to find the joke funny. So you don’t have to explain, I get it.
After the war, Djozić graduated from the Bosnian Academy of Performing Arts and got a master’s in TV production in the UK. He works as a television producer.
You might think there’s not a whole lot to laugh about, but do you still find humor in this situation?
ZENIT DJOZIĆ: I think humor is always with us. Actually, we don’t have a lot of things to help us. I mean, we don’t have a strong industry, we don’t have a lot of money and things like that. So usually we have in our lives often in a hard situation. So humor is our great help, actually to survive all these troubles. And that’s maybe another one answer for your question earlier, why we have such good humor: because we [are] trying to survive.
So I mean, humor is important for us and I hope so that we will have humor but we will maybe in the future become a boring country, which means that we don’t have many reason for making a joke, which means that we will have finally a good country for living.
PETER KORCHNAK: Amen, brother.
ZENIT DJOZIĆ: Oh, my God…
PETER KORCHNAK: Listen to the rest of my conversation with Djozić about Top Lista Nadrealista in the extended version of this episode; a bonus episode features the full interview with Djozić, about humor and about rock’n’roll. Go to RememberingYugoslavia.com/Donate and hepek me.
Wars in the 1990s, too, spurred joke making around the region. Some jokes perpetuate the longstanding stereotypes.
[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Through the Doors of the Circus” by Ergo Phizmiz]
- Mujo and Haso are at the frontline. Mujo asks Haso: “Do you see that guy over there with the cap?” “Which one?” asks Haso. “That guy over there!” “Which one?” Mujo takes the rifle, shoots the man he’s talking about, and says, “Do you see him now? The guy that just fell.” “Yeah, I see him now,” says Haso. “That’s my brother.”
But as you’d expect, the war changed the tenor of humor in Bosnia, writes the political scientist Srdjan Vučetić. There are now a lot more jokes about both enemies, Serbs and Croats, and it is Bosnians who come out on top or at least skewer the other sides. “Telling jokes which ridicule non-Bosniaks can be seen as unconscious but popular resistance to dominant and threatening joking practices,” concludes Vučetić.
- A Bosnian, a Croat, and a Serb get drunk and arrested in Saudi Arabia. The sultan says, “Since you didn’t know that you can’t drink here, I won’t punish you much. You will each receive 50 lashes on the back, but you can have one wish and you, Bosnian, since you’re a Muslim, you can have two. The Croat says: “Before you start flogging me, tie a pillow to my back.” After five lashes, the pillow falls off. Seeing this the Serb says, “Before you start flogging me, tie two pillows to my back.” The pillows fall off after 10 lashes. Finally the Bosnian says: “First, I want 100 lashes, not 50. And my second wish is, double tie the Serb to my back.”
It shouldn’t come as a surprise. In his book about surviving the Auschwitz concentration camp, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl, wrote that, quote, “Humor is [a] weapon of the soul in the fight for self-preservation.” He called using humor as the art of living which can be practiced even in the most difficult of circumstances, and a way to express criticism and dissatisfaction with the present condition. “Everything can be taken away from a man except one thing,” wrote Frankl, “the ultimate human freedom, to choose one’s attitude under any circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Including to joke about it all. Indeed, laughter is an evidence-based practice with beneficial mental health effects.
- Journalists ask Mujo what he thinks about the big cross that the Croats constructed on the Hum hill above Mostar. Mujo thinks for a second and says, “I think it’s a big plus for Bosnia and Herzegovina.”
- Fata is walking 2 meters ahead of Mujo. Haso sees this and asks Mujo, “Haven’t you read the Koran? There it says a woman must walk behind, not in front of her man.” And Mujo says, “And what does the Koran say about landmines?”
In fact, during the Siege of Sarajevo, some really dark jokes made direct references to Nazi concentration camps; today we might consider them tasteless but at the time they made sense and they helped people survive in some little way.
“Humor was without a doubt an important survival tool under extreme conditions of the Sarajevo siege and an important means in the defense of citizens of Sarajevo,” wrote Nihad Kreševljaković for Al-Jazeera. “It was nothing less than a realistic indicator that there was still hope.”
Jokes from siege-time Sarajevo are indeed a genre unto itself.
- Mujo is looking for his unit on Mt. Trebević and he runs into a Serbian battalion. They ask him: “Do you know who we are?” “Inshal’Allah, you are candid camera.”
- Mujo and Suljo run across a road. A sniper bullet shears off Mujo’s ear. But instead of running for cover, Mujo returns to the middle of the street looking for something while bullets keep flying. Suljo shouts, “Run for cover, you have one more ear!” Mujo says, “I don’t care about the ear, I’m looking for the cigarette I had stuck behind it.”
War-related jokes appeared in other parts of the former country.
- In the middle of the war, people from across the former Yugoslavia gather at Tito’s grave in Belgrade and collectively beg him, “Tito, please come back.” The voice from the tomb says, “Guys, I’m not crazy.”
- Why do Serbs dislike meteorologists? Because they failed to forecast Operation Storm.
After the war, jokes came out of world and regional political developments and again, the harsh everyday realities.
- On September 14, 2001, a Bosnian claws out of the World Trade Center ruins, shakes off the dust, and says, “What kind of an airport is this?!”
For a while before Montenegro split from rump Yugoslavia in 2006, people were calling their soon-to-be-former country, S&M. And, referring to Serbia’s quote unquote backwardness and Montenegro’s infamous cigarette smuggling problem, “Trinidad and Tobacco.”
If there’s a silver lining to the persistent political mess in Bosnia, it’s all the jokes that pour out of it, as you heard Djozić point out.
- An American, a Japanese, and a Bosnian talk about the elections. The American says: “In America, we know who won the elections in less than 2 hours afterward.” The Japanese says: “That’s nothing! In Japan, we know in 2 minutes.” And the Bosnian says: “I don’t get it, why does it take so long? In Bosnia, we know it 2 months before the elections.”
If humor in Yugoslavia was a way of coping with or resisting against the socialist state or life under the communist party rule, so it was after Yugoslavia’s dissolution, nowhere more so than in Serbia. In Serbia under Milošević, jokes were one way for people to deal with the difficult economic and political situation, the sanctions, the authoritarianism, the nationalism, all of that.
- Slobodan Milošević with his son and grandson are sunbathing on top of a skyscraper in Belgrade. Because of the sanctions, impoverished Serbs gather outside begging for scraps. Milošević says to his son: “Now I will throw 10 dinars off the roof and you’ll see how one person can be happy.” And his son replies: “But father, why don’t you throw two 5 dinars and make two people happy.” To which the grandson adds: “But grandpa, if you throw yourself off, you’ll make the whole nation happy.”
- Why are there no postage stamps with Milošević on them? Because people wouldn’t know what side to spit on.
The NATO campaign against rump Yugoslavia which put an end to the Kosovo War, was a particularly rich source of humor. One subgenre mocked the Serbian leader and his relationship with the American one.
- Bill Clinton is visiting a beach in California and spots Milošević sunbathing. Clinton says, “Mr Milošević, is that really you? What a small world!” To which Milošević replies. “But it’s not the world that’s small, it’s Serbia that’s now this big.”
- Milošević visits the White House. After dinner, he decides to slip out and explore. After several rooms he is amazed to discover a room with a golden urinal. He relieves himself and decides he too wants a golden toilet in his mansion. The following year, the Clintons visit Milošević. Milošević takes the presidential couple to his bathroom where he shows off a pure gold toilet. Hillary leans over to Bill and whispers: “Now we know who pissed in your saxophone.”
Next, gallows humor about the bombing offered ordinary Serbs some solace through the ordeal, a way to defend themselves, and perhaps even gain some agency amidst the helplessness.
- How do most Serbs feel when they wake up in the morning? Missed.
- What do you call the new fad of taping windows to prevent glass shards from flying during NATO bombing raids? Windows 99.
- What do Belgrade residents do before crossing the street? They look left, right and up.
A number of funny postcards commented and capitalized on the situation. I still have one from my trip in 2000, it’s just black, with a caption, “Belgrade at Night.” There was also one that said, “Serbia Unplugged.” And, after Serbia’s military downed a stealth fighter, postcards with the remains carried the caption, “”Sorry, we didn’t know it was invisible.” Here’s one from the post-Milošević era I could have used in the burek episode:
What’s the difference between burek and Milošević? Burek is better the hotter it gets, Milošević is better the colder he gets.
Serbia’s leadership continues to be a target of jokes, though they may have declined in quality and wit. If you walk around the streets of Serbia, you’re bound to find graffiti labeling the current president, Alexandar Vučić, gay (only they’re using a derogatory term).
- A pickpocket stole Vučić’s wallet. The judge asks the victim, “Did you not feel that someone was touching your behind?” And Vučić says, “I did but I thought he had noble intentions.”
Mass emigration is a problem plaguing the Balkans.
- How does a smart Serb call a stupid Serb? By phone from abroad.
- Little Ivica asks his mother: Mom, is it true that Croatia is a country of a thousand islands with the most beautiful coast and sea in the world? “It’s true, son,” answers mom. Little Ivica thinks on it and asks, “ Mom, and is it true that Croatia can produce food for millions of people on unpolluted fields?” “Yes it is, son.” “And is it true that Croatia has the cleanest and most drinkable water in Europe?” “It’s all true, son,” says Ivica’s mom. “So mom, what the hell are we doing in Ireland?”
- The biggest turnout in Bosnian elections is at outbound border crossings.
Now, the situation is quite the opposite in Slovenia. Primož Mlačnik and Peter Stanković found that in Slovenia popular dissatisfaction with the post-socialist state of affairs has found little expression in jokes. The telling of jokes appears much less common than it was during the socialist period, and the few jokes that do circulate rarely target politicians or the new sociopolitical system. In this respect, developments in Slovenia are similar to those in other former socialist countries where the practice of telling jokes faded away after transition to neoliberal capitalism and liberal democracy. Political jokes have disappeared, even though the disappointment with capitalism and its outcomes is widespread.
Sure, an occasional joke targets an unpopular politician.
- A teacher asks the students what they need most at their homes. The first pupil says: “A computer.” “Useful,” says the teacher. “A lawn mower,” says another student. “Also useful.” Janezek stands up and says: “We don’t need anything in our home!” “Think again,” says the teacher. “Everybody needs something.” And Janezek says, “No, I’m sure of it. When my sister started dating a Janša supporter, my father said: ‘Well, that’s the last thing we need!”
But, Mlačnik and Stanković note, less than 2 percent of jokes they analyzed target politicians; quote “political jokes are as good as gone in Slovenia.”
Perhaps that’s because people can express their dissatisfaction in protests or at the ballot box. Or perhaps it’s because people don’t socialize as much as they did during socialism, especially across class and other lines.
Or maybe the reason political jokes have disappeared is that there’s less of an us (the people) versus them (the party or state elites) feeling, and less of a difference between propaganda and real life. Socialism was more of a thing in people’s lives than capitalism is, let’s say. The unelected or, to be more precise, fake-elected party and its organs constantly educated the populace about socialism and its benefits, with trainings, courses, media propaganda, and so on. When people saw the disconnect between the ideology claiming that socialism was superior to capitalism and the everyday which clearly showed it wasn’t, jokes could thrive.
By contrast, conclude Mlačnik and Stanković, “capitalism functions without the need for an endless stream of explicit ideological justifications against which reality can be (humorously) compared. While there are many tensions in capitalist societies, they are not expressed in overtly political jokes, as politics in these societies is not as omnipresent as a topic as it was under socialism. What may happen instead is that these tensions and anxieties express themselves in jokes on topics that could be more immediately related to the individuals’ daily experiences, such as gender relations.” Indeed, most jokes in Slovenia nowadays are about men and women and their relationships.
Or, and these are my suggestions, perhaps people aren’t as dissatisfied with capitalism as they were with socialism, or perhaps they just don’t have as much time as they did under socialism, busy as they are taking care of business, hustling, surviving, shopping, watching TV…
When it comes to Croatia, along with Kosovo the least pro-Yugoslav nation, most jokes I’ve found fall into three categories.
The first group targets Tito and socialism.
- Children are writing an in-class essay on the topic: 45 Years of Darkness Under Tito. Little Perica finishes in a couple of minutes and gets up to leave. “Where are you going, Perica?” asks the teacher. “I’m done.” The teacher opens the notebook and reads what Perica wrote, “Dammit, who turned off the lights?”
- American priests traveling around Yugoslavia visit a mental hospital in Zagreb right at the moment that patients are chanting, “Long live Tito! Long live Tito!” All except one. “Why don’t you chant with them?” asks one pastor. “I’m not crazy, I’m an orderly.”
- A woman hangs a cross in her kitchen between pictures of Stalin and Tito. Her friend asks, “Those don’t go together.” And the woman says, “What do you mean? At the Calvary, Jesus hung between two thieves too.”
Some jokes target the country’s first president, Franjo Tudjman.
- Tudjman goes to hell and tells Tito: “Hello, dictator!” And Tito responds, “Hello, imitator!” Why is Tuđman’s tomb covered with a headstone that stands at an angle? So that the people cannot dance on it.
And, as you’d expect by now, there are the war-induced jokes about Serbs.
- A reporter asks a Zagreb resident, “What is chauvinism?” The respondent says, “When you hate a Serb more than normal.”
- A Serb going on vacation at the Adriatic arrives at the Croatian border. The customs officer who is a war veteran switches to English just to mess with him. “Name?” “Miloš Vranić.” “Age?” “Thirty-three.” “Occupation?” The Serb panics. “No, no, no, just visit!”
Going back to those interethnic stereotype jokes, you may recall hearing few jokes about Croats. One big reason is that rather than Croats, these jokes target people from less developed regions within Croatia, most being about the natives of Zagorje or Dalmatia. Power relations at play again, I guess.
All that said, there’s a new funny game in the Balkan town.
Yugoslav Humor: Croatian Stand-up with Marina Orsag
MARINA ORSAG: My name is Marina Orsag and I’m a stand-up comedian from Croatia. And I’m actually one among five first stand-up comedians in Croatia, and I’m the first female stand-up comedian in Croatia and in the Balkans, actually, the ex-YU region.
PETER KORCHNAK: Stand-up comedy is an American art form originating in turn-of-the-20th century minstrel shows. Over the ensuing 100 plus years, it’s become not only a very popular form of comedy in the U.S., it has been exported to the rest of the world, including the Balkans.
I discovered Orsag on the All Things Croatia podcast, where she shares her origin story. Check it out for more of her background as well as that of Croatia’s stand-up comedy scene.
Long story short, in 2004 Orsag spent some time in the U.S. where she saw stand-up performances that inspired her decision to introduce homegrown stand-up in her home country.
PETER KORCHNAK: When you say, a stand-up comedian in Croatia, that’s really not something, I thought I would ever hear that sentence or that phrase. How does stand up in Croatia become a thing?
MARINA ORSAG: It was kind of popular in Croatia, not so much but some of the comedians like Bill Hicks and Pablo Francisco at that time, and George Carlin a couple of like that.
PETER KORCHNAK: When she returned from the States, Orsag attended a stand-up comedy workshop in Zagreb with four actors.
MARINA ORSAG: And at that point, it was kind of like people were waiting for it to happen. It was good PR at the beginning and it was like first comedians, creating history, you know, blah, blah.
The first performance ever was on the 24th of April 2005, that was the first stand-up show in Croatia, so that’s kind of the year we celebrate.
So when we started that, actually, it was a kind of boom. And then it slowed down a bit after two years. And then I started open mic, and then a lot of workshops, and a lot of comedians stopped rising, and it just kind of went berserk in Croatia, actually.
PETER KORCHNAK: Orsag has since amassed 17 years of experience over more than 3,500 performances.
MARINA ORSAG: In 17 years, and two of those years were COVID, so in 15 years, actually, we came in Croatia to the point where it’s been organized more than 120 shows per month in the entire Croatia.
And, as you probably know, in ex-Yugoslavia Croatians are the most humorous people in those stories you always hear. So for us to start the first and to have the start strongest scene in ex-Yugoslavia, it’s really interesting.
PETER KORCHNAK: I mean yes, I do understand and I do know that Croatians are funny. I mean, there’s that old chestnut that Croatia is not in the Balkans, for example, that’s a good one.
MARINA ORSAG: No, that’s Slovenia is not, we are.
PETER KORCHNAK: In a small market like Croatia, standup comedians focused on smaller gigs in clubs and later expanded to theaters and festivals.
MARINA ORSAG: We worked like little ants, let’s say it like that. So I mean, it’s obvious that our scene became what it is today because of that hard work.
PETER KORCHNAK: Though Croats knew about stand-up from the media, Orsag and other stand-up comedians often explained, and sometimes still do, to the live audiences what to expect and how to behave.
MARINA ORSAG: So sometimes I say, please don’t laugh inside yourself like Slovenians and then I show what it looks like, laughing inside, without sound. Or sometimes I use that how I like to see, stand up comedy is like sexual relation, like we’re gonna give 150 percent of ourselves to make them satisfied as the audience but as in sex if we don’t have voices of directing us and voices of satisfaction everything is gonna go to kurac.
PETER KORCHNAK: If you understand what that means, great. If not, there’s that thing about explanation killing the joke.
MARINA ORSAG: As I already said this word on the microphone, what you need to know is that stand-up comedy has [a] completely democratic way of expression. So none of us is going to say, “what the hell” but we will say “what the F.” Do we need it? Okay, so we explained to them that we don’t have Tourette Syndrome, but we will express ourselves normally, like the people at their home do.
PETER KORCHNAK: In those 15 slash 17 years, you’ve seen and experienced a lot in terms of building and creating. Yeah, so what are some of the positive milestones and maybe some tough times, difficult challenges other than COVID, obviously, that kind of shut down everything.
MARINA ORSAG: Well, we kind of got robbed a couple of times, the club. So that’s kind of a hard period to handle because we had to collect money again and have big charity events and stuff like that.
PETER KORCHNAK: That would have been Orsag’s comedy club, Studijo Smijeha [Laughter Studio] the first such institution in both Croatia and the region, opened in 2011.
MARINA ORSAG: When I look back on all the times that I thought at that point were hard. Like, because of standup, like explaining to the owners of the bars, why do we need the microphone, why do we need the light. And we’re like, the cheapest and the most simple production ever, just give me one light one microphone with a speaker, and that’s it. So all those things of building, handing out flyers ourselves, cleaning toilets in the club, when it was necessary, and stuff like that. I pretty much thought those were like hard times and stuff like that. Now I realized that those days built me up as a person I am today and those are not so hard times.
Much harder is losing trust in people you work with stuff like that were the hardest. We’re building a scene, and when you have more than 20 comedians at one and comediennes at one place, and the ego starts working and stuff like that. Those are, I think, the most hard times. The emotional stuff were much harder than the working stuff because the work stuff drive me, I was creating history.
But the milestones in stand-up. Having more than 20 comedians in Croatia, which is done. Having the first three day festival. Opening a club, the first club at that point in ex-Yugoslavia, which had stand up comedy everyday and we were full every day, which was amazing. Then the first big huge event, concert hall Lisinski in Zagreb is 1,800 people. That’s one of the things I will never forget that we had we sold it out in five days without any PR just based on Facebook event, which to us was like extreme shock and the proof that we are doing an amazing job and actually the stand-up is performing discipline is much much needed because of state of mind in Croatia.
Getting more girls into stand up comedy that was also one milestone. Me coming out and starting doing festivals outside of Croatia, performing and winning awards outside of Croatia that was also one milestone for me personally.
Also, of course, bringing foreign comedians to the club and to Croatia to perform, that was also one a huge milestone for the scene. And yeah, the cooperation with the guys in ex-Yugoslavia was definitely something.
PETER KORCHNAK: To be honest I still cringe a little when I see Slovak stand-up, it just seems unnatural, not our thing so to speak.
But stand-up is indeed taking hold across the region. In Serbia, standup.rs promotes the form in that country with festivals and other events, which, according to Emerging Europe, has moved stand-up from “a marginal pursuit in Belgrade to a phenomenon that is spreading to other cities.”
MARINA ORSAG: There are a lot of different scenes. And I think that the best that we can actually do is try to take the best out of our scenes and try to learn from each other.
I mean, we started first and then Slovenians kind of started after us. But their scene is much smaller, and they kind of focused on the beginning on Ljubljana and Maribor.
Serbian and Slovenian scenes are kind of similar. They’re focusing more on bigger, big events, and not so much on smaller ones.
So in 2009, I believe that Serbia started waking up a little bit. I was sitting down and Googling every single day is there was somebody showing up. So as soon as they showed up, immediately we contacted them and we helped them and we met on the Land Festival in Maribor, all of us together and agreed how we’re going to do the workshops there and start cooperating.
And Bosnia and Herzegovina was waking up at the same time. Yeah, we started the communicating and started performing on [sic] each other’s festivals at the beginning and then also in the clubs as well. And we were trying to start a network which is going to help all of us to perform much more because we all speak the language, let’s say ir like that. I mean, in Slovenia, for young people now we cannot perform on Croatian-Serbian language, so…
Anyways, when we started cooperating and trying to get as much as gigs for all of us everywhere, Slovenians were struggling the most because they had to kind of learn to perform for Croatians and Serbians was the easiest and Bosnians and Herzegovinians because we could perform anywhere in ex-YU and everybody understood us. But Slovenians had to and Macedonians had to adjust to Croatian Serbian language, so they had to translate all of their jokes.
We were extremely excited, and for a lot of us, for me example, that was the first time I actually had an opportunity to visit the entire ex-Yugoslavia. I [had] never been to Serbia before in my life before I started doing stand-up and in Bosnia and Herzegovina as well and Macedonia. And so it was actually for a lot of us also, as much as we love performing and it’s much it was kind of work relation and like spreading the scene, for a lot of us [it] was also a cultural educations and shocks and stuff like that.
So in a while, we kind of realized through our jokes and through our performances— I mean, we never had any problems. But we kind of with sitting later after with people and stuff like that, we realized there’s still a lot of tensions between our nations. And at that point, I understood that laughter is and humor is something that can change consciousness and some subconsciousness and minds and open up people and stuff like that. So we all started really focusing on that, between Slovenia and Croatia, between Serbia and Croatia, and actually in the entire ex-Yugoslavia.
PETER KORCHNAK: Given that it is Day of the Republic of the Republic today, what does that day mean to you and to the comedy scene? Are there any jokes you can share?
MARINA ORSAG: The only thing that I remember is that we were supposed to come to school and sing in those little uniforms, Pioneer uniforms on that day. And I was 12 when Yugoslavia actually fell apart, so I don’t remember a lot of it. But singing in the Pioneers was really awful l because we had to sing dušman kleti—
—let him know how we die. And I was like, I’m six, I don’t want to die. Why do we have to sing this, like, I’m six, what the hell?
But I believe that Yugoslavia had a lot of good things. What I think the worst thing that happened to ex-YU, regardless the war and what politicians did to to destroy this whole thing and, especially for Croatia, what the worst thing in that transferring from Yugoslavia to Croatia that happened is that we just threw away everything Yugoslavian because it’s Yugoslavian so you don’t kind of mentioned that and use it. Which is stupid, because there were a lot of practices regarding work and regarding young people and culture and everything that was really good. So yeah, we can throw away the bad things, but come on, can’t we just keep the good ones? So I think that was kind of really stupid to do.
PETER KORCHNAK: One of the most successful programs Orsag runs is Kaj Bre, a stand-up comedy show where she shares the stage with Alexandar Perišić from Serbia. The title of the show combines prototypical Zagreb and Belgrade slang words.
MARINA ORSAG: We kind of felt still is, of course, unfortunately, between Serbia and Croatia. We started joking about it off the stage, in the backstage. And we kind of felt like, Oh, come on, this is funny. And then we tried it a little tiny bit on the stage when announcing each other, or when performing us in Serbia and them here trying out how the people who will react, and we saw that it’s working. And then I thought, like, Oh, come on, we can for sure, do some good with the jokes and with the show that it’s going to be full hour and a half, two hours dedicated to that subject, let’s say politically correct jokes said in a politically incorrect way.
I mean, I joke that we don’t take Serbians that we take them to the vacation to the ocean side just to show them what they could have had if they were better and smarter and when we go out and have Serbians on the shore and when we swim and when we have fun on the beach, then when we jump from the pier, to the ocean, all the colleagues from Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia, all of us are jumping, all sorts of jumps, and the colleagues from Serbia do only bomb jumping.
The first part of both of our parts in the show is talking about how it was for us to live in Yugoslavia, how we felt when Yugoslavia fell apart, how we felt afterwards, and about relations during the war afterwards, and about the condition of the states, countries before and afterwards.
We finish the show with the sentence, we hope you realize that he doesn’t matter where you’re from, what’s your nation, religious wise sexual wise, as long as you’re human. And you should love each other. So we always finish the show like that. So I thought to myself, yeah, I believe that we can change something because I told you at that point I realized already that humor can do wonders.
PETER KORCHNAK: Where is the Croatian comedy scene today? What are your plans for it?
MARINA ORSAG: Well, the scene, is actually— I’m really proud where it is at the moment.
PETER KORCHNAK: Croatian stand-up went from one open mic night in the mid-aughts to the opening of the first club in 2011, to the emergence of a number of lineup groups, to over a hundred shows each and every month, in Zagreb, Split, and other cities, as well as festivals.
MARINA ORSAG: I am planning to start again, one International Comedy festivals, which is going to include comedians from ex-YU as well, but not in that big number. I also plan [an] ex-YU festival, which is always has good audience numbers like because people really, we miss each other, like, we love to hear guys from other ex-YU countries come and speak and they love to hear us.
I believe that Studio Smijeha is gonna go female. Because now I have more than 10 girls in the lineup, waiting to start working with them and stuff like that. So I believe I’m gonna focus a little bit more on that because it’s more than 20 male comedians now at this point, and it’s only like three or four of us at the moment.
And I’m going to focus on all female international comedy festival in Croatia, as well.
PETER KORCHNAK: Orsag also wants to focus on her own career as a standup comedian.
In terms of your content in terms of what you would you do what your jokes are about? Are you building on any tradition? Or are there any giants on whose shoulders you stand in terms of quote unquote Yugoslav comedy or funny people? Inspirations or..?
MARINA ORSAG: In standup, there was nothing before.
But influences on me, I think it was more foreign comedians. And the biggest influences was definitely George Carlin and maybe Ellen, in the very beginning, before the TV show.
And of course, in ex-Yugoslavia there was Nela Eržišnik who actually was kind of a first stand up comedian. And I remember watching her when I was little, a lot in those sands Sunday shows and she was always roasting Tito and the government.
PETER KORCHNAK: Nela Eržišnik was a Croatian comedy actor in the 1950s and 1960s who transitioned to what we now call standup, on TV and cassette tape.
She was best known as Marica Hrdalo, a highly calcified cleaning lady in the Zagreb company Jugometla [Yugobroom].
MARINA ORSAG: And of course, there is [the] unforgettable Top Lista Nadrealista, they were actually prophets. A lot of things they had sketches about actually happened later. Okay, guys, thank you. So they were amazing as well.
And of course, there’s Večernja škola, but the early— Evening School.
PETER KORCHNAK: A Croatian comedy show from the mid-1990s.
MARINA ORSAG: And of course, Zločesta Djeca—
PETER KORCHNAK: A comedy show on the Zagreb-only Radio 101.
PETER KORCHNAK: I only had a chance to see one set on YouTube, and obviously, there’s more out there. But the one that I saw, you know, you’re talking about being gay in where you are, and being a woman with everything that comes with it. And so I’m wondering, in terms of your material, these are not necessarily themes that are talked about widely in Croatia or across the Balkans, across the former Yugoslavia. So what’s the reception that you see for these for these topics?
MARINA ORSAG: When you are performing in a scene as small as Croatia, you don’t have the privilege, let’s say like that to focus on certain themes, because you have to really write new jokes each month. So after a while, you’re just like, whatever goes, goes, you know, so you’re not kind of picking subjects. But because of that huge amount of material, we can do theme shows. So we have ladies night, where only girls are performing. And we are talking about menstruation and what it’s like to be a woman, about female things, let’s say it like that. Then we have Sex at Large, which, where we talk only about sex and sexual toys and stuff regarding sex in general. Then we have Seven Deadly Sins where we talk only about religions and…
What I do like to do, especially on [sic] festivals, is sometimes throw in some subjects that are taboo in this area, in the Balkans, because of the raising awareness and stuff like that.
So to me, it’s amazing for example, now I have this LGBT show, where I talk about my family and actually it’s for 60% of our family and 40% about being LGBT in Croatia and in the Balkans, and that’s the theme show. So now people when they come, they know and probably already aware people will come to that kind of show.
And I do 20 minutes of non topic, like just random general jokes that people can relate to, and various subjects, and then I kick ass, and then, after 20 minutes, when they enjoy themselves and when it’s amazing atmosphere, then then I hit them with the, with the hard subjects, or I say that I’m gay, and I start talking about that.
MARINA ORSAG: And it’s so cool to see on their faces— because they laughed to me for 20 minutes, you know, we had an amazing time together for 20 minutes, so it’s really fun and cool to watch their faces and the reactions. But I mean, it doesn’t happen anymore because now the media raped that subject so much that I don’t believe that there is anybody in Croatia that doesn’t know that I’m gay. And I joke that I’m a designated lesbian in Croatia.
It was fulfilling in the beginning, like, you know, I’m helping, I’m getting out there, and stuff like that. Now, it’s just kind of exhausting sometimes.
MARINA ORSAG: I really would like to perform outside of Croatia and in English.
PETER KORCHNAK: If you’re listening and you are a comedy club fan or a comedy club owner, even better anywhere outside of Croatia, outside of the Balkans, get in touch with Marina and hire her—
MARINA ORSAG: Eighty to 90 minutes is a one woman show and if everybody needs anything else, I’m up for it for sure, and I’m going to be producing it myself.
[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Wild Funny” by Audiorezout]
PETER KORCHNAK: I’m gonna sound a little Orientalist when I say humor was one of the things that drew me to the former Yugoslavia. If people here, with what they’ve been through, can joke like this, they must be awesome and I must get to know them.
Or perhaps it’s not the jokes themselves but the attitude to life expressed in them. One of my most memorable early Yugo-memories is flipping in the middle of the night through channels on my parents’ TV and coming across a No Comment segment of Euronews that showed Belgrade during a NATO bombing. Fighter jets were flying overhead, raining down laser-guided missiles; and meanwhile, on Brankov Bridge thousands of people were holding up to the sky banners with illustrated crosshairs.
I’m still catching up on Top Lista Nadrealista episodes. It’s quite incredible, especially with hindsight allowing me to see just how on the nose those guys were.
And I’m discovering stand-up across the region, though I’m finding it a bit difficult to get into. I don’t know what it is, perhaps it’s that I’m a newish fan of the form to begin with, or the genre indeed doesn’t translate, or, I don’t know, something’s missing, edge perhaps. I’ll get there. The punchline is just around the corner.
[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Rainmaker” by Petar Alargić]
PETER KORCHNAK: Next on Remembering Yugoslavia:
RIMA SABINA AOUF: One of the times that I wrote about Yugoslavia, it was actually a dissertation on my mother and her relationship to the country. And that sort of evolved into this work that I do now, the graphic work.
PETER KORCHNAK: Yugoslavia continues to inspire artists, academics, and entrepreneurs. On the next episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, in fact the next three episodes, I’ll explore a bunch of projects inspired by the disappeared country.
Tune in wherever you listen to podcasts and subscribe to make sure you don’t miss out.
[OUTRO MUSIC – “Jugoslavijo” by Los Kretenos]
PETER KORCHNAK: That’s all for this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, thank you for listening and laughing with me. Find additional information and the transcript of this episode at RememberingYugoslavia/Podcast. There’s more of the podcast in extended and bonus episodes, available to all generous donors. Head over to RememberingYugoslavia.com/Donate and have a laugh there.
Outro music by Los Kretenos courtesy of Dejan Bogdanović – thank you!
Special thanks to Primož Mlačnik and Valery Perry.
I am Peter Korchňak.
- Pat Andjelkovic. “Everybody Laughs in the Same Language ‘ Or Do They?” Balkan Insight, October 27, 2008
- Jon Jonoski, Jennifer Lamphere, and Liliana Zambrano. “Mujo, Haso, and the Ghost of Tito: Reflection through Humor in Former Yugoslavia.” Media Lab Amsterdam, 2016
- Ivan Marković. “Croatian Jokes About Bosnians.” Croatica Vol. XLII (2018) 62: 365–380
- Primož Mlačnik and Peter Stanković. “The Disappearance of Political Jokes in Post-Socialist Slovenia.” Communist and Post-Communist Studies, Vol. 53, Number 3 (2020): 172-188.
- Željko Pavić and Nataša Krivokapić. “Humour and ex-Yugoslav nations: is there any truth in the stereotypes?” The European Journal of Humour Research Vol. 8 No. 1 (2020): 112–129
- Srdjan Vučetić. “Identity is a Joking Matter: Intergroup Humor in Bosnia.” spacesofidentity 4.1 (2004)