Text and photos John Harrison
KVN (Klub Vesyolykh i Nakhodchivykh, or Club of the Happy and Inventive) is a Russian humor TV show in which teams (usually of students) compete in comedy skits. Teams are not judged for their command of a wide range of knowledge, as they are on Britain’s University Challenge, for example, but for their ability to make people laugh.
But KVN is more than a Russian version of an intercollegiate televised competition; it is a whole civilization of competitions, held at schools, colleges, even in prisons. The KVN that is shown on television during the KVN Finals is only the top of the Russian KVN pyramid. For every team that reaches this final competition in a given year, 10 or 20 have come and gone in tournaments at various levels. As Alexander Nikulin, a KVN volunteer organizer and former team captain put it: “The system is similar to that of a national football league. Each city has its own teams, they play against each other, and eventually a national team is formed.”
The first attempt to create a KVN-type show ended badly in 1959, during the broadcast of the very popular Moscow students’ comedy competition show An Evening of Merry Questions (in Russian, Vecher Vesyolykh Voprosov, or VVV). The emcee announced that the first person to arrive at the next show dressed in winter boots, fur coat, and hat would be awarded a prize. The catch? It was the height of summer. When the next show rolled around, hundreds of bundled up, sweating people rushed the studio during the live TV broadcast (there was no other kind of television in those days). At the time, this kind of viewer reaction was unexpected – and too much. The show was canceled.
The show’s producers, however, realized that they were onto a winner. So in November 1961, another comedy show, this time called KVN, began and quickly achieved phenomenal popularity. It is no exaggeration to say that the streets emptied when the show was on, and broadcasts lasted for hours at a time. The show lasted for 11 years, until Soviet censors decided that the impromptu jokes of the students on live television were too risky (aft er all, an offensively anti-Soviet line might slip out), and took the show off the air. It was the early 1970s.
“In Soviet days, spontaneous fun was the antidote to staid official comedy programs. Today, the genre still has appeal for old and young alike.”
Though KVN would remain banned from the airwaves for the next 14 years, the show’s format was enthusiastically replicated in countless student associations and clubs throughout Russia. And when Perestroika came around, a group of TV-industry types felt there would be interest in a revived version of the TV show. Of course, times had changed, and everything had to be relearned: Television was in color now, audiences were more sophisticated, and it wouldn’t be enough simply to copy KVN-71. Today, KVN is the longest-running show on Russian TV (apart from the news), and the same host, Alexander Maslyakov, endures. The show has become a national institution and Maslyakov a national symbol.
Today, the program enjoys high ratings on Russian television and has gone international. KVN chapters have opened abroad in countries where there are significant Russian communities, and international tournaments are held on a regular basis. The show has “movements” (local clubs) in over 1000 Russian cities and towns; there are about 40,000 players among roughly 2000 school teams and over 5 million people watching the show live each year as part of studio audiences.
KVN has its roots in Soviet culture. The genre was born out of the Soviet agit-brigada, which in its last years ran out of propaganda to agitate and was confined to a small number of student artistic groups. In the old agitbrigades, a line of people standing on the stage, representing one entity, one society, was a common sight, just as is in today’s KVN. Then there is the role-swapping, in which the performers move quickly from one character to another, speaking for the hero one moment and breaking the frame the next to speak for the author.
KVN also draws on the student miniature theaters (STEMs), which were hugely popular in the USSR in 1950s and ‘60s. These were contests in which only two or three performers transformed an ordinary situation into a farce, often with heavy use of improvisation. More often than not, the action was based on tension between a hero and anti-hero, with a minimum of props and set decoration.
In Soviet days, spontaneous fun was the antidote to staid official comedy programs, and in today’s culture, the genre still works as a platform for a relaxed kind of humor whose appeal is not limited to youth. Middle-aged Russians who participated in KVN as students now watch the program with their children.
KVN is not, however, a fixed genre; the contest continues to evolve. Today’s formula is generally based on several kinds of acts: There is “greetings,” in which each team humorously introduces itself to the jury, audience, and emcee; extemporaneous “warm-up”, which uses a questionand- answer format; a musical part; a set of STEM-type dialogues; and a “homework” section, which allows for preparation in advance.
While the theatrical roots of KVN are clear, the use of competition gives the activity a freshness and urgency. Judges, mostly well-known celebrities, evaluate performances on humor, production values, and audience reaction. There is plenty of suspense for viewers, who always have their favorites and want to know who will win.
Participation in the game is hard work. As Phillip Kashpar, a graduate of Moscow’s Druzhba Narodov [Friendship of Peoples] University noted, “Those who take it seriously – and you have to if you want to get to the upper leagues – dedicate a lot of time.” In today’s world, where many students have to hold down parttime jobs to survive, not everyone has the time for KVN. Some universities sponsor KVN teams, but spiraling costs have cut into these budgets.
Though some “KVNists” have gone on professional careers in theater, most simply remember their amateur participation with pride. So as long as there are resources to support it, and Russian society is able to accept the sometimes poignant political satire that spontaneously finds its way into the repertoires, KVN will serve as a bridge between the past and the present, between formal Russian humor and informal FUN.