Inside KVN, Russia’s Mega-Popular Comedic Talent Show

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It’s New Years Eve in Moscow. Alexander Maslyakov, the veritable Dick Clark of Russia, takes to the stage in front of a packed house in a large auditorium. Techno music thumps out the speakers just as one might expect from an Eastern European television show. The stage decorations are appropriately flashy. Welcome, my friends, to KVN: “The Club of the Merry and Quick-Witted” or “The Club of the Happy and Clever” depending on the translation. To the American viewer, it may look like another corny European pageant show, but such an assumption highly underestimates its power. KVN is such a phenomenon in Russia, the caucuses, and nearby countries from Israel to Germany, that I’m shocked it hasn’t been optioned by Simon Cowell yet.

Perhaps the sheer complexity of this comedy competition show is too much for the one-track American mind to wrap itself around. KVN is not just a television program, it’s a competitive league. A competitive league made up of hundreds of sub-leagues all presided over by the KVN Union. The Major League and the Premier League are the highest levels at which a team can compete. I thought keeping track of the world’s soccer leagues was overwhelming, and this is just in one country. And, yes, there’s even an American league, but if you don’t speak Russian you can forget about being a contender.

The show pits teams against each other in a battle of wits. The teams, typically made up of university students, must complete various performance challenges and are scored numerically by a panel of celebrity judges. Usually in the higher echelons of competition, team members are from the same region and the humor is tailored to jokes and sensibilities to that region. For example, a competing team from Smolensk, a rather poor city in Western Russia, made a joke about its bid to be a FIFA host city. Spoofing a popular commercial promoting Russia’s bid for the World Cup, the team showed a video where a young boy in Smolensk kicks around a ragged tin can instead of a soccer ball.

There are a variety of “tasks” teams must complete in front of a live audience and most of the tasks teams know about well in advance. There are required activities that take place in every competition: “the introduction,” in which the team must introduce themselves in a quick and funny way, the “Warm-Up,” which is the only improvised part of the show in which teams must come up with one-liners on the spot, and the “Musical Number” in which, well, the team has to be humorous and entertaining through song.

And then there are optional tasks that supplement the mandatory ones to round out the competition; usually a competition has 4-5 tasks total. One such task is the Freestyle Round in which teams can show off their strongest comedic strengths through song, dance, sketches, videos, etc. Some other tasks include a news contest, a movie re-dubbing contest, team captain contests, and STEM, a sketch format in which only three members are allowed to be on stage at any given time. Each task has a theme, which relates to the overall theme of the competition and, in turn, the overall theme of the season.

So where were we? Ah yes, New Years Eve in Moscow. It should be noted that the KVN Moscow show broadcast on Channel One Russia is about as high up as you can get. It’s the Oscars/Super Bowl/World Cup. On the KVN New Years Eve Special, 4 teams compete to ring in 2011 as the champion. Luckily for myself and my fellow comedy tourists, one YouTube user was kind enough to upload the entire special in 10 parts and provide English subtitles.

Don’t worry, I won’t subject your attentions spans to all 10 videos — I’ve selected some highlights. But if they pique your interest, and I hope they do, you can click through to the channel to access all 10. Keep in mind, the translations are very literal and not finessed with colloquialisms.

And now for some context: New Years actually trumps Christmas in Russia’s holiday department. It is on New Years that Father Frost, not Santa Claus, delivers gifts and families gather to celebrate. In Part One of the New Years Special, you will see an introduction by Alexander Maslyakov and the first two tasks of the competition: “The Introduction” and “The Freestyle.”

As you can see in the video, 2010 was the “Season of Dreams” for KVN, so this night’s theme was aptly deemed “Dreams Come True.” In my personal favorite introduction, Team Trio-Idiot from Smolensk, the aforementioned “tin can” team, crack wise again on the poverty of their city. The Team Captain proclaims: “In Smolensk’s strip-tease clubs in the winter the stripper doesn’t dance next to the pole, but next to the hot water pipe.” ZING, am I right? Much of the humor, at least from the 4 teams in this special, aims at the lowest-common denominator. Women are nags and men are drunks, particularly Russian men. It feels something akin to Vaudeville with its presentational style and rim shot humor — if Vaudeville had techno accompaniment and shiny costumes.

In the following clip, Part 3 of 10, a team called BAK Peers from Krasnodar Krai, a caucus region in the Southwest, employ former KVN superstars to bolster their freestyle round performance. These competitions seem to be no-holds-barred, any and every trick in the book to win the favor of judges is fine. The clip also highlights how popular champions of KVN often go on to superstardom, as evidenced by the audience’s enthusiasm seeing past champions walk onstage only to then get taken down a peg by “Denis.”

The last freestyle example is the team from Kazakhstan. Borat isn’t the only Kazakh television personality, you guys. Some Russians are still quite prejudiced against central Asian countries — however, this does not seem to deter the Kazakh team, but rather they embrace the absurdity of Orientalism and work it into their routine. And there’s choreographed dancing, which is always a win.

In Part 5, you can see the first round of judging. The performers take a break to feign enjoyment of Nescafe, a sweet product placement deal most likely from which they do not receive any payment. The show then moves into the “warm-up round” in which a photo from past KVN competitions is projected onto a large screen, and this year’s teams must come up with a funny caption on the spot.

The warm-up seems to offer a good opportunity for performers to take soft jabs at the judges, most of whom are celebrities, and also the host.

I won’t give away who wins, but the remainder of the New Years Special contains more singing and dancing with the “Musical Number” task. Also, each team must complete the STEM challenge, with pre-written sketches revolving around New Years. Spoiler alert: most of the sketches are about how mother-in-laws are the worst and men like to drink and cheat. Yikes.

KVN is one of the longest-running shows television shows in Russian history. It was originally started in the 1960’s, but the Soviet Government decided to shut it down to the surprise of no one. In 1986, the show was resurrected and has continued to grow in popularity and influence. Putin and President Medvedev, both popular subjects of ridicule on the show, have attended taped performances.

The KVN Union website states that 5 million live spectators watch the show, and there are 40,000 participants, 3000 regular teams and 100 cities that host KVN competitions. One article in the Georgia Times (the country, not the state), speculated that KVN could be the bridge over troubled waters between Georgia and Russia. And thanks to the technological advancements of Google’s Translating services, you can poke around on KVN’s official website to learn more or their newly launched league website where teams can upload profiles.

In 2003, KVN champion team the New Armenians went on to found a Comedy Club in Moscow. The club started broadcasting its Saturday night stand-up show on Russia’s TNT and Comedy Club has quickly flourished into an entertainment empire. Now the Saturday night show at Comedy Club in Moscow commands $100 a ticket and it’s producers are some of the richest men in show business.

America has it’s own KVN league and NYU’s KVN team was its first champion. You can visit their website, but be warned the Google translations are pretty rough. Also, if you’re in New York City on April 23, you can attend the American KVN League’s Open Cup International Festival at the Millenium Theatre. Again, Russian language only.

In my opinion, KVN is the talent competition show to end all talent competition shows. It’s not just singing, not just doing a stand-up routine, not just dancing the best foxtrot — it’s all-of-the-above dipped in good old-fashioned showbiz pizzazz. As I mentioned earlier, the humor is quite broad and a little hammy, but the show appears to be a great equalizer among the diverse regions that made up the former USSR. Teams from Kazakhstan to Armenia to Smolensk to Moscow compete on an even playing field for the championship, and sometimes oppression gives groups the upper hand in humor.

For an American, KVN provides a nice alternative from the sarcastic, self-aware tone prevalent in much of our comedy. Plus, it’s a great way to learn about all of the cultures within Russia and around its borders. And finally, it’s a reminder that not all Russians are villains in Bond movies.

Laura Turner Garrison sometimes writes commercials, she sometimes writes comedy, but she always rights wrongs.

Inside KVN, Russia’s Mega-Popular Comedic Talent Show