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The Comedians Keeping Jokes Alive in Wartime Ukraine

The That’s the News livestream show on YouTube. Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo by Underground StandUp / Підпільний Стендап/YouTube

That’s the News, the daily wartime comedy show streamed via YouTube by Kyiv’s Underground Standup Club, is not unlike most comics showcases — there are nervous laughs, memes, and cat jokes. Ukraine’s largest comedy club pivoted from in-person shows to livestreams on March 6, with comedians delivering material from their homes (or temporary shelters) and attempting to make sense of the ongoing war in their country. The biggest difference between the shows before Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine and now was best expressed when Serhii Chyrkov, guest host of the March 9 stream, addressed the audience directly: “I just want all of you guys to stay alive. It’s clear at this point it won’t likely be the case, but I just hope you guys survive.”

For a month now, Ukrainians have been fighting back the unprovoked attacks ordered by Russian president Vladimir Putin, and the number of civilians killed by Russia’s occupying forces is now at least 953. The bombardments of residential buildings, cathedrals, and even maternity wards continue in a number of besieged cities; the devastating chaos has caused over 3.5 million residents to flee Europe’s biggest country. But there is still a place for comedy in and around Kyiv, argue the Ukrainian stand-up comedians Sviat Zagaikevich, Nastia Dierskaia, and Serhii Lipko, the organizers behind That’s the News.

Zagaikevich founded Underground Standup Club in 2015, and Lipko and Dierskaia (who are life partners) have been regulars at the club for most of its seven years. In the months prior to the war, they hosted That’s the News live and in person, and now they produce the YouTube version from various parts of Ukraine. Dierskaia left Kyiv in late February to find a safer place to stay, but Zagaikevich and Lipko remain in Ukraine’s capital, a current target of artillery strikes.

The YouTube episodes average about 10,000 views each, and their hosts engage with hundreds of viewers’ comments in real time. “We’ve all had our lives changed drastically overnight. But in war, you desperately need this sense of stability and structure. I believe that’s what comedy can provide,” Zagaikevich says. All three comedians have experienced personal tragedies, Dierskaia points out, and those tragedies inform their jokes. “I’d say that humor is mental morphine for wounded people,” adds Lipko. “That’s corny, but comedy really is like a first-aid kit.”

Dierskaia is checking in from the room where she co-hosts the stream in a safe town in Central Ukraine. Visible in the background is a colorful carpet that’s become the subject of fan art by That’s the News viewers, and Dierskaia says the livestream has become her primary focus. “For the first couple of days since the war began, it seemed there was only war stuff — only tanks, rockets, and armed forces. We are rooting for the Ukrainian military, but it also matters how the people not taking arms feel, because they’re the majority,” she explains. “It’s crucial at the moment for people to stay positive and avoid demoralization.”

Dierskaia’s parents were scheduled to be evacuated from a now-occupied town outside Kyiv, but Russian forces violated a cease-fire on March 11, and they were unable to leave. “I have almost no contact with them,” she says, adding that in the rare cases she does get in touch, she reads them jokes from Ukrainian comedians. “When I heard my mom laugh, that was so great,” she says. “That’s fucking sad, but also nice, you know?”

Lipko, who served in the Ukrainian military in 2015, was quick to enlist again. “I hadn’t thought about jokes during the first days of war, but then I had to wait in this long line at the enlistment office,” he says. On February 26, Lipko tweeted that an air-strike alarm went off while he was in line, but no one rushed to the bomb shelter. “The fear to lose out on a machine gun was way worse than the fear to get killed by Russian bombardment,” the joke went.

Every That’s the News episode begins with an improvised ceremony of raising the Ukrainian flag, except what Lipko slowly raises above his head to the beat of the Ukrainian military march is his cat Marquis, not the flag. While the show has a freewheeling style, there are some staples, including a monologue by Dierskaia and a short joke from Zagaikevich: “What is the difference between a Russian and a Ukrainian plane? The Russian is always followed by the rocket,” goes one from the March 23 episode. The show traditionally ends with a plea to give to two charitable causes: the Come Back Alive fund to support the Ukrainian military and UAnimals to take care of pets during war.

What gives the show most of its structure are news stories about Russian occupying forces suffering losses in Ukraine. For example, during one stream, the comedians discussed Ukrainian farmers stealing Russian tanks. They share urban legends, too, like the one about a Ukrainian babushka who invites Russian soldiers to tea, only to poison them. “These people came to our land with a mission to kill us. They’re murdering innocent people, striking churches and hospitals. So I don’t worry about offending some guy in Russia,” says Lipko. The tone of this portion of the show can get dark, but the comedians insist it’s a natural part of coping with wartime. “That’s one way to feel this unity in the face of an enemy now: if they laugh, that means they’re not afraid,” Zagaikevich says.

On March 13, two days after Dierskaia cursed the Russians for violating the cease-fire and preventing her parents from leaving their town, she has better news to share on the show: her mother and grandmother have been safely evacuated and joined her in Central Ukraine. “I’m so happy for granny. You know, she’s not really a parkour runner at her age, so we gotta take care of her,” she says cheerfully. Dierskaia’s joke destroys her co-hosts, and Zagaikevich can’t stop laughing. “Go ahead and laugh. I was just saying I love my grandma,” Dierskaia shrugs with a smile.

For now, Underground Standup Club has no plans to return to in-person shows, though the organizers note that Kyiv metro stations have functioned as de facto bomb shelters with venues for cinema and music. There are live stand-up shows in safer areas in the west (and, more recently, near the Russian border in Sumy), but as air strikes move closer to Lviv, it’s unclear how long these live shows will last. “I have survivor’s guilt now, like everyone who’s not on the front lines,” Zagaikevich explains. “But it’s great to hear the feedback to our shows.”

  1. That’s the News fan art, along with an English translation by the artist.

    Yuliia Lobodiuchenko

  2. That’s the News fan art, along with an English translation by the artist.

    Yuliia Lobodiuchenko

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Days after we spoke, Lipko joined the Territorial Defense Forces, the military reserves of Ukrainian armed forces tasked with guarding Kyiv. He hasn’t participated in the livestream show since March 13, but Dierskaia says he plans to return soon. “He probably would have to get on a very high tree to get some signal though,” she laughs.

The comedians are the first to admit that humor can only go so far. One of the most shocking moments of the war happened on March 16, when Russian bombs destroyed the Regional Drama Theatre in the southeastern city of Mariupol, where 1,300 people, including children, were seeking shelter in the basement. (According to the city’s government, about 300 people were killed in the attack.) Given these devastating losses, Lipko doubles back on his initial thoughts about performing comedy during the war: “Should we even make jokes now? Is that okay to make people laugh? In war, you’re supposed to suffer.”

The stream is ultimately fueled as much by introspection as by instinct. “No matter how tight the joke is, it won’t stop the bleeding wound,” Lipko says at one point during the March 9 stream, to which Dierskaia can’t help but reply, “What’s the tightest one you have, though?”

The Comedians Keeping Jokes Alive in Wartime Ukraine