For the 52nd edition of E&M’s Diaphragm we sat down to talk to a Lithuanian comedian Oleg Surajev, who is famous for his original adaptation of the mockumentary genre. Before reading his take on the clash between boomers and generation Z, Russian propaganda and what responsibility comedians carry in their everyday work, we invite you to get to know his work by watching a short film Vatnikas:
Discovering comedy as a profession
E&M: As you do so many different things, from acting to stand-up, how would you describe yourself professionally?
Oleg Surajev: My main work is comedy, all of the other forms come from that. Our project 1k features social experiments as well as more traditional formats like films and series. The form may be different but the basis is always the same – that’s why I consider myself a comedian.
E&M: How did you discover this profession? Have you always wanted and hoped to become a comedian?
Oleg Surajev: When I was growing up, in many countries, especially Lithuania, a lot of new comedy content was emerging. I simply saw a few things that I really liked and realized that I want to do something similar. That happened when I saw “The Office” or Demetri Martin’s stand-up “If I”. Most of all, I wanted to write rather than perform.
E&M: What are other works of comedy you were inspired by?
Oleg Surajev: I love “Borat”, “Nathan for you”, “A bit of Fry and Laurie”, “Monty Python”. I watched a lot of Russian content when I was younger. In general, Russian comedy is really interesting, and has somewhat of a Western style. Humour is basically a play with human imagination – I was always fascinated by that.
E&M: And yet your work is in Lithuanian. How challenging was it to write in Lithuanian when most of your influences were in English or Russian languages?
Oleg Surajev: I think many comedians face this problem. Comedy wise, we live in quite a Western-centric world – all of the main shows and trends come from there. But I don’t think we should analyse someone’s comedy through references – it is a superficial impulse. A deeper creative impulse comes when you reflect on your childhood: what happened in the block where you used to play, how your parents behaved and so on. For some reason, these memories stick to your mind and as you grow older, they gradually gain substance and meaning.
The clash between boomers and generation Z
E&M: And how would you describe Eastern European humour, if there is such a thing at all?
Oleg Surajev: I don‘t think the geographic aspect is important here. You can get a good laugh from Emir Kusturica’s films even without knowing the cultural context because it just works. Of course, there are cultural differences but the key question is whether you are being genuine. One thing that I really don’t like is when people in Lithuania try to act as if they live in the US and deeply care about Trump and Biden. I understand that people are interested in what is happening in the world. But I am not fully convinced it is genuine.
What I find more interesting is the clash between boomers and generation Z. For example, boomers don’t get post-irony, meta forms, anti-humour. Think of the generation Z in Lithuania and the UK – they don’t differ that much. Now a person’s sense of humour is defined by his Reddit or Youtube feed rather than where he is from. The phrase “Okay, boomer” perfectly captures many recent processes in the public sphere.
This conflict always existed, though – we offer a world with free and vivid imagination but some people oppose that. That is why we say “Okay, boomer”
E&M: So, being a boomer implies a certain kind of thinking – some sort of conservatism?
Oleg Surajev: It is rather about having vivid imagination. How often do we see people triggered over some stupid meme, even among the left. I understand their argument that if there is a threat to a human’s life or dignity, humour may be out of place. But still there are so many people, especially in progressive countries, who take everything literally. This conflict always existed, though – we offer a world with free and vivid imagination but some people oppose that. That is why we say “Okay, boomer”.
E&M: But isn’t it a question of values? When I think about my parents‘ sense of humour, it seems to me that some jokes are simply too crude or distasteful for them.
Oleg Surajev: I don’t think it’s a question of age. Boomers are not necessarily old people. For example, Charlie Hebdo are not boomers. Because what they do matches the internet trends – they just constantly troll and try to shake established hierarchies. Which, in a way, is a leftist paradigm but from a creative standpoint, it does not have an ideology. I believe that this is what comedy is all about – questioning hierarchies.
Of course, sometimes it’s just a problem of communication. We could explain, even to your parents, that millennials’ and generation Z’s humour is not always logical but can be funny because it is similar, let’s say, to British humour.
E&M: Aren’t you sometimes worried that by choosing edgy and provocative topics you will inevitably insult some group of individuals?
Oleg Surajev: I never aim to make fun of vulnerable social groups which already get their share of trouble. But sometimes people misinterpret your joke as homophobic. While, on the contrary, there is an edgy rhetoric used to expose homophobia. You never know how your words will be interpreted and that is why I am always ready to apologize. I believe that comedy which makes fun of the vulnerable one is an easy job.
I believe that this is what comedy is all about – questioning hierarchies
“Vatnikas” – the victim of Russian propaganda?
E&M: Let‘s move on to your short film Vatnikas in which you play a Russia Yesterday journalist who finds himself in the heart of capitalistic hell, New York, and aims to expose American propaganda. For those who are not familiar with Eastern European political context, how would you explain what Vatnikas is about?
Oleg Surajev: To understand Vatnikas, you have to be familiar with Russian propaganda outside its borders, which goes back a long way to Stalin’s rule. Of course, capitalism and Western civilization should be criticized but the context is essential – who is criticizing and why. Russian propaganda against the West is not constructive, its goal is to troll in bad faith and to destabilize the situation. Depending on the context, they could use the rhetoric of the radical right or of the left.
Interestingly, Russian culture is very Western – French language used to be prevalent in the intellectual circles, while artists were inspired by European works. So, when Russia says that it is neither Europe, nor Asia, it engages in political manipulation. Sometimes this malicious trolling reaches such absurdity that people who hate the West have offices in London, live luxuriously in New York but at the same time receive money for criticizing the West and supporting all sorts of radical groups.
Fortunately, for people in the West Vatnikas is easier to understand now than five years ago, when it was made. People start realizing how Russia actually is.
E&M: That may be because Russia started interfering with the internal affairs of Western countries.
Oleg Surajev: Yes, but it still maintains this mellow, exotic image. Many on the left are fascinated by Russia‘s communist past and its intellectuals. Many got to know Russia in schools and universities through Chekhov and Dostoevsky but not through the conflict in Eastern Ukraine and tanks. Of course, sometimes Russia‘s criticism of the West is on point but the problem is its lack of self-reflection. When you are aware of the situation in Ukraine and the lack of separation of judicial and executive powers, their criticism of Western democracies looks ridiculous.
E&M: I loved the part where you expose the fake superheroes for deceiving children. Why does “vatnikas” care so much about children‘s well-being?
Oleg Surajev: Actually, he does not care about anything. He just wants to make a show and destabilize the situation. My goal in the film is simply to challenge people. For example, you walk into a store and ask to give you something for free. And then they are forced to explain, starting from the world‘s creation, why nothing is free. That is beautiful because it enables you to rethink the fundamental things in life. The same goes for Spiderman – you are obviously putting yourself in a position of an idiot and absorbing all of the negativity as people are just staring at you.
E&M: I have this feeling, when I watch Vatnikas or any other mockumentary film, that, when put in an uncomfortable position, people will react in a hostile way. However, in your film people just seem perplexed.
Oleg Surajev: Did you know that the scene in Borat, where he kidnaps Pamela Anderson, was filmed two times because the first time nobody did anything? People love watching reactions to pranks but, in reality, most people are passive and don’t react. That is why it is much more interesting from an artistic perspective to show a prank that does lead to a reaction. Russian propaganda and evil, in general, stems from passiveness, a lack of reaction.
E&M: What is the most hostile reaction you have ever received?
Oleg Surajev: The second time we were filming in New York, we got into a fight. But in general, New Yorkers are not aggressive, you may just get a passive aggressive reaction from time to time. And yet, we still managed to get in trouble. It was unfortunate because the provocation is not the goal in itself but rather a way to send a message.
E&M: Some people say that the term “vatnikas” demeans uneducated, often lower socio-economic status people, who are especially susceptible to propaganda. Others may even see Russophobia in this.
Oleg Surajev: I don’t think Vatnikas is about those people, on the contrary, it’s about that manipulating journalist who has too much power in Russia and fancy offices abroad. But even more, Vatnikas is about cringe. After all, you put yourself in the position of an idiot. Most people who believe in propaganda would not do that and would rather act cautiously. I mean, nobody in the West is blaming these ordinary people who are being manipulated.
E&M: But it happens in Lithuania: people love putting labels. If somebody disagrees with you, they will call you “vatnikas” or some other demeaning category.
Oleg Surajev: That’s is why we should direct humour towards those who manipulate. As for those who believe in propaganda, I feel a kind of affection because I see myself and my relatives in them. Many of us grew up surrounded by an imperialistic thinking: “Russian vaccines, Russian tanks, Russian literature, Russian theatre, Russian ballet”. Even if half of these people have never seen a ballet or been to the theatre, they act as if they deeply care about these things. Of course, these people are in a poor social standing but when you fight against manipulation and you are told not to make fun of people, maybe it’s not worth fighting at all.
Also, it really annoys me when people say “Let’s listen to both sides” because sometimes there are no “two sides”. What are the two sides in the question of civil partnerships for same-sex couples? On one side, you have people who are fighting against discrimination and on the other – for discrimination? So, sometimes we give way to this manipulation, while instead we should use labels to red-flag ideas.
E&M: So maybe the bottom line is that it should be done carefully?
Oleg Surajev: Absolutely. But at the same time, you always risk crossing the line and doing some damage. As comedians are the ones taking the risk, they should take the responsibility. That is also why, it is so easy to accuse them. Unfortunately, we cannot avoid that.
Cover photo: Oleg Surajev