Between the age of 12 and 18 (or so) I read “Ludas Matyi,” the only Hungarian “satirical” weekly at the time, almost every Sunday. I had to put satirical in quotation marks as scope of satire in the area of politics and social issues was severely limited, i.e. censored. Nevertheless the 32 pages of the magazine was filled with jokes, cartoons, puzzles and short pieces every week. I read the paper on my customary Sunday visits to my Grandparents. As I was growing into an older teenager I laughed less and less on the jokes and images found there. My grandparents noticed it and asked me why I stopped laughing. I didn’t have a good answer then, but now I know that I outgrew the small circle of butts of jokes the paper was making fun of.
A few weeks ago I received “Vicckosar,” (literally “basket of jokes”) a whole book full of jokes from that era, published in 1987 (when I was 19). Based on the style and design of the book I suspect that the editor Gyorgy N. Varga used to work for the aforementioned paper. As I haven’t read any joke collection for a while I jumped into it. Reading this book, however forced me to remember the semi-forgotten memories mentioned above. The first section contained dirty jokes only, including lots of blond jokes (about dumb women) and/or jokes that with innuendos suggesting that cheating on somebody and covering it up is the smart (and socially approved) thing to do. I probably could have dealt with reading a few of these, but dozens broke my meter of misogynist tolerance.
When I started the book I wasn’t aware that it was divided into 10 sections as I didn’t check the tale of contents, which is in the back of Hungarian books (unlike in English book, where it is up front.) So I was feeling a bit desperate that the whole book will be filled with boring dirty puns. But the monotony was broken and the other 9 sections, ranging between 10 and 30 pages were of different genre:
- Mother-in-laws. They are evil or stupid or both.
- Smart-ass kids. Making fun of teachers.
- Health/doctors/patients/hospitals. Based on the title I think the next section was about them , but this section has fallen out from my copy, so didn’t have a chance to read it.
- Army. Either showing the tricks young men used to avoid the draft or showing the stupidity of the drill sergeants.
- Pets and animals. Half of them are anthropomorphic (animals behaving like people) and the other half the other way around (people behaving, sounding, looking, smelling like animals.)
- Artist. Starving, drunk, crazy, untalented, extrovert artists, including musicians, actors, painters and dancers.
- Afterlife. People telling other people with puns that they will die soon.
- Work. All of them are praising the idea that working less than required (and cheating the company/boss/colleagues) is a virtuous act.
- On the road: mostly chance encounters of people traveling by various means.
The list may seem to cover a wide variety of jokes, but altogether it still ended up a bit boring me. I used to know more than half of the jokes although by now I may have forgotten them. The other half reflected the morality of an era that I was socialized in, but I am happy that it ended. I respect mother-in-laws, students, health workers, animals, artists, work… so much more now that it was painful to read stories one after the other where this respect was undermined.
I know I sound like a sour person, who internalized the “political correctness” meme to such an extent that I cannot laugh at a good joke. I don’t think that’s true. I just think that jokes that can harm people’s self-esteem and lower their moral values do exactly that. Reading a few of them would be OK if one can then talk about or process them in some way. But hundreds of them one after the other is demoralizing.
On the other hand the book is an excellent document capturing the Zeitgeist of the last years of the Communist era in Hungary. It was an immoral era in many respect.