A week earlier I would have never imagined it. There I was standing in front of hundreds of applauding people, dressed in authentic Kazakh clothing, receiving an award that I wasn’t quite sure what was for. I had just finished my first KVN competition and apparently was given the award for best overall performer. My team placed second and received a DVD player. More importantly, I felt like I was making real friends with locals my age.
Okay, so for those of you that aren’t living in the former Soviet Union or are, but are living under a rock, KVN(w/link) is a popular form of entertainment that doesn’t really exist in the United States. Basically, it’s a competition where teams (of anywhere between three and ten people) are given around ten minutes to be as entertaining/funny as possible. It’s like improv, except you prepare for the show beforehand. (So I guess it’s not really like improv, but it feels like that to me.) Most of the skits are about 30 to 60 seconds long, meaning in your allotted time you perform about eight to ten skits. It’s extremely popular here, in Russian, and maybe in other CIS countries, especially in the schools, colleges, and universities.
So when some people from work asked if I wanted to join their team, I jumped at the opportunity. However, like the rest of my life here, all of it was in Kazakh. Except for most of my lines, which were in English. Yes, I am pretty much an English-speaking prop for the team, but being the token white guy is a role I’m comfortable with (see India Nite 2006). However, because it was all in Kazakh, it meant that I didn’t understand most of the jokes. And even when they were translated, I didn’t think they were all that funny. But humor is probably one of the last things you acquire when you assimilate into a culture.
My friend Hanman says that KVN reminds him of Boy Scout campfire skits. Since I wasn’t a boy scout, I don’t know. To me, it’s like Robot Chicken, but not as funny. You want the jokes to be quick, and the laughs usually hinge on a radical change in expectation. At least that was our style. It’s not so much a skit with funny characters, as a joke acted out with a punchline at the end. An example is one of our guys crying longingly over the apparent dead body of a girl, and her waking up and asking what’s wrong.
We practiced a lot for a week before the show. Mostly staying after work, saying we would practice, running through the skits one time, sitting around for an hour hanging out, then going home. It wasn’t very efficient practicing, but we spent a lot of time doing it. But it was fun to sit around and joke with locals. And one of the great things about KVN is that the people that do it are usually funny, entertaining people. The people you’d want to pal around with after work.
Finally, the big day came, and we ran through final rehearsals. I would be in five of the twelve skits we had planned. First, I’d recite a Kazakh poem that I learned by heart to endear the crowd to me. Next, there would be a skit in which I’d be in the mountains and there’d be an echo, but it wouldn’t be able to translate my English. Next, I’d have a line in Kazakh about alcohol being the best translator in a skit involving being stopped by the police. Then I was in a skit contrasting American and Kazakh music videos. Mine was made with a cameraman, theirs was made with a cell phone. Finally, I’d close the show by saying local Zhualinski (my region’s) girls are the most beautiful. I’d also be wearing traditional Kazakh clothes. Why? Because it’s always better when you make the guy who already stands out, stand out even more.
We drew the third slot, and anxiously waited backstage for our turn. The team before ours ran out of time before finishing, and left the stage angrily. Then us. Of course, it was a blur once you actually begin to perform. I do remember that the audience was laughing quite a bit. That was unexpected from me, but like I said, I don’t understand the humor. No mistakes. Under time. Awesome. I watched the rest of the show from backstage. Only one other team was definitely funnier than us. Everyone else seemd to get less laughs. When the judges gave out the scores, we received all fives, and were tied with the other team that seemed funny. (Should I mention somewhere that our team made up of people from the local government and the local political party, and two of our coworkers were on the jury. Not that that sort of thing matters here.)
Oh, and the skits are just one part of the competition. The other part is either having to answer questions from the judges or tell prepared jokes. For our show, we had questions from the judges. So once everyone was done, all the performers went out on the stage. I answered one question using complicated English words, the joke being that I had given them an answer, but they couldn’t understand it. Funny? Maybe? My team pushed me out to the mic a few minutes later and told me to do it again. I resisted, got there, froze, and said, “Kazakhstan Kutti Bolson.” I don’t know what that would mean, but you always say kutti bolson after the holidays, so it’s something good. Finally, the judges went off to deliberate and the audience was given their chance to ask question. That’s when someone asked “When did Michael learn Kazakh?” and I learned “None of your d*#n business” in Kazakh. That got a lot of laughs.
Then the judges came back. And I got a diploma. And then my team got a DVD player. And I got a lot of congratulations.
Since that original competition, my team placed third in the oblast semi-finals, but that earned us a spot in the finals in two weeks. When I came to Kazakhstan, I had the unrealistic goal of becoming a star in one of their horse games. That’s shifted now. I’m going to be a KVN star.