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Stand-up comedian Kyrylo Osadchyi on performing during air raids, Ukrainian-language stand-up in Odesa, and jokes during the war

Photo: personal archive

Amidst the full-scale war, Ukrainian culture is experiencing a renaissance. New book publishers appear and Ukrainian films become box office hits. More than 50,000 people visited the Boryviter exhibition in Kyiv dedicated to the Ukrainian artist and dissident Alla Horska. 

Ukrainians are searching for themselves in culture, searching for their identity, which Russia has been trying to destroy and erase from memory for a long time, replacing it with a Russian one through cinema, books, music, and the Russian language. Russian stand-up also filled the Ukrainian cultural space before the war, spreading Russian narratives. 

After the start of the full-scale invasion, the Ukrainian stand-up filled 100% of the Ukrainian stage. Ukrainians use humour to relieve emotional stress, as well as to find solace and reflect on the war. 

Stand-up comedian Kyrylo Osadchyi talks about performing under the threat of Russian shelling, Odesa’s cultural identity, and jokes during the war.

Photo: personal archive
Photo: personal archive

“We had a performance in front of the military and they joked: ‘The S-300 is on its way.'”

How do you organise your performances with the constant air raid alerts?

It depends on the season, but we always try to find a venue with a bomb shelter nearby. In winter there are a number of venues that are either underground or have bomb shelters. Now it’s warm, and you can’t have people in the basement. Everyone wants fresh air and warmth. That’s why we’re looking for places with a bomb shelter nearby, no more than 500 metres away.

But we cannot force people to go down to the shelter. We are currently doing a series of performances called “Stand-up on the Roof”, and our venue is the sixth floor of a building. There is a shelter there, but people don’t want to go there anymore. They are no longer afraid. During the performance, when the alarm goes off, I stop the stand-up, tell people about the shelter, that they can go there, and some of them go. Some go outside to smoke and wait. There are those who are outraged: “It’s a MiG [fighter jets that carry out training flights in Russia and Belarus almost every day — ed.] that took off, why go down?” People are used to the alarms, it’s just routine.   

And how do you perform in the frontline cities? After all, the Russians shell them more intensively.

We went to the newly liberated city of Kherson in 2022. It was November, cold outside, a dirt road. We saw what the Russians had done there. 

We were delivering humanitarian aid and had to perform for the military. It was cold, there was no light because it was the first days after the de-occupation. We performed in front of the shelter, in the open air. And the Ukrainian military kept joking: “The S-300 [Russian surface-to-air missile — ed.] is on its way, the artillery is on its way”. It was probably the most dangerous performance I’ve ever had. 

Can you tell us more about your volunteering?

Since we resumed performances in March-April 2022, we’ve done charity events with volunteers we know. We did shows where we donated 100% of the profits to the Armed Forces. I recently bought a car and gave it to a friend in Kherson. So we are gradually getting involved and raising money.

The military write to us directly, and we show them our schedule of events. That determines how quickly we can raise money. It also depends on how much people are willing to donate at that time. That’s how we complete the fundraising. But yes, we work with volunteers we know and trust, and we are confident that the aid will reach the military.

Photo: personal archive

“Almost every stand-up performer in Odesa has gradually switched to Ukrainian.” 

You say that you promote Ukrainian-language stand-up in Odesa. Do your colleagues also perform in Ukrainian, or are there those who continue to perform in Russian?

Those who perform in Russian add up to about 10 percent. I don’t go to places where they perform in Russian, and I hardly ever meet them. Everyone else has gradually switched to Ukrainian.

I am a Ukrainian speaker in general. I came to Odesa in 2010, and I didn’t speak Russian. I spoke Surzhyk [a mix of Ukrainian and Russian — ed.] here and Ukrainian. But back then in Odesa, it was like this… It was a Russian-speaking city, everything was in Russian.

Then the Revolution of Dignity broke out in 2013, and I switched to Ukrainian again. But I had to go back to the Russian language when I was offered a good job as an art director at the Museum of Interesting Science. I started speaking Ukrainian again only after the full-scale invasion began. Sometimes I rewatch my Russian-language performances and don’t understand where I got this perfect Russian accent.

Who is your audience in Odesa?

They are men and women between the ages of 24 and 40. They used to be younger, up to the age of 35. Also, women were the first to be interested in us, they made up 70% of the audience. Now it is 60% women and 40% men.

To be honest, all these people are nice and polite. There are people who come, don’t like it and don’t come back. That’s fine. Otherwise our audience is cool, open-minded, ready to laugh at themselves, at others, at the world, and they know what irony is.

How does the audience in Odesa react to your jokes? Do they even express specific wishes to you about topics they would like to hear about?

In our team, Vyriy, we have different comedians. Some joke about the war, some don’t. We mix them up and watch the audience’s feedback. But there are no negative reactions to jokes about the war. We ask the audience and they are ready to accept and listen to it. Cruel jokes about the Russians are fine, and so are jokes about blackouts and shelling. We’re all in the same situation, everyone understands that. The audience understands that you are just as stressed as they are. And it works, it brings you together.

What unites the comedians of Vyriy? What are their values? 

I even wrote them down: tolerance, eco-friendliness, and mental health. We talk about it, about seeing a psychotherapist, we are starting a show about mental health. Yes, it sounds like we are for all the good things and against all the bad things. And maybe it is. But the main thing is honesty.

We are sincere with the audience at our performances, on social media, on YouTube, during events. And we always say that if you have problems or certain emotions, you can always talk to us about them and express them here. Comedy and humour are what keeps us afloat, as a form of relaxation, a release of emotions, and it will help us to just exhale and live the next day a little better than the day before. Stand-up is a good key.

“It’s cool in Chernivtsi, it’s cool in Kyiv, and when it gets cool in Odesa, you’ll realise that you’re part of something big.”

Russia has created a lot of myths about Odesa. One of them is “Odesa is the capital of humour”. What do you do with this myth in your stand-up — deconstruct, ignore, or destroy it? 

I had a solo show recently, and we discussed this very thing. That Odesa is the capital of humour. Not New York with Louis C.K., not Kyiv with Anton Tymoshenko, but Odesa is the capital. People laugh, it’s a joke, but it’s not really. I mean, in the 90s there was the Maski Show [a humorous TV series created by the Odesa comedy group Maski in 1991 — ed.], and the magazine Calambur [the series presented as a comic magazine — ed.], there was a whole era of humour. There were a lot of media humorists. Maybe this myth made sense then.

But that is no longer the case. There will be no such thing as when you walk up to an Odesa resident — and he tells you a joke. We, the comedians, are actually trying to find out where this myth came from and whether we fit into it. But I can’t give you the exact answer. Odesa can hardly be called a capital of any kind, and that’s fine.  

Do you think that the pace of derussification in Odesa meets your expectations, or would you like it to go faster?

You have to understand that Odesa is a resort city. At least it used to be before the full-scale invasion. Then, the Russians started shelling the coastline, and the resort area is no longer the same as before.

Everything is slow here. The people are lazy here. It is quite common to be 15 minutes late for an appointment. There are a lot of tourists here, a high level of cosmopolitanism. There are many ethnicities. Russians were tolerated in Odesa because they brought money here. A lot of money.

We had better accept the fact that some people in Odesa will never switch to Ukrainian. They have either not yet fully understood what is happening or are slowly going through this process. When the missile hit, and we were there, one old man openly said, “I thought that once the Russians came, everything would be fine. And now the missile hit, and everything became clear.”

This is changing. I saw a woman in the park. She said, “It’s great that young people speak more Ukrainian now”. She looked like she was 70 years old, if not older. I don’t think you can expect her to switch to Ukrainian, to learn it. And young people, they do change, it’s just that it’s slow. It’s just laziness. It’s like, you go to Kyiv to work, you go to Odesa to relax. 

Odesa’s identity is a bit slow, lazy, as you say, cosmopolitan. Should our overall Ukrainian identity absorb the Odesa identity, saying “this is mine now”? Or should we have some kind of multicultural symbiosis between regional identities?

I think when the authorities, the local authorities, pay attention to the citizens, when they start making the city for the locals, then there will be no such problem at all. Now the authorities are interested in tourists and the money they bring. They want to make it great to relax here, to come and go. When it’s cool to live here, to prosper, to work all the time, and not just to make money in the summer — then all this will be combined. All these regions and their identities will be merged into something. It’s cool in Chernivtsi, it’s cool in Kyiv, and when it gets cool in Odesa, you’ll realise that you’re part of something big.

Photo: personal archive
Photo: personal archive

“Russians should get picked on as much as possible.” 

Is stand-up, and humour in general, still relevant during wartime?

Of course, it is! It saves mental health. Laughter is the body’s response to stress. We live under the most stressful conditions. Yes, we do. We say, “It’s all right. It’s no big deal. The missile hit two blocks away. It’s fine”. But in reality, it’s not okay.

When you laugh, you release those emotions, you feel better. And if the comedian is experienced, you will also learn something interesting and think outside the box, especially regarding the topics you have not considered before. 

You can also attend the performance and chat with us — politely, of course. In general, stand-up is a synergy of emotions between the performer and the audience. There are 100 people in the room and one person on stage, and all those hundred people are focused on that one person. It gives people an incredible charge. 

What topics do you think you can joke about, and what topics are taboo?

In theory, there should be no taboo subjects. It is important to cover all topics. During a full-scale invasion, you can’t really joke about particularly sensitive topics because there’s a problem that needs to be solved.

For me, grooming is such a difficult issue that no one in Ukrainian society pays attention to it. She is 16, he is 32, she is pregnant — and everyone pretends it is all right. She goes to antenatal classes and no one pays attention or asks questions. A comedian can bring this up in their performances, but it’s essential not to offend anyone. Only then can there be a dialogue in society.

During a full-scale invasion, you cannot make jokes about the Ukrainian military. You can make jokes about the Russians. The Russians should get picked on as much as possible. You can’t joke about the death of our citizens. Sexism is also an uncomfortable subject, especially if you joke about women in the army. But in general, you can joke about anything. The more people joke, the better, the more sensible, the better.

Written by Mariia Patoka
Translated by Oleksandra Sobol