A Czech, and American and a Russian are stuck on a desert island, lost to the world, and one day they catch a golden fish. “Put me back in the water,” says the fish, “and I will fulfil a wish for each of you...”
I heard that joke in an English class 12 years ago, when I was asking for some examples of Czech humour. All of the students agreed: we have a very malicious sense of humour they told me, and I have heard that many times since. I have only seen mixed evidence of it though in those 12 years (except in the Radio Prague office, that is, where I admit most of us have developed facetious senses of humour as a result of years of reading about politics). But Czech humour in general doesn’t strike me as being as black as Czechs themselves say it is. If I think about the things people usually laugh most at in the cinema for example it tends to be mostly over-the-top situations (as in Pelíšky), absurdity (as in Year of the Devil) or one-liners (as in Knoflíkáři). Sure there are dark jokes in all of these films, like the theme of the suicidal teenager in Pelíšky. The malicious part of the humour is that half the time in most Czech films you – or at least Czechs – are laughing either at someone else’s misfortune or someone’s idiocy. I’ve come to call it the national “bugger-thy-neighbour” sense of humour.
Then I went to see the Czech version of the play Dangerous Liaisons, and was very surprised. Judging by the audience’s response, I would have expected it to be called “Dangerous Liaisons: a romantic comedy”. In case you haven’t read the book or seen one of the plays or cinematic versions of it, there is very little that is very funny about Dangerous Liaisons, it’s a study of emotional cruelty. But while I didn’t find the play itself funny, I had to smile at the Czechs, who were tickled pink, or maybe black, by Valmont’s every treacherous lie. Speaking after the play with poor Cécile (the young innocent who is raped, brainwashed and ends up in a nunnery), I learned that every audience finds it funny, in fact the actors expect them to.
Interestingly, of the two big-budget films made of this story, by the British director Stephen Frears and the Czech Miloš Forman, one of them also takes the more comedic interpretation. Guess which.