May 27th 2010, 13:03 by E.L. | LONDON
Jokes helped make communism collapse. “Anekdoty” as they were termed, helped dispel the climate of fear and highlighted the backwardness and stagnation that were the hallmark of central planning and the police state. The best ones were about people like Brezhnev; few found Stalin a good subject for humour.
But since then life has become trickier for jokesters. Mocking other countries can easily seem patronising and crude. The fictional Borat was hilarious for people who couldn’t find Kazakhstan on a map, rather less so for Kazakhs (and for the Romanian villagers gulled into taking part as extras). Poland’s then deputy foreign minister Radek Sikorski won kudos in 1999 by forcing CNN to apologise after Ted Turner told a silly joke implying that Polish sappers used their feet to detect mines.
Some old joke themes survive. The “hot Estonian guy”, famous for his dim wits and low libido is highly amusing for that country’s envious southern and eastern neighbours. Jews are still canny; pensioners, such as the stereotypical elderly Hungarians Kohn and Grün, are fearful of the future (and sometimes of the fast-changing past). Jokes about “new Russians” and their crudeness and extravagance are legion. But for the most part political correctness has taken its toll. Ethnic stereotypes, once a handy summary of the plusses and minusses of national character, are now seen as thinly disguised racism. Even the most side-splitting joke about, say, a scheming Romanian, a cowardly Czech and a gloomy Hungarian risks attracting a rebuke rather than a roar of approval.
This is not just an ex-communist phenomenon. A recent column which lightheartedly chopped Italy in half and suggested that the southern bits might be nicknamed “bordello” produced some anguished responses (as well as a much larger number of appreciative ones). So did an animated version published a couple of weeks later. the arrival of a TV crew from Rome, solemnly eager to interview the author of the “provocation”.
But a joke-less future would be a bleak one indeed. And good though the old jokes were, it is high time for some new ones. Promising themes might be the sleaze and cronyism of post-communist politics, the stitch-up of Europe between big countries at the expense of small ones, and the lamentably inadequate response of the continent’s political class to the economic crisis.
To avoid offence, every country should concentrate on developing self-deprecating jokes (just as rabbis tell the best Jewish jokes). Estonia has (as in so many things) paved the way here, with two sharply amusing videos, one lampooning that country’s tendency to ignorant self-centredness, a second one its timidity and negativism. Self-deprecating humour is the ultimate sign of emotional and political maturity, just as a rabid prickliness is typically a sign of unresolved complexes about superiority, inferiority, and lack of attention from the outside world.
The sanction for those countries that don’t produce enough self-critical jokes is a simple one: they will be ignored. That is an even worse punishment than being mocked. An Estonian businessman of your columnist’s acquaintance was recently posted to Vilnius to sort out his company’s troubled subsidiary there. He forced through radical management changes involving minute-taking, attendance at meetings and punctuality. In return, he sat through a week of back-slapping anecdotes about Estonians’s social, sexual and other short-comings. Eventually his hosts tired of the fun and asked him for some Estonian jokes about Lithuanians. “We don’t have any. Our jokes are about the Finns”, he responded coolly.
Readers are welcome to post jokes in the comments section below and to recommend the ones they like best. A future column will pick some winners. Political correctness will not be applied, so ethnic stereotypes, historical grudges and other forms of grotesque unfairness will (within reason) be tolerated.