Monday, May 5, 2008


I have not been blogging lately because I have been busy trying to get the first draft of a book done. It’s on Estonian humor. You might remember a series of jokes about short books, like “What Men Know About Women” and “Italian War Heroes.” There are those who would add to this list, “Estonian Humor”. Many believe that Estonians are just not funny people. They believe that we Estonians are serious, taciturn, and reserved, and these descriptors are for the most part accurate. But underneath this façade you will find Estonians to be warm, generous, and friendly. And funny. But their humor is different and does not appeal to everyone. Often it is uniquely Estonian and does not travel well to other ethnic groups.

The title of this book, “Estonian Jokes”, could have two different meanings. First, an Estonian joke may be a joke told by others about Estonians, and I admit that often the Estonian offers a tempting target for such jokes. The second meaning of “Estonian Jokes” is that this is a collection of jokes told by Estonians. The truth is that in the case of this book, both of these meanings apply. These are jokes told by Estonians about Estonians. Sometimes they are cutting, especially when they skewer some of the more unattractive characteristics of Estonians, but mostly they are self-deprecating and funny to the very people who are being made fun of.

I started this short book about Estonian humor believing that the Estonian character is open to humor and that there exist jokes that can define that character. What I found is that there are essentially three different types of Estonian jokes, mirroring the often tragic national history.

Estonians have lived in present-day Estonia for at least a millennium. Their language is part of the Finno-Ugri family, with Finnish being the closest relative. Since the 1500s the region of Estonia has been conquered and overrun many times by Germans, Danes, Swedes, and Russians. The miracle is that Estonia continues to exist as a unique culture. The uniqueness of the culture is defined in many ways, including an ethnic humor, and it is this character that I have tried to capture in this book.

The first broad epoch in Estonian history I call Old Estonia, and this includes the period of subjugation to German nobility and the Russian Tsar, which ended with the war for independence and eventual establishment of the free republic of Estonia in 1918. This independence lasted only a short 20 years before the Russians once again invaded. I define the second epoch in Estonian history as the Soviet Time, beginning about 1939 with the occupation of Estonia, and ending in 1991 with the (re)declaration of independence. The third epoch in this book is the modern time, or New Estonia.

Here are a few samples of the jokes I have collected, two from each category:

Old Estonia

An old Estonian is driving to his summer home for the season and spies a dead crow on the road.
“This crow might be of some use,” he thinks and puts the dead bird into the trunk of his car.
In the fall the old Estonian is driving back from his summer home and he stops at the very same place, takes the dead crow out of the trunk and lays it on the road.
“Ahh, I didn’t need it after all,” he says to himself.

A poor talumees (farmer) had a single cow to sustain his family. During a severe thunderstorm, lightning struck and killed the cow. The poor man was absolutely distraught. He was on his knees, wailing and moaning in the rain and calling for God's justice.
God felt so sorry for the man that he appeared to him, apologized for the "friendly fire" and asked what He could do to make amends.
The farmer thought about the offer and replied:
"Kill my neighbor’s cow as well!"

Soviet Time

A Soviet bureaucrat complained to his superior, “I hear on the radio that we’re producing a lot of meat, milk, and butter. Yet my refrigerator is always empty. What shall I do?”
His superior answered, “Plug your refrigerator directly into your radio.”

When the general election took place, the workers and employees were led to the polls by Communist activists who handed them envelopes to be deposited in the ballot box. One worker who was more curious than the others opened his envelope and began to examine the ballot slip.
“What are you doing there?” shouted the activist.
“I’d just like to find out who I am voting for,” the worker replied.
“You confounded fool – don’t you know that this is a secret ballot?”

New Estonia

An American, a Russian, and an Estonian are riding in the same compartment in a train. The American takes out a pack of cigarettes, offers one to the others, and then throws the rest of the pack out the window.
“What did you do that for?” exclaim both the Russian and the Estonian.
“Ah, in America we have so many cigarettes…,” replies the American.
After a while the Russian takes out a bottle of vodka, offers it all around, and then throws the rest of the vodka out the window.
“What did you do that for?” ask the American and the Estonian.
“Oh, in Russia, we have so much vodka…,” replies the Russian.
Time goes by, and the Estonian sits in deep thought.
Finally he throws the Russian out the window.

After having dug to a depth of 100 meters last year, Scottish scientists found traces of copper wire dating back 1000 years and came to the conclusion that their ancestors already had a telephone network more than 1000 years ago. Not to be outdone by the Scots, in the weeks that followed, English scientists dug to a depth of 200 meters, and shortly after, headlines in the newspapers read, “English archaeologists have found traces of 2000 year old fibre-optic cable and have concluded that their ancestors already had an advanced high-tech digital communications network a thousand years earlier than the Scots.” One week later, Estonian newspapers reported the following: “After digging as deep as 5000 meters in Narva, Estonian scientists have found absolutely nothing. They, therefore, have concluded that 5,000 years ago, Estonia's inhabitants were already using wireless technology.”

I have used only one criterion for choosing jokes for this book, and that is whether or not I thought they were funny. I admit this unabashedly, without apology. If any other person would have written a book on humor they would no doubt have chosen different jokes, for humor is highly personal. But my hope is that you will share at least some of my admittedly warped sense of humor and conclude that yes, once in a while, Estonians can be funny.



DrewEndy said...

Estonia is where you find it!

pamela said...

Order of preference: Old Estonia, New Estonia, Soviet Estonia. There's something achingly poignant about the crow joke.

But the Russian-out-the-window joke si damned funny.

Rolling_Estonian said...

Totally funny! Unk, I need to get that train joke in the original language. I can surely use it...

Indrek said...

This should have been in the Estonian jokes collection.
Ivan and Pjotr were staring up a flag pole, scratching their heads. An old farmer, in an equally old truck )krusa) came by and asked:"What's the problem, comrades". Pjotr answers:"The foreman wanted us to measure the height of the flag pole, but we can't climb up this skinny pole".
The farmer goes to his truck brings a monkey wrench and a measuring tape. He loosens a couple of bolts, and lowers the pole to the ground, then measures it. "Seven and a half meters, comrades". Then takes his stuff and drives on. Ivan looks at Pjotr and chuckles: "A manure spreader if I ever saw one. We wanted the height, and he gives us the length"