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Zelensky’s Comedy Training Serves Him Well

March 16th, 2022 by dk

Many people are surprised that Volodymyr Zelensky came to political power after becoming famous as one of Ukraine’s most successful comedians. (Some would counter that President Trump rose from the same ranks.) I am not surprised at all.

Have you ever been on stage, being stared at by a crowd of people who are sitting in anonymizing darkness? Each person wants you to make them laugh in their own, very specific way, but you have no way of knowing what that way might be. You try different things on different audiences, perfecting a tone and rhythm that provokes a reliable few.

If you can touch a few people in the crowd that way, the assignment gets easier. That anonymizing darkness can be deployed in the performer’s favor. Not many will sit silently when they are surrounded by others who are laughing. Eventually, ideally, the exchange becomes dyadic — the performer and the crowd. The many have become one.

I’ve coached stand-up comedy acts and I performed improv comedy in Chicago for seven years. I consider comedy a high calling, a proving ground, a skill that serves the greater good. At the height of my Comic News years, we noticed all of our top people had religion degrees — publisher, cartoon editor, news editor, and art director.

We had each in our own way settled what was important in life. And everything else was fair game! A retired English teacher from South Eugene High School once told me, “When I first heard of you, I knew you were funny. And you are. But you’re also one of the most serious people I know.” Those are not opposing forces. Quite the contrary! They fit together quite well.

Comedy is a tool for telling the truth. It won’t be funny if the audience doesn’t recognize that truth. And so, in this way, comedians are braver than most. They have to say what’s so, in a way that others haven’t, usually about something that everyone sees. It’s not easy to be both universal and original, and also funny at the same time.

Comedians have to learn to read a room, because “bombed” is exactly how it feels. Zelensky has been trained in metaphor for what has become shockingly literal. He has valiantly cast Vladimir Putin as the heckler, a sad drunk who finds himself isolated as the crowd discovers its unity.

Hecklers create disorder. Comedians use disorder. Disorder is comedy’s home turf. People smile and sometimes laugh when their expectations have been disrupted. Exaggerate something that should be trivial. Shuffle a timeline so effect comes before cause. Skip some steps, jumping ahead to an outrageous conclusion. The audience will see something differently. Discomfort elicits laughter.

No one laughs without first paying attention. Holding people’s attention is the coin of the realm for world leaders. By that token(do you see what I did there?), Trump earned that stature, even if he never quite figured out — still hasn’t — what to do with it. Will Zelensky be able to keep the world focused on his country’s heart-breaking plight?

Yes, I think so.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and archives past columns at He published the Comic News in Eugene from 1995 until 2005.

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