Comedian Milan Lasica says he has little time for modern Slovak funnymen.
photo: Ján Svrček
"Czech humour is more mature because the Czechs have a metropolis which Slovakia still lacks. This is very important for the development of anything, but especially for humour."
Together, Lasica and Satinský have produced and acted in countless theatrical performances and TV programmes since 1959. Lasica, with his 'common man' wit, has maintained his popularity through communism, the Prague Spring, the Velvet Revolution, the ensuing Velvet Divorce and the authoritarian governments of Vladimír Mečiar.
Lasica sat down with The Slovak Spectator on January 29 in his Bratislava flat to discuss his career, his retirement, politics, and the current state of Slovak humour.
In his own words, "too old and too lazy" to enter politics.
photo: Ján Svrček
The Slovak Spectator: For our foreign readers who may have never heard one, could you tell a typical Slovak joke?
Milan Lasica: (pause) A Slovak suspected of killing his friend is being questioned in court. He defends himself by saying that the murder was an accident. "I was sitting in a pub chopping my bacon with a knife," he says, "when my friend - who was very drunk at the time - accidentally slipped and fell on the blade. And he slipped and fell on the blade seven times!"
TSS: What makes Slovaks laugh?
ML: It's difficult to say. All nations like to laugh, and tastes in humour are different. But they are not based on nationality, rather on social class. City-dwellers and village people, for example, laugh at different jokes, just as workers prefer different humour than do university professors. And then there is also a universal humour which everybody laughs at.
Slovak humour has no unique, special characteristics, and is neither superior nor inferior to that of any other country.
TSS: Foreign visitors to the country often remark that Slovaks appear a gloomy, depressed people. Do you agree? How would you describe the national mien?
ML: I can't judge. I don't come from Manhattan or London, so I don't have the necessary distance. But I think we're quite a happy people, I often meet people who are merry even without drinking.
It's interesting to hear the first impression foreigners get of Slovaks. Maybe we are a little gloomy or depressed, but it's not because we lack a sense of humour. Rather, it's because we often feel a bit helpless and we enjoy complaining about the things which make us flabbergasted, bitter or disappointed. We often have unreal expectations.
TSS: How was your work affected by communism?
ML: Under communism, there were clearly defined borders we had to work within which were set by high-ranking communist officials. If an artist felt that his work might be interpreted as an attack on somebody, he avoided doing it.
We had plenty of experience with this stupid system. It destroyed creativity. People lost enthusiasm for their art because they felt that anything they produced would be objectionable to somebody or other.
TSS: How about under the former governments of Vladimír Mečiar?
ML: Simply put, Mečiar's regime did not tolerate any political criticism. Milan Markovič, who was known for his political satire under Mečiar is an example [a popular comedian who was very critical of Mečiar's politics, Markovič had his show cancelled in 1994 and left the country for the Czech Republic, where he lived till Mečiar's ouster from power in 1998 - ed. note].
This testifies to the weakness and lack of self-confidence among those politicians. Self-confident people are not afraid of humorists, they don't think that humorists can destroy or degrade them.
But we've never done humour like Markovič. We had a problem with the [Mečiar] government when Markovič shot his TV show in our theatre - Culture Minister Dušan Slobodník cut the theatre's state funding by 60% in revenge. This was typical of their behaviour.
But the same was done by current Slovak Television (STV) Director Milan Materák. He took Markovič's show away from my studio because he was offended by my comments in the media. I directed a TV play for STV and a considerable part of it was erased. When the media asked who was responsible, I said I didn't know but that it had probably been the STV director.
TSS: Was it easier to be a humorist under the Mečiar governments?
ML: Humour is easy for those who have talent. If you have talent, it slips out of you naturally. But if you have no talent, it's tough.
I don't believe that you can produce humour. It must be smooth and easy, without being forced.
TSS: So you believe a comic is born, and not made?
ML: I think he is born. He can learn something beyond natural ability, but only technical skills, which they can teach at schools.
TSS: What was your role during the 1989 Velvet Revolution, which was labelled the 'revolution of actors and students'?
ML: We all joined the protest actions spontaneously starting in early 1989. We travelled around Slovakia trying to convince people to join the general protest. Every night rather than performing a rehearsed play, we would perform a show which was a discussion of the existing situation.
Those times will never be repeated... at least I hope they never have to be repeated.
TSS: Your wife [former actress and current Slovak Ambassador to Poland Magda Vášáryová - ed. note] was a presidential candidate in 1999. Some of your friends and colleagues have also entered politics. Have you ever considered a career in politics?
ML: I don't know why I never entered politics. Maybe it would have been good to have a direct influence on the government, but I thought I was too old and too lazy to change the political environment. And I have always lacked that desire for power which is so typical of politicians.
TSS: Your former colleague and friend, actor Milan Kňažko, became Culture Minister in 1998. Did this change your relationship with him?
ML: Before he became minister, he had a role in one of Studio S's plays, and when he was appointed we wondered whether he would continue. He hesitated, but in the end decided to continue. So I can say that nothing has changed.
TSS: He has taken criticism from the art community since becoming Culture Minister for losing touch with his roots. Do you think the criticism has been fair?
ML: Criticism of politicians is necessary. If it's unfair, then it's his job to convince us that the critics are wrong. The political scene must always be criticised or politicians will get comfortable and just do whatever pleases them.
TSS: Is Slovakia prepared to accept women in high politics?
ML: I think so. It was very courageous of her to run because before the election, few people in Slovakia believed that a woman should even run for president, but she got a lot of support. Maybe the day will soon come when a woman will not only run for president, but will also win the post.
TSS: Do you have any favourite politicians?
ML: No. Politicians should not be a subject of admiration, only trust. To love a politician and admire him like a movie star is sick.
But I do trust some politicians, such as Viktor Nižňanský who works for [public administration] reforms which seem to be nearly impossible to get through. I also have a certain amount of trust for Deputy Prime Minister for Economy Ivan Mikloš, who also works hard for something he may never accomplish, which is a pity. It makes me a little sad that those who should be trusted have to fight these useless Don Quixote battles.
TSS: What do you think of the direction in which Slovakia is heading?
ML: Slovakia's direction is towards the European Union and NATO, and about this there is nothing to discuss - it's a good direction. A few years ago, when it seemed that Slovakia would take a different path leading directly opposite from the West, I was really worried.
TSS: When did you first realise that you wanted to be a comedian?
ML: It started when I was 12. I realised that I wanted to do something theatrical, but I didn't know exactly what. Then, when I was 19, I started performing in public shows with Satinský.
TSS: Compared to other Slovak artists, you are very popular in the Czech Republic. Why is this?
ML: You always want to attract the widest audience possible. Because we grew up in the former Czechoslovakia, and lived in that bilingual environment, we succeeded in attracting a Czech audience. If we knew Hungarian, maybe we could attract a crowd in Komárno [a Slovak city with a Hungarian majority], maybe even in Budapest as well. If the Austro-Hungarian monarchy still existed, we would perhaps be able to perform in Vienna or in Germany.
But in this limited Slovak territory, we have at least succeeded in winning over some Czechs. So we can say with a clear conscience that we have become internationally famous... because Czechoslovakia was divided.
TSS: What is the difference between Czech and Slovak humour?
ML: There is a certain difference, but I don't like to make such generalisations. Czech humour is more mature because the Czechs have a metropolis which Slovakia still lacks. This is very important for the development of anything, but especially for humour.
TSS: Who is your favourite Slovak humorist?
ML: Today? I don't follow today's comics much. In my free time I like to pursue things more pleasant than watching modern comics, God forgive me.
TSS: Do you admire anything about today's humorists?
ML: I admire almost nothing about them. I respect what people like, but I wouldn't be able to do the kind of humour which exists today. They have good ideas and they are very quick to improvise when something unexpectedly enters their minds...
Well, I like Stano Štepka. I do not know if I can label him a comedian, but if he is, then I think he's one of the best.
TSS: Is it more difficult to become a comedian today than when you were first breaking into the field?
ML: No, I think it's easier now. If somebody today wants to be successful and well-known, he goes on television and becomes a news anchor person. He smiles, he talks quickly and he is already popular. In two or three weeks, he enters the TV Markíza competition for most popular TV personality and maybe wins second prize.
Today, you cannot do the kind of comedy we used to do, where we started and performed in theatres. Television has no time for all that. And in theatre, it's more difficult because you need a theatre to perform in. And if you want to be in theatre, you first have to make money. I don't know from where, but you need it from somewhere.
TSS: When would you say was the peak of your career?
ML: (laughs) I hope I haven't got there yet. I think I'm at the peak of my glory now, and have been for a pretty long time. But still nothing happens.
TSS: What about your future?
ML: About my future, I can only say that I want to have a pleasant and relaxing retirement. I am already a retired man, but I still cannot lead the ideal retired life. What I want to do as a retired man are things which have nothing to do with my profession. For example, I want to improve my golf game, but I still have to do many things with the theatre and acting.
TSS: Do you find it ironic that you have had two wives, but have stuck with the same theatrical partner for over 40 years?
ML: I don't think so. I think it's natural that marriages last shorter than professional partnerships. But our partnership is also quite unique, because other teams break up as well.
TSS: Do you spend much of your free time together?
ML: No. Maybe that's a clue!
12. Feb 2001 at 0:00 | Zuzana Habšudová