Splitsider

Wednesday, February 16th, 2011

Welcome to Gabrovo, Bulgaria's Comedy Capital and Favorite Punchline

What is the deal with international comedy? Join me each week to ask that very question in Comedy Tourism as I explore different trends and traditions of how the rest of the world makes funny in their respective native tongues. Don’t forget your passports! Just kidding, you don’t need your passport. Or do you? (You don’t.)

Hey, did you hear the one about the people who cut off the tails of their cats?
Why would anyone do such a thing?
So the door closes faster when they let the cat out.

This joke, or some modified version of it, is one of the most famous jokes in the canon of Gabrovian humor. Gabrovo is a small city in the Republic of Bulgaria, a small former-Soviet country in Eastern Europe nestled under Romania and next to the Black Sea (I’ve heard it’s simply gorgeous this time of year).

At some point in the past, residents of Gabrovo gained notoriety for being excessively stingy. Like, stingy to the point they might cut off the tails of their cats in order to save heat. Were you to put this in the context of a playground insult battle in America, or “snaps,” one would simply need to launch a “This one Gabrovonian was sooooo cheap he…” and most Bulgarians would follow suit. To be clear, though, this miserly reputation does not extend to Bulgarians as a people. It’s an incredibly specific characterization of one town that has over time become a national joke. Of course, when life hands the people of Gabrovo lemons, they don’t need them because no one in town will pay a nickel for lemonade.

See, at some point in time Gabrovo decided to take the jokes made at their expense and turn them into a badge of honor. Talk about thrifty. In fact, Gabrovo went so far as to declare themselves an international capital of humor and satire. Hubris and self-deprecation, yeah we got that. Now on sites such as Wikipedia, Gabrovonians are described as the ones having a sense of humor about themselves. I personally doubt a joke singling out a group of people for their flaws would be incepted within that group, but this humor is so strongly tied to their identity at this point it may as well be true.

According to the House of Humor and Satire, which we will get to in just a moment, Gabrovonian jokes came about when the industrial revolution reached the town. As business folk, they knew the value of laughing at themselves. As a people, Gabrovonians had a reputation for being “fast, inventive, sharp-witted and able to make something out of nothing.” So when booming industry birthed a middle-class in the town, the socially elevated couldn’t quite shake the urge to pinch pennies — from this came Gabrovo anecdotes. The oral tradition got a boost from national newspaper coverage throughout Bulgaria, and the jokes are still well known within the nation’s borders today. Now, the cat with the stub for a tail has long been a famous symbol of the Gabrovo town. The other part of his tail has gone on to lesser successes.

With a light googling of “Gabrovo jokes,” you will find the Internet aplomb with some of the classics. One such:

A good Gabrovian always heats their knives when guests come over for tea so that they are unable to help themselves to butter.

But I was disappointed to happen on the same 7 or 8 over and over again — that is, until I found book of books Gabrovo Anecdotes available in its entirety online. Published by the House of Humor and Satire (I promise we will get to it) this book attempts to put to page a near century if not more of oral tradition poking fun at the Gabrovonian way. I can’t vouch for the legality of the source, but if you find your appetite whet for more Gabrovo zingers — you’ll find the book in three parts: here, here and here. For the rest of you, here’s a choice few examples I've plucked from the pages:

Hospitality
A friend from the war years paid a Gabrovonian a visit, the latter hastened to show him the town and its sights. Finally, they came to a new restaurant and the host suggested:
“You can have a cheap meal here, while I run over to my place for a little while.”

It's Always Worth Trying
A Gabrovonian had to mend his door and sent his little son to the neighbor’s to ask for a hatchet. The child soon returned empty-handed — the neighbor had lied to him he had none. “Don’t bother about that miser,” was the father’s indignant reply. “Bring ours up from the cellar.”

One Will Do
“Have you got a picture of your twins?”
“Here it is”
“But there’s only [one] of them on it”
“That’s quite enough. The other one is just like him.”

Well, you get the idea right? I could go on but it would be a disservice to the Gabrovonian way.

So why don’t we talk about the House of Humor and Satire. As I mentioned, Gabrovo has deemed itself an international destination for humor and satire. They continue to host annual comedy festivals, and in the past have honored the likes of Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut. The early 1970's saw the transformation of a leather factory into a museum devoted entirely to the funny: aptly named the House of Humor and Satire. Its motto: “The World Lasts Because It Laughs.” At the very least, that certainly holds true for Gabrovonians.

Despite accruing a sizeable collection of humorous literature and art, the fall of the Berlin Wall and dissolution of the Soviet Union has not always been kind to the Bulgarian economy. Though still standing, the House of Humor and Satire is struggling. A few months ago, Michael Kimmelman from the New York Times visited the House as told in his article entitled "Take My Bulgarian Joke Book. Please." He describes the museum to be too "earnest" to be just an ironic tourist attraction, yet still in danger of becoming a relic. They don’t just need currency in monetary form, they are desperately seeking it culturally too.

That said, the Gabrovo Carnival of Humor marches on. As seen in this NTD television report, everything is fodder.

Truth is, the jokes feel dated. Despite dark undertones, always in style, Gabrovo anecdotes feel more like historical artifacts than relatable stories. To be completely honest, when I read they declared themselves a comedy capital I laughed. At them. Not with them. But knowing the Gabrovonians, they’ve probably taken on the joke as their own already.

Laura Turner Garrison sometimes writes commercials, she sometimes writes comedy, but she always rights wrongs.

  • PearJack

    What's the joke behind the tied-up clock on the cover of the book? Something about saving time?

    • A Gabrovonian!

      When the arrows move, they wear down and you need a new clock. You tie them to prevent that.

  • kevhines

    Love this feature. And this article.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Branimir-Prelosnjak/1485514721 Branimir Prelosnjak

    "Gabrovo is a small city in the Republic of Bulgaria, a small former-Soviet country in Eastern Europe nestled under Romania and next to the Black Sea (I’ve heard it’s simply gorgeous this time of year)."
    HAH! That was a GOOD ONE!
    Ever hear the one about the pot calling the kettle black?