195 - History and origins of Latvian jokes

Ky Henderson, right, with Chris Connolly at the Star Trek Casino in Las Vegas after a few Borg bowls.














Latvian jokes began as an instant messenger conversation between me and Ky Henderson. I was writing a book about the three years I spent living in Latvia and Ky was an editor at a magazine. I was working on a chapter about the Latvians' trademark 'black humor' and I wrote a quick joke and messaged it to Ky.

Latvian: Is so cold.
All: How cold is?
Latvian: Very. Also dark.

He immediately picked up the idea and soon sent back this:

I hope my son does not die during night.
What is "hope"?
Yes. I know what you say.
No. I am serious. What is hope?
In truth, I do not know.


We wrote about eight more jokes in the next 15 minutes and I was laughing my ass off. I saved that  dialogue and would pull it up and re-read it now and again and I always thought it was funny. I sent some of the jokes to my brother Andrew and he got in on the act as well.

Although Andrew did visit me in Latvia, I was the only author of the original jokes with deep firsthand knowledge of Latvia. This is why the vein eventually came to encompass Cossacks and rape and a whole bunch of other things that aren't really Latvia-specific. As we worked out the original list of jokes, "Latvia" came to be a stand-in term for Obscure Former Soviet Nation Western People Don't Know Shit About. The reason Latvia inherited the spot was simply that I was writing about my experiences there when I wrote the first joke.


After the jokes sat on my hard drive for a year or so, I started thinking I should send them out into the world. The freelance market for something like that was pretty dim, so I sent them to our buddies at holytaco.com and requested that they put them on the site. I enjoyed a few days of increased hits on my site, then I considered the matter closed.

About a month after that I was working on my book when my phone went kind of crazy. Someone linked to the jokes somewhere on Reddit.com, and I went from maybe 30 hits a day to about 15,000. This was fun and exciting, and it still happens every once in a while and I get all juiced up about it.

To date, the jokes in their quiet repository on my page have been viewed around half a million times. I switched hit counters at one point, so I can't say accurately what the stats are. What I do know is that Latvian jokes have now become a "thing."People write their own jokes based on the theme. People have illustrated the jokes. There's a tiny twitter account, and this guy and this guy even acted the jokes out.

I have never debated with anyone about the appropriateness of the jokes because engaging angry people on the Internet about something as subjective about a joke is a shortcut to madness. Basically, if you find it funny, it's funny. If you don't, it's not. If you get offended, it's offensive. If you don't, it isn't. That's about the only statement I can make about that.

I think it's cool that the jokes have taken on a life of their own, and I hope people keep making them up forever. I still laugh when I read them and some of the new contributions to the genre are genius.

Uz redzēšanos. Lai jums veicas.

20 comments:

Family Fandango said...

Some of those comments are HILARIOUS, especially from the people you pissed off.

Anonymous said...

In Latvia we no have jokes. :-(

Karel Marciniak said...

There's a whole subreddit devoted to it now - http://www.reddit.com/r/LatvianJokes/. Although you can find some gems like the "Latvian Rhapsody" - http://redd.it/1dclnf, it's mostly bad jokes about potatoes.

Adam M said...

https://www.facebook.com/DowcipyOLotewskichChlopach

We have also polish versions of your jokes!

Anonymous said...

https://www.facebook.com/halucynacjazniedozywienia

Anonymous said...

As a stereotype it's hard to piss of latvians as they are northen people, so it tells a lot about you, how fcking awful can someone be!
Don't like this realisation, poure out more latvian vodka as a punishment for Russia!
Average latvian speaks at least 3 languages, but americans, the same as russians, can't even learn the only one they have, and it's not hilarious, but just sad, just saying!
At least could try to leave some part of the truth, to your primitive, as latvians say "diršanu" (shitting), now it looks a bit idiotic, seems like you are laughing about famine and misfortune!

Kangarooo said...

Hi.
I dont think youwe been in Latvia or have heard Latvian jokes couse theese are your interpretation of Russians about not knowing hope. You have missed a lot logic. Maybe thouse are jokes about you couse its not so cold as more colder places- Russia, Sweeden.
We have nothing to do with potatoe. And capitalist propoganda is scare tacktic of communisms. So your jokes are about dumb Russians half century ago and not Latvian jokes.

Anonymous said...

chris connolly is motherfucker in hardcore!
with love from LATVIA:*

Anonymous said...

You not Latvian, we Latvian, we rule the potato industry.

Anonymous said...

To you is big joke. To me is no joke. Only hunger.

Zane said...

You've been to Latvia? Really? Those jokes obviously are about mentally retarded Russians somewhere in the Far North of the Soviet Union. You probably think Latvians have no ability to laugh about themselves, if they find this offensive, but in actuality you need to preserve at least a trace of reality in the joke, otherwise you're not really making a joke about the people in question, you just show that you don't give a rat's ass about countries you visit and their people

Anonymous said...

Hello.

Today I have discovered phenomena called "Latvian jokes"

I have chuckled. They ARE funny.
However, as a neighbour of Latvians and a former soviet citizen (I am Lithuanian) I can see how they might be offensive. You see, Latvians are almost Lithuanians. Or vice versa. Would I liked my country and culture to be associated with this
/postsovietic hardship tale told by broken grammar english/? Probably not.

so yah,
To you is big joke. To me is no joke. Only hunger.

Peter Sab said...

Yes, Yes, is funny but where is potato???

Anonymous said...

Where is potato?

Anonymous said...

I'm glad I found these and shared them with my friends BEFORE they became popular. I feel like a real OG hipster.

Anonymous said...

Most of these jokes don't really apply to Latvia, they can be funny, but only if you ignore that they are supposed to be about Latvia, otherwise they're perplexing. It's as cold as northern Germany, so, not cold enough to be a charasteristic, and the guys with the potatoe famine were the Ukrainians (and the Irish, but they were never kidnapped by Russia). Also the broken English is more Russian than Latvian, you didn't even throw in Latvian (swear) words! The subreddit also seems to think that we speak Russian natively because of all the "komrade"s. Now you've just taken up the term "Latvian jokes" which could've been used for actual Latvian jokes.

Anonymous said...

I am Latvian, love the jokes and the funniest thing of all was other Latvians getting butthurt about these jokes when they were at their peak. I don't know, the non-sequitur black humour just makes me laugh every once in a while.

Actual Latvian humour is nothing like this though.

Anna Willoughby said...

Can you tell an actual Latvian joke? I know humor can be hard to translate. I find these jokes funny because of how dark and nonsensical they are, but I didn't really think they had anything to do with Latvians - sort of like how Polish jokes didn't really have anything to do with actual Polish people when I was growing up, it was just a nationality no one was familiar enough with to be offended about.

That said, I'd love to hear what real Latvians find funny.

Anonymous said...

only potat

Jono said...

Potat not funny, only rok.