Russian comedian Denis Chuzhoi was one hour into his recent stand-up show -- which painted a grim picture of a Russia plagued by corruption and suicide -- when he turned his attention to the man whom few Russians dare criticize in public for fear of repercussions -- President Vladimir Putin.
"I started to think about how societal stereotypes that a man should be tall and powerful are so widespread that even Putin succumbs to them and tries to appear taller to please us," Chuzhoi said of the former KGB officer who has stood at Russia's helm since 2000. "And I started to pity him a little."
The risky jokes didn't end there. Chuzhoi suggested that Putin, whose height most sources list at about 170 centimeters, wears contraptions raising his stature because he wasn't loved enough by his parents.
He references Putin's former role in the 1990s as an assistant to then-St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, during a period when he was photographed carrying briefcases and other things while trailing Sobchak at official meetings.
"If we knew then that Putin is short, then we'd be proud of it. We'd say: 'Putin carried suitcases on his own? The midget Putin carried suitcases for that beanpole Sobchak?!'" Chuzhoi said.
The audience erupted in applause. A few minutes later, Chuzhoi added a concluding line that seemed to hint at his awareness of the backlash that might follow those jokes -- and that has followed other performers who've dared to rib the president.
"Putin's very cool," Chuzhoi said. "These days you're legally obliged to end every stand-up concert with that phrase."
If Chuzhoi was trying to cover his back, subsequent events appeared to justify those concerns. After video of the concert, whose title roughly translates as You're On Your Own From Here, was posted to YouTube, Chuzhoi said friends in his hometown of Zheleznogorsk began receiving visits from police officers asking for the comic's contact details.
"I don't know why," Chuzhoi wrote of the visits on Twitter. "Until the concert, nothing of the sort had ever happened to me.... If you have contacts for a good lawyer, I'll be grateful."
'That's Not Funny'
The alleged interest in Chuzhoi comes amid a broader clampdown against satire that targets the authorities. Russians face prosecution for remarks about an increasing range of issues including religious believers and government officials, both of whom are protected by laws that were enacted under Putin. And comics, who often compete to air the boldest jokes, are especially under fire.
In January 2020, a probe into Putin jokes by comedian Aleksandr Dolgopolov led to the 25-year-old fleeing the country amid threats of criminal charges. In August, Russia's Interior Ministry banned comic Idrak Mirzalizade from the country for life after he made fun of habits he suggested many Russians share, though a court later suspended the ban.
In the most recent high-profile case, a group of amateur comedy actors in Russia's Far East was jailed because of appearances in an online comedy sketch making fun of local officials and the ruling United Russia party.
But intimidation of comedians is not a new thing in Russia. During Putin's first term as president, between 2000 and 2004, the popular TV satire Kukly (Puppets) was removed from the air amid reports that Putin -- whom the show parodied for his short stature, just like Chuzhoi's jokes -- had taken personal offense at his depiction.
In Zheleznogorsk, Chuzhoi's hometown in the Kursk region, south of Moscow, law enforcement confirmed to local media that an investigation had been launched into the comedian's performance, citing not his jokes about Putin but a story he told of paying a bribe to expedite the processing of a new passport.
(The YouTube video of Chuzhoi's show begins with a disclaimer reading: "All the stories in this show are fictional. Literally none of them happened in real life.")
On November 11, Chuzhoi took to the airwaves of independent TV channel Dozhd to make clear his views about the police questioning of his friends and to clarify his decision to involve a lawyer.
He cited previous cases targeting Russia's comics and said that his decision to go public was motivated by the speed with which these previous campaigns have unfolded.
"It's sad we've found ourselves in this place where simply mentioning certain topics immediately elicits fear in people," he said.