A Russian television channel has abruptly cancelled a sitcom starring Ukraine’s president after an allusion to a crude joke about Vladimir Putin was aired in Russia’s far east.
The political satire Servant of the People served as a platform for the former comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy to gain popularity and eventually win the Ukrainian presidency, in a vote largely driven by anger at the country’s previous leaders.
But with sharp jokes directed against Putin, many wondered how long the political satire would last on Russia’s carefully-controlled airwaves.
The answer was less than one night.
After quickly editing out a joke made at Putin’s expense in the season’s premiere, the television channel TNT subsequently cancelled its broadcast of later airings of the 23-episode season, replacing them with sitcoms that were less likely to rile the Kremlin.
TNT did not immediately reply to requests from the Guardian for comment. It told Vedomosti, the Russian business newspaper, that it had never planned to air the whole season, and that the broadcast was a “marketing ploy” for its online streaming service. The episode is still available there.
Servant of the People follows the fictionalised Zelenskiy’s unlikely rise from high school teacher to Ukraine’s president after his rant against corruption goes viral.
In the season’s premiere Zelenskiy, playing the role of Ukraine’s new president, is selecting a new timepiece to match those worn by other leaders.
Putin, he is told, wears a Hublot.
“Putin’s a Hublot?” Zelenskiy responds.
The word Hublot resembles another that translates, less crudely, to the word “dick” in Russian’s swearing sub-language known as Mat. The phrase “Putin’s a dick”, using the swearword, became a popular slogan in Ukraine after the outbreak of the conflict in south-east Ukraine, and could be heard at anti-Putin rallies and seen in graffiti dabbed on walls across Ukraine.
It is not clear whether that joke was enough to cause the television show’s cancellation, as the series features a number of jokes about Russia and Putin. But in broadcasts of Servant of the People broadcast later on Wednesday night, including those shown in Moscow, the joke had been edited out. The edit was first reported by the BBC’s Russian service.
Lentach, a Russian website that combines news and humour, put together a simple map showing which parts of Russia had and had not heard “Putin is a Hublot”.
TNT, a Russian television station that focuses on sitcoms and comedy shows, announced it would debut the show just days after Zelenskiy and Putin met for high-stakes talks in Paris on the conflict in east Ukraine. It was the first meeting between the two leaders.
The show was advertised to Russian viewers as a counterpoint to Zelenskiy’s real presidency.
“For viewers, the television series became a utopia with no real relation to the Ukraine of Zelenskiy,” the television station wrote in a release.
Television is a carefully-controlled medium in Russia, and shows that have made fun of Putin have quickly been booted off air. The most famous was in 2002 when the show Puppets, which featured a fake version of Putin and was inspired by the show Spitting Image, was abruptly cancelled.