I Get You, Mikhail Bulgakov

I watched seasons one and two of A Young Doctor’s Notebook (AYDN) on Netflix all in one day. That may sound like an accomplishment, but it’s only eight half-hour long episodes. Total. So don’t make me out for a saint just yet (later, sure – do what you want). The show is a weird little miniseries thingy-kabob, which makes it all the more intriguing. It stars Daniel Radcliffe and Jon Hamm, who play the younger and older version of the same doctor stuck in a remote Russian village during the Russian Revolution.

mikhai bulgakov
Mikhail Bulgakov, a man whose countenance absolutely screams “fantastic sense of humor.”

The series is based on the short stories of Mikhail Bulgakov, a Russian writer of the early 20th Century best known for his “masterpiece” novel The Master and Margarita, which I just so happened to read in my freshman year Russian literature course in college and absolutely adored (as much as someone who doesn’t really like to read can adore a book. Why did I take Russian literature if I don’t like to read? No one is perfect, Sally. Get off my back).

So what is this show like? Well, it’s completely and fully sinister. It reminds me a of the show House, except much darker humor and the humor comes from things happening to the doctor rather than vice versa. For example, in House, Dr. House might make a joke about a paraplegic patient. In AYDN, a soldier might die on top of the doctor, pinning him to the ground and suffocating him in a pool of blood. What writing!

Maybe I think of House because the doctor in AYDN is addicted to morphine, similar to how House is addicted to Vicodin. Or, maybe it’s just cuz I like House and I like AYDN. I just googled it and it seems like no one has made the Bulgakov-House connection so either I’m smart or the opposite of that.

As you can probably tell from me subconsciously naming this blog after the show, I really do appreciate the special form of dark humor that A Young Doctor’s Notebook has. It has that sort of The Aristocrats humor, but more refined. It really attacks the whole “comedy tragedy” thing. Obviously, humor changes over time, but its relation to tragedy has always been there. People seem to waver on how much tragedy they really want to see in comedy from decade to decade, or at least which types of tragedy. For example, I don’t think Bulgakov or the television show based on his work would strike most people as laugh out loud funny today. To me it definitely is laugh out loud funny, but that’s because I’m a weird guy and normal things don’t make me laugh.

Here’s a few illustrations of what’s funny to me from the show.

Jon Hamm, as the older version of the doctor who only the young doctor can see, constantly questions and belittles Daniel Radcliffe as he fumbles with operations, saying sarcastic things like “Oh, that’s smart. Cutting off his leg seems like a brilliant idea.”

Then there’s the classic humor technique of repetition. Everyone hates the doctor when he first arrives at the hospital because he is replacing the deceased doctor Leopold Leopoldovich who everyone absolutely adored. The young doctor comparatively knows very little about what to do with patient given he only just graduated from medical school. But this doesn’t stop the old nurse Anna, especially, from continuing to remind the new doctor what “Leopold Leopoldovich” would or wouldn’t have done at every opportunity she encounters. On the other hand, the young doctor and everyone who has heard of him cannot stop reminding everyone else that he received “fifteen fives” on his doctor’s exams, an unprecedented perfect score. This becomes funnier and funnier as it is juxtaposed with not only his utter confusion in the operating room due to his lack of experience, but also his reward of ending up in such a hell hole of a hospital while his fellow and less deserving medical school graduates are placed at fantastic institutions.

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You have to understand that the hospital is essentially in the middle of nowhere. The only people in the hospital are the doctor, the nurse, the midwife, and the feldsher. And then of course the occasional patient who has travelled from hundreds of miles away to see the doctor. There’s no one else in the town and a train with provisions only comes once a month. And it’s icy winter all year round. What’s a feldsher? I had no idea either. But I looked it up and it means “healthcare professional.” Either you learned something, or I’m the opposite of smart.

In the first episode of season one, Anna introduces the doctor to the midwife, “Doctor, this is Pelageya. Do not let her distract you.” Pelageya is the one who looks like this:

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And yes, she means sexually. Quite understandably, the doctor is like “Oh, no. No, no, I won’t.”

Then, in the first episode of the second season, without warning, we cut to this:


A joke with quite the long buildup.

Finally, the show is chock-full of jokes about syphilis, with people dying left and right including, eventually, Pelageya. Her death is actually welcome news to the young doctor, since he’s a dick who is addicted to morphine.

Like I said, maybe it’s not laugh-out-loud stuff, but I think it’s dark and marvelous. I was surprised to find that it’s really hard to find other people who think that Bulgakov was a humor writer. Not once is “humor” mentioned on his wikipedia page. And, the foremost review of AYDN in The New York Times calls it a “serious adaptation of serious literature,” which I really don’t think it is. Serious topics, for sure. But nowhere near serious. After looking for a while, I finally found a Huffington Post article calling the show “a delightfully weird comedy” and a few literature students who were like “Bulgakov is hilarious!” Which is nice, but not really the depth of appreciation I would have expected. Why is it so hard for people to laugh at this stuff?

Well, the stuff is about people dying. And morphine addictions. And ugly people having sex with each other. To me, all that stuff can be hilarious. But to most people it can’t be. To some extent, I think that shows the difference between when the material was written and today. All those jokes were very real to Bulgakov because he lived through the Russian Revolution. And maybe that made them funnier. Or, maybe it made them even more inappropriate. Or, maybe (and I think this might be the winner) people didn’t get him and they still don’t. A lot of people appreciate Bulgakov as a writer of drama and that’s swell but he’s most famous for writing a book about talking dogs, cats who walk on their hind legs, and the devil visiting Moscow and making people do crazy things just because he wants to. Can you really take that too seriously?

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He’s asking for a smoke, not an instrument.

I think the brilliance of Bulgakov in AYDN is that his humor is very minimal. It just presents things the way they are. “Here’s a doctor who has no idea what to do with a soldier whose stomach has been blown apart but is still alive.” He’s a doctor so you would think he should at least try to save this person. But, at the same time, guy’s stomach is blown apart. What’s the point? So why not have the doctor just take a smoke in the next room and leave the dying soldier screaming for help?

The other reason why people find it funny is that the right people aren’t watching it or aren’t recognizing it as a funny thing. I think there’s an audience out there for Bulgakov, but they don’t know what he’s about. His material is easily taken too seriously by those who see people dying and think “that is awful” and rarely presented to the type of people who see people dying and think “oh that’s kind of funny.” I can understand why people would brush off Bulgakov as a dramatist rather than a humorist. People today see serious subject matter and want to keep it P.C.. “Why would anyone joke about someone dying of syphilis? That is awful!” Well, yeah, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be funny too.

Bulgakov just needs to be seen as a funny guy. I feel for the guy. It’s hard to re-brand yourself as “funny not serious” when you’re Russian and died 75 years ago.

We’re far removed from the horrors of the Russian Revolution, so all the better reason to laugh at them. I appreciate that someone found Bulgakov funny enough to present his material in a funny way. Even if the jokes in the script don’t hit with all audiences, they’re still there. And Bulgakov would approve. I’m projecting. I approve and I think he would too.

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