In his locally viral YouTube video series “Sh– Russian Grandmas Say,” Brighton Beach comedian and filmmaker Gary Spielberg wears a curly gray wig, his grandma’s bathrobe and the oversized, yellowing glasses his grandfather arrived with in the U.S. in 1989. His creation, Baba Fira – a Russian Jewish grandmother who stuffs various Eastern European foods down her grandson with all the tact of a professional taxidermist – is a notorious figure in Brighton Beach, the largest Russian immigrant enclave in New York.
Baba Fira, a common Russo-Jewish name, has elements that many people would recognize in their own grandmothers. But this melodramatic caricature is also distinctly Russian. The babushka has long been a mainstay of Russian popular culture dating back to the grotesque folklore figure Baba Yaga, who plans her machinations from her garish hut on chicken legs.
Now, with Gary Spielberg’s help, the babushka shtick has made its way to American soil, striking a resonant chord with the community of Brighton Beach.
Spielberg was one year old when he came to the U.S. His family was part of the late 1980s wave of Soviet Jewish immigration that landed in Brighton Beach, where he grew up. Despite his grandmother’s insistence that he be a lawyer or a doctor, Spielberg studied filmmaking at Kingsborough Community College.
He’s done photo shoots and commercials for various fashion brands, but was left wanting more. “I’ve always wanted to do my own thing,” said Spielberg. “It’s my grandparents’ stories that actually really inspired me to go into filmmaking in the first place. That generation is not going to be around for much longer. Their stories need to be told.”
The first ‘Sh– Russian Grandmas Say’ video came about almost by accident. Spielberg is a talented voice impersonator and he was known among his friends for prank calling them, pretending to be their grandma. Riding on the wave of the ‘Sh– X Says’ meme, he got together with his friends one evening and filmed an unscripted video. Spielberg posted the video on YouTube in February 2012. It received 15,000 views overnight – an epidemic spread by word of mouth. Today, it’s been viewed more than 380,000 times.
The audience response is more telling than the metrics, however. Comments on YouTube have been overwhelmingly enthusiastic.“OMG IM DEAD MY GRANDMA IS EXACTLY LIKE THIS!!!,” wrote Valeria Bykov. Gigi L. wrote: “I watch this everyday!! Too funny.”
The laughs are prompted by Baba Fira’s relentless, overbearing attentiveness. She complains her grandson is too fat, but is constantly trying to feed him. He’s lazy, she complains. Then she berates him for not going out enough. There’s little he can do that meets her approval.
And as a woman who speaks whatever is on her mind, Baba Fira is unfamiliar with the concept of over-sharing. On the phone to her friend Tamarochka, she declares that she’s been eating ramen noodles all day and “it’s diarrhea city over here.”
Spielberg said that grandmothers have come up to him on the street in Brighton Beach and hugged him, thanking him for uniting their families around watching his videos. “It’s the best feeling to me that I’m bringing a family together,” said Spielberg.
But some members of the real Baba Fira’s generation – she is modelled on Spielberg’s own grandmother – are not as taken with his work. Joseph Kuniansky, a senior relaxing on the Brighton Beach boardwalk, called the video’s humor “primitive, derivative” and even “slightly degrading.”
For some, Spielberg’s work may cross the delicate line from comedy to callousness, but he says his intention is quite the opposite. In a short video series on social media called Brooklyn Russian Vines, he lovingly parodies some Brighton Beach stereotypes: the stern Russian father, the melodramatic mother and Yana, a competitive, high-maintenance girly-girl.
The project is aimed at filling a gap in the U.S. market for Russian-centric comedy, Spielberg said, and at bridging the communication gap between first generation Russian immigrants and their American-born grandchildren. “Everybody’s becoming assimilated,” said Spielberg, “and I want to keep that element of Russian culture going. Kids don’t make an effort to understand their grandparents.”
The communications gap can work both ways. “My grandmother – well, she had a whole fluctuation of emotions about the video when she first saw it,” said Spielberg. At first, she was mortally offended, complaining that he was mimicking her. She has finally come around to being proud of him, according to Spielberg, after her cleaning lady called him a “local celebrity.”
Spielberg’s grandmother isn’t speaking for herself right now; she is recovering from recent surgery and declined an interview, though she allowed Spielberg to use her Brighton Beach apartment for an interview. It’s decked out in frills and animal-print décor, a fussy contrast with Spielberg’s high-top Nikes, snap-back cap and his Baba Fira merchandise T-shirt.
Spielberg represents a younger generation of social media-savvy, heavily Americanized Russians who are moving out of the aging community of Brighton Beach (he’s relocated to nearby Sheepshead Bay). “There’s nothing to do here,” he said of his old neighborhood. “Only grandparents live here. They go to their vegetable stores. Young people just want to leave here, go to the city.”
Despite his dim view of Brighton Beach as a destination for youth, Spielberg said he worries that the younger generation may lose track of its ethnic roots. That concern has inspired his next project: a documentary in which young people interview their Russian grandparents about their lives before emigrating.