A Je To! Or Doing and Subverting Communism with Pat and Mat

Armed with hammer, screwdriver, and inexhaustible optimism, Pat and Mat have been taking on the world for over 40 years. In those years their world changed drastically;  born during the dark days of communist Czechoslovakia, they witnessed the Velvet Revolution, watched the Iron curtain fall, and saw their country being split into two. Yet nothing could deter the two Czechoslovak handymen from spending their days DIY-ing around their house like they did in the communist years. How did these two men steal the hearts of both the communist Czechoslovak and neoliberal capitalist viewer?

First appearing in 1976 and with a whopping 91 episodes as of 2016, the Czechoslovak silent stop-motion animated series Pat & Mat (A Je To! Pat a Mat) created by Lumomír Beneš and Vladimír Jiránek revolve around two inventive, yet extremely clumsy handymen. Every episode starts with a minor domestic problem they try to fix, like repairing a gramophone, building a fence, or opening a can of sardines. Yet as their names, meaning respectively “stalemate” and “checkmate”, suggest, Pat and Mat always end up getting trapped in a self-made vortex of chaos. Despite their clumsiness, Pat and Mat usually manage to find a creative solution to their problems, ending every episode with their signature hand gesture; a bent arm and closed fists. A Je To! And that’s it!

A classic Pat & Mat episode is “Moving Day[1] (Stahovanie, 1982) in which the men move their furniture by tying it all to their car. The whole enterprise is a complete deathtrap; there’s too much furniture to fit on the car, so everything repeatedly falls off or blocks their view on the road. But this doesn’t make the men throw in the towel; is there a cupboard blocking the view? I’ll hang on the side of the car carrying this mirror so you can see the road. No, this isn’t working. Let’s use the cupboard and a bit of this telephone pole to make a trailer. But what about the telephone pole that is now hanging on its wires? No worries, I’ll use these books as a substitute pole. Arriving at their destination – some ramshackle shed – their last trial is to drive through the (fenceless!) gate. The car doesn’t fit at first but of course it will as long as you try hard enough. After some pushing and pulling, the two end up destroying the gate, the furniture, and the car.

Pat and Mat’s ingenuity is endless but despite their efforts to make the situation better for themselves, their actions always backfire. Their inability to successfully change their situation may explain why the series made it past the watchful eye of the Czechoslovakian communist regime[2]. Pat and Mat’s world is rigid and fixed; any attempt to overcome their discontent with the current situation bounces back and blows up in their faces, suggesting a warning not to question and alter the status quo. In this, the show proposes the anti-neoliberal idea that people are not and should not be free in sorting out their own lives – because if you try to fix things on your own without governmental interferences, you will only create chaos and destruction. Of course this is not to say that Pat and Mat turns people into good obedient communist subjects but one can that say that essentially the series revolve around (the danger of) playing, renegotiating, and subverting the status quo.

To illustrate, in “The Apple[3] (Jablko, 1984) we meet Pat and Mat after they have just finished picking the apples from the tree in their garden[4]. However, Pat is not happy because there is still one big red apple right at the top of the tree, so once again they pull out all the stops for this minor detail. Eventually they manage to pick the apple, but at the cost of a ladder, the roof, a bed, a beehive (don’t ask), and the rest of the apples. So in trying to reach the apple at the top of the tree, the two almost symbolically aim for the stars, but are ruthlessly punished for their chronic dissatisfaction and hubris. Like the rest of the series, “The Apple” therefore concludes with the message that all this disarray would not have happened had Pat and Mat just been satisfied with the initial state of affairs.

That being said, Pat and Mat’s relation to the status quo is not only one that is defined by submissiveness. In fact, the series is also surprisingly subversive in nature. In their ineptness as handymen Pat and Mat are far from the ideal of the Czechoslovakian “socialist man”, the highly skillful unselfish worker whose revolution brought the communist party to power in 1948. In this, Pat and Mat, who are by no means the embodiment of true “worker’s strength”, can be read as a subtle parody on the illusion of the Czechoslovakian working man ideal. Additionally, despite their complete disregard of the rules (they even dare to damage a telephone pole! State property!) and selfishly dangerous enterprises, Pat and Mat are highly sympathetic and likeable characters. So even though they subvert the communist ideals, they are not depicted as antagonists or anti-role models, but more like underdogs or even humorous tragic heroes. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Pat and Mat overtly rebel against the Czechoslovakian state but in communist terms they certainly are eccentric, and so the fact that they were accepted in such a totalitarian regime is quite remarkable.

Today Pat and Mat are celebrated for their inexhaustible optimism and their ability to make the best out of the worst situations. Pat and Mat’s official website states, “the essence of the episodes is not only the humor, gags, clumsiness but also the optimism we can find in every story. Although all goes wrong they don’t lose the hope, don’t give up.” So here we can see a completely different, in fact, opposite framing the series; rather than being a humorous reminder to stay within the boundaries of the status quo, for the western neoliberal viewer Pat and Mat encourage to be inventive and to solve your own problems even when things seem the worst.

In any case, Pat and Mat’s subversive, disorderly approach to life is what makes them both attractive to the socialist viewer as well as the contemporary (western capitalist) viewer. In the Netherlands the series has been popular among adults and children for nearly twenty years. Here Pat and Mat are adapted to Buurman en Buurman (“Neighbour and Neighbour”), and backed with improvised dialogue from Kees Prins and Simon van Leeuwen. Like the silent Czechoslovakian version, Buurman en Buurman has some subtle satirical undertones as well. The accents and vocabulary (“Gaat lekker hè, buur. Hupsakee. Oh jeetje! Alles naar de gallemiezen”) which Prins and van Leeuwen assigned to Pat and Mat hint at the lower-middle class man, and in this Buurman en Buurman may be seen as a playful gag on the Dutch bourgeois culture. At the same time, the Dutch version, too, emphasizes Pat and Mat’s stoic and determined approach to life, starting every episode with the small dialogue, “sometimes things go wrong and you get stuck with a problem, but we’ll solve that easily”.

At this point you may laugh or roll your eyes at this (pretentious) deconstructive reading of a 1970s Czechoslovak children’s TV-show. Or you may groan and say, “why do you have to ruin this fun and innocent series with your left-wing politics? Why can’t you just take it as it is?”. Indeed, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. But in this case to just mindlessly regard Pat and Mat would do grieve injustice to its rich history and complex socio-political context. In my opinion, close-reading and deconstructing a cultural object is the beauty of cultural analysis; you take something familiar and, like Pat and Mat, pull it apart, inspect its properties and particles, and then reassemble it so that it becomes unfamiliar, challenging its taken-for-grantedness and the conventional assumptions about it.

[1] Dutch version with dialogue: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MPAIzqUuZO0

[2] It nearly didn’t. After airing the pilot in 1976, the creators had to explain why they had specifically chosen red and yellow as the shirt colours of Pat and Mat, as the government’s Office for Press and Information believed that the creators were trying to make fun of the tensions between the Soviet Union and China that were rising during that time. The creators’ explanations were deemed unsatisfactory and further production of Pat and Mat was banned. To get around the ban, the creators worked under the cover of a Slovak studio from Bratislava and changed Mat’s shirt to grey. After the fall of the communist regime in 1989, Mat’s shirt was changed back to red.

[3] Dutch version with dialogue: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xZWvh0GMAPg

[4] One can imagine that the picking of the apples was in itself also a total disaster.

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