April is PaKa time in Krakow. For anyone who doesn’t know, PaKa is a hugely popular annual cabaret competition in Poland. Polish cabaret, or kabaret, usually consists of small troupes who perform comedy sketches, sing humorous songs, and generally muck about on the stage. To the Western ear ‘cabaret’ has slightly racy associations with scantily-clad dancing girls, burlesque acts, and superannuated comics with gleaming teeth and humorously obvious hairpieces. There’s none of that in kabaret. The odd bit of tassel-swinging would have gone down nicely as far as I’m concerned, but there was not a feather boa in sight. It’s all dead serious comedy… if you see what I mean.
My significant other, she who must be adored, is up to her neck in this stuff. As part of Kabaret Który (the shortest part with the nicest legs) she performed in this year’s PaKa competition as she did last year’s. This year, as last year, my wide-eyed and bemused English face could be spotted among the hundreds of chuckling, guffawing, tear-stained Polish faces making up the audience. They say that humor is the last thing one learns in a foreign language. For me it’s as distant as Himalayan peaks glimpsed at sunset. It’s a tough call. On the one hand I really want to be there to support the lass, but on the other hand three hours is an awfully long time to sit in a room not laughing. This year I devised a cunning compromise; two and a half hours in the bar and half an hour wedged in a corner at the back of the auditorium on boyfriend duty. It’s become something of a surreal meta-joke; wherever Kabaret Który is performing, somewhere in the audience there is an Englishman understanding nothing… or possibly in a nearby bar.
Kabret Który in full flow at this year’s PaKa semi-finals
It’s hard to know what to make of Polish kabaret. Although 90 percent of it goes right over my head I’m not completely unaware of the general direction of the jokes. As far as I can make out there’s an awful lot of what I would call ‘genre comedy’: sketches about old ladies misbehaving, Policemen being silly and officious, drunks being drunk, historical figures being anachronistic, and (god help us) mime. It reminds me of British comedy in the 70s. I can imagine a lot of it being performed by Morecambe and Wise or the Two Ronnies (‘four candles’ anybody?) I’m probably missing the point.
Kabaret Który complete with silly hats
Kabaret Który didn’t make it to the finals this year. On the plus side this means I only had to sit through the elimination and semi-final rounds. On the negative side an awful lot of work came to nothing; although they were the only kabaret to get an honorable mention in the semi-final results. And they were on the podium in last year’s PKS competition in Warsaw. Still, it was a damn good showing for only their second attempt. I’ve reserved a bar stool at next year’s final with every expectation of being there.
As a completely cynical aside I did a few back-of-an-envelope calculations and came to the following conclusions. Over the approximately 13 nights of eliminations, semi-finals, and finals in which all the entertainment is provided by unpaid kabaret acts PaKa rakes in at least 250,000 zl in ticket sales. Add to that an unknown, but undoubtedly large, sum from commercial sponsorship (tickets are plastered with corporate advertising), the TV rights for the final night, income from phone-in audience votes (for the first time this year), and ticket sales for the other four nights of the final week (performed by paid acts) and I’d be astonished if they’re not taking half a million minimum. The maximum that a winning kabaret can walk away with is 10,000 zl, that’s the grand prix prize; rarely awarded and not this year. I’d be a little peeved if I realized that PaKa was making half a million from my efforts while the best I could hope to win was a mere 2 percent of that figure. Talk about user-generated content. Anybody up for opening a comedy club? We’ll make a mint!
Wyspianski Unwinding is the place to be for Kabaret Który fans.