Watching PaKa through English eyes

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.

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5 thoughts on “Watching PaKa through English eyes

  1. michael farris says:

    “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.”

    I’ve seen a little of the Brit stuff you mention and I do think you’re missing the point. While fully admitting that I don’t get most of the humor either, it seems a lot more sophisticated than 70’s British variety humor (a lot of which I didn’t understand very well either).

    AFAICT the importance of Kabaret in Poland (like many phenomena in modern Poland) goes back to commie times. Short of complete totalitarianism (which Polish people have never been any good at), any repressive regime needs some places to vent pressure lest the whole thing explode. In the people’s republic, humor was a major vent and a lot could be (and was) said in ‘jest’ that couldn’t be said seriously.

    For reasons I don’t fully understand, Kabaret survived communism and evolved past crypto political humor. I think one reason for its popularity is that it’s very cheap to perform; you don’t need realistic sets or (elaborate) costumes or a whole orchestra or teams of writers. The performances are more about evoking situations than portraying them.

    As for prize money, it does sound a little low, but I imagine the idea of the festival is exposure that can lead to better paying gigs.

  2. mochafueled says:

    Island I feel your pain…I think you made a great compromise on bar time vs supporting A.

  3. guest says:

    Here is kabaret from 1981

    It is about polish shops…

  4. Jacek Wesołowski says:

    Actually, kabaret is a pre-war invention, and it started as a rather elitary entertainment. When a poet wanted to do something for art, they published poetry, like everyone else. When they wanted to do something for fun (and money), they did kabaret.

    A foreigner stands little chance of understanding traditional kabaret, because it’s mostly abstract humour. A lot of playing with words and associations. You could as well try to translate Finnegans Wake. The most famous Polish post-war kabaret was probably Kabaret Starszych Panów, which had absolutely nothing to do with politics. Among others, it featured a man who fell in love with a painting, a pair of Cheap Bastards who were literally cheap (they also offered a subscription), a person who couldn’t live without tomatoes, and a woman pretending to be a child who sang parts of her song’s refrain with male voice for no apparent reason.

    Michael’s observation about politics is correct, though. Polish culture has a strong tradition of hidden meaning. Often a kabaret would perform a sketch which would display typical absurd humour when taken literally (I mean – when interpreted in the most obvious way). The same words, when taken figuratively, could be a direct attack against goverment or an opinion on some contemporary issue. This was as much an art form as a necessity. The “true meaning” needed to be unobvious, so that a censor wouldn’t see it (or, in case they did, they could pretend they had missed it and not get into trouble).

    There were also groups who performed openly political sketches, but there were limits to their activity. Direct opposition was unacceptable until late eighties. Social satire was ok, and so was stating obvious facts of life, such as the lack of oranges in groceries. So a kabaret would perform a sketch about a grumpy clerk giving an interview to a stupid journalist who asks about oranges, because he’s too stupid to notice there are none. What the audience would actually see, was a sketch about bad goverment who cannot provide oranges and deceitful official media who pretend everything is allright.

  5. Pawel says:

    I’m not competent to talk about on how Polish kabaret compares to English stand-up and stuff,
    I’m up for a comedy club;) I know how to run a business in PL, you have connections in Kabarety… how about a LLP? :)

    PS. LOL

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