Webber’s World explores the growth of Poland’s expat standup comedy
Left in a pile of smouldering ash by the pandemic, the English-language comedy scene in Poland is again enjoying a resurgence thanks to the devotion of a growing band of comics.
As a premise for this instalment of Webber’s World, it looked a promising topic to broach; unfortunately, it didn’t take into account my lingering dislike for the comedy scene. Or, more pointedly, my quivering fear of comedians.
You see, at some point in the late 90s, I was pressganged into attending a comedy night in Birmingham, an event I unwisely decided to disrupt by unleashing a tirade of drunken noise. Little did I know, my heckling would prove easy meat for the bloke on stage.
Backfiring spectacularly, I couldn’t have been more humiliated than had I been disrobed in public. Worse, within months the comedian in question became a nationwide phenomenon – every time I opened a magazine, there he was, grinning at me triumphantly in mocking derision.
Unsurprisingly, I moved to Poland sometime soon after. Honestly though, I still sting with shame remembering this inglorious episode, so for me attending a comedy night filled me with the kind of fear most people only experience when being ushered towards the electric chair.
Crazy thing is though, I’m now glad I went. Meeting at an open-mic night hosted by Ariel Bialski, The Comedy Hole was formed when Bialski joined forces with Jordan Thomas Gray and Beatrice Rossano to breathe life into the English-language comedy segment.
“It’s a group effort,” Gray says. “The three of us all had our own open-mic nights, but we saw that working collectively would be more beneficial than working as adversaries. More comedians means more laughs, more shows and more people.”
Appearing as a fizz of effortless Italian energy, it’s an attitude underscored by Rossano. “Ariel is the reason we’re all here,” she says, “but we all collaborate closely with each other.”
Utopian as it may seem, this idealistic working model has already proved its worth. “For just under a year we were hosting weekly performances inside a small room, but found ourselves simply having to move somewhere bigger,” says Rossano. “It was always about building a scene.”
This growth has been reflected by the site of The Comedy Hole’s new Wednesday residency, the decadent basement confines of Gatsby cocktail bar in Warsaw’s Elektrownia development. Deliciously cloaked in a hazy half-light, it’s a fitting space for the comedians that have been united under The Comedy Hole’s umbrella.
As generously-sized as the venue is, by the time Bialski opens proceedings all tables are taken. “We’re finding that the demand is here in Poland,” says Gray, “it’s just been hiding for a while. But look, this is a city of 1.7 million people. If you deliver something that’s regular and entertaining, people will follow.”
Build it and they will come. It’s a sentiment echoed by Ricky Krzyzewski, one of the entertainers recruited to perform for The Comedy Hole.
“The expat community is growing, so the English-language comedy scene is growing with it,” he tells me. “In the old days, there would be two degrees of separation between foreigners, but now numbers have exploded as if exponentially.”
Looking around, he has a case. As a long-term expat myself, I suffer from the common delusion that I know everyone that speaks English. At The Comedy Hole, I’m proven – for the zillionth time tonight – to be wrong once again.
“There’s a lot of different faces, a lot of different nationalities,” says Rossano, “but we’re all connected by our need to laugh. What’s funny is funny.”
Yet if the crowd is diverse, then the evening’s line-up is even more so. Held together by the three comperes – Bialski, Gray and Rossano – the names are every bit as exotic as the team sheet at Real Madrid.
There is a Belarussian (fantastic with an ill-fitting suit and downtrodden demeanour), Canadians, Poles, Americans, a Portuguese, an Indian and an African. Together, this unlikely assortment offer a texture to the evening that’s impossible to resist.
“At the end of the day,” offers Gray, “all comedians are just rats in a cage – you either get on stage and get electrocuted if you bomb, or you get a little treat – the laugh. Basically, we’re all up there trying to collect as many treats as possible.”
Bombing, of course, is part of the territory.
“It happens to everyone,” says Gray, “but the next day you’re more confident than ever because you’ve lived through the worst thing that can possibly happen.”
Stealing the biggest laughs of the night, it’s hard to see that happening though to Krzyzewski. A veteran of over 1,000 shows since starting out ten-years back, he’s since become a familiar face on Poland’s foreign language comedy circuit.
“For me getting on stage to do comedy was a bucket list thing, something I wanted to try and cross off my list,” he says.
“When I first performed I knew for a month what I would be doing and had made contingencies for contingencies – but when it came to getting on stage, I felt like a fish in the water. I loved it.
“I’ve had one or two epic failures,” he continues, “but by in large the audiences in Poland are very forgiving – they want you to do well. And whilst there’s differences in our senses of humour, I’ve found that Poles really want to show that they ‘get’ a joke. That’s different to, say, London, where people arrive with the attitude that you owe them a laugh.
“Ultimately, though, comedy is a two-way street. It’s like being hypnotised. To fall under hypnosis you need to be willing, and the same goes for comedy nights – there has to be that tacit agreement that you are willing to enjoy yourself.”
Winning the crowd with a medley of voices, self-deprecating humour, and irreverent observations (“I met a guy called Włodzimierz – nice name I said, now can you say it forward”) his skit is a breezy essay in audience connection.
“The only golden rule I have,” he says, “is don’t be mean to people – some people are great at that, but whenever I try I just fall flat on my face.”
Performing around the country, both individually and as part of The Comedy Hole, the combined skills of the acts point to a positive future.
“Before covid there was a whole history of English stand-up in Poland, as proved by the success of Ravi Kumar and Andrzej Sosnowski who perform with The Comedy Hole,” says Gray, “now we’re trying to build something new through collaboration and cooperation.
“By gathering more comedians and putting on more shows, we’re creating a new ecosystem and a symbiotic relationship whereby the crowds also become bigger and more comedy-savvy. It’s a difficult task, but it is rewarding.”
With the comedy scene growing in other major – and even not so major – Polish cities, the circuit is readying itself for a new explosion.
“The community is very kind,” says Krzyzewski. “So if you’re thinking of giving it a go yourself, there’s enough open-mic nights now to try. If I had any advice, it would be just to go for it.
“It’s like the old motivational saying, don’t wait until you think you’re ready, because the truth is then you’ll be putting it off forever.”
For more on The Comedy Hole, see: www.facebook.com/thecomedyhole