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Live from Warsaw, it’s Saturday Night: A visit to Poland’s own SNL

SNL Polska's Weekend Update anchors Kamil Pruban and Laura Breszka
Photo: Showmax
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Other than the “stairs” up to the balcony—a rickety ladder that women in heels charge up precariously—I am in a near-perfect replica of Studio 8H, located on the outskirts of Warsaw. There is the large, Grand Central Station-esque clock the camera pans past; the Saturday Night Live branding on the walls behind the musical guest. (Tonight, it’s Polish trip-hop duo Xxanaxx.) And there is the door from which, minutes from now, morning talk-show host Filip Chajzer will emerge to deliver his opening monologue. The producers later tell me they were so intent on copying America’s flagship SNL that they even use boom mics, an otherwise-antiquated live television staple, to get it just right, down to the last detail.

That close, deferential devotion to mimicking the original SNL also speaks to the underdog ethos running throughout Poland’s pop culture. In the last decade, the country’s most popular shows have all largely been homegrown versions of international reality franchises: The X Factor, Poland’s Got Talent, Poland’s Next Top Model. Poland’s adaptation of The Nanny has experienced a long, successful run, as has its take on MarriedWith Children (the title literally translates to The Not So Goods). Still, the consensus is that, if it’s Polish-made, it’s second rate. It’s a message I heard time and again before I attended a single taping of SNL Polska. “When people find out something is done here in a foreign format, it’s always like, ‘Yeah, the Polish version will be terrible,’” cast member Helena Ganjalyan says, though she dismisses this as “typical Polish complaining.”

Launched in December 2017, Saturday Night Live Polska joins an extensive slate of international versions of the show. Canada, France, Italy, Spain, Japan, and Germany have all taken stabs at the franchise; a Chinese version is supposedly in the works for later this year. Of course, simply being part of the SNL complex doesn’t guarantee success. Just as for every Bill Murray there’s a dozen Morwenna Banks, many of the international versions have seen short-lived tenures. For some, like Spain, it was a case of being too faithful to the original; many of its sketches were simply Spanish translations of American ones, with only passing regard for making the cultural references work. Others, like the French-language SNL Québec, simply didn’t become big enough hits to justify keeping them around. Now nine seasons deep, South Korea’s version remains the most popular of these international editions, having successfully tapped into its country’s customs through plastic surgery jokes and cameos from K-pop stars.

But despite that “typical Polish complaining,” Poland certainly seems primed for an SNL-type show, one that can satirize current events in a way not currently seen on its networks. In 2015, the nation took a hard shift toward right-wing conservatism; in just the last year, both reproductive rights and freedom of the courts have been threatened, saved only through mass protests. And unlike, say, SNL Arabia—which the Egyptian government banned in February, citing its “sexual phrases and insinuations”SNL Polska isn’t subject to that kind of stringent policing or censorship. It’s broadcast via the subscription-only internet service Showmax, which allows it to skirt the heavily Catholic nation’s few moral watchdogs, like the National Council For Radio And Television—a governing board that, while having only ever issued a single fine (to a TV station for showing political protests), still remains a threat. It also doesn’t have to worry about placating advertisers. If ever there were a market and a time for edgy content, even the mild sort Saturday Night Live produces, Poland in 2018 would seem to be it.

Jurek Dzięgielewski is SNL Polska’s head of content, perhaps the closest thing the show has to a Lorne Michaels. (He spent much of his childhood in Canada, mainlining the Wayne’s World movies.) As he notes, just as the American SNL has benefited from Trump’s election, Poland’s current administration gives them plenty of material to work with. But Dzięgielewski says his goal is to say something about their policies, not just mock the political players.

“I think it’s common knowledge that the head of the ruling party is a very short man,” Dzięgielewski says. “It would be really easy to take a shot at that, but that’s something we would never do. We ridicule people for what they say. It’s bad comedy when you ridicule someone’s lack of height, because they have no control over how tall they are. It would be unfair.”

As with the original, Poland’s SNL balances its political satire with sketches that are more generally absurd. The taping I saw began with a cold open mocking Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki’s recent, poorly subtitled address to the nation about outlawing the phrase “Polish concentration camps.” (“Poland is moving in a good direction,” cast member Szymon Mysłakowski said as Morawiecki, while subtitles urged viewers, “Leave the country.”) A faithfully deadpan Weekend Update lightly poked fun at Poland’s neighbor countries (“Vilnius [Lithuania] is like the G-spot of Europe. No one knows where it is, but once you find it, it’s awesome”). A sketch about a clean-cut youth getting a swastika tattoo, and another about male superheroes urging a female mugging victim to just accept her situation, only lightly skirted controversial topics.

There were also more generalized plays on SNL’s recognizable beats: a surreal game show set inside an electronics store; a Lonely Island-esque short, led by Andy Samberg-esque breakout-in-waiting Michał Meyer, paying musical tribute to 1980s’ pop culture and its permissive public urination laws; a liquor store sketch that consisted of a single gag, stretched out over the course of several minutes. While SNL Polska hasn’t been around long enough to produce any recurring characters, it’s already established a rhythm that is comfortingly familiar.

But is it funny? Oddly enough, the biggest roadblock to Polish audiences may not be its politics, but that general silliness. Poland’s sense of humor is largely anchored in dry, day-to-day reality; one need look no further than the popular sitcom Camera Café, which is filmed from the point of view of a water cooler in an aggressively average office. During the ’80s, at the height of communism, movies like the 1980 domestic satire Teddy Bear or the 1984 space comedy Sexmission used surrealism to sneak political messages past the censors, but that style fell out of favor at the same time the Cold War ended.

Polish comedy has since moved toward a sort of observational realism, drawing laughs out of mundane things like feuding spouses and trips to the store, as its citizens grapple with the everyday absurdity of figuring out what life is supposed to look like outside of totalitarian control. Even in the cabarets where SNL Polska found much of its cast, sketches and jokes don’t veer far from the ordinary. TV shows that are silly just for the sake of it, like Tim And Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, have yet to gain any kind of toehold.

The same goes for stand-up—a form that Dzięgielewski discovered was all but non-existent in Poland when he attempted, then failed, to create a Polish stand-up show for HBO. “We tried to do something that was completely unnatural,” Dzięgielewski admits. “We tried to create a comedy scene.” And of course, no one had even heard of Saturday Night Live, which means there’s no legacy here to fall back on. “When we started, we thought we were going to put a lot of marketing money behind this and tell people, ‘SNL is coming,’” he says. “Wait a minute, nobody knows what SNL is! It’s like coming to a country where people don’t know sushi, and you put up billboards and tell people, ‘We’ve got this great new thing! It’s raw fish and rice!’ And everyone is like, ‘We don’t eat raw fish. We like our fish cooked.’”

“Comedy and laughter in Poland, you never know what’s socially acceptable,” he adds. “Someone is making a [Pope] John Paul II joke—is it okay? Building the commonwealth of laughter is not easy. ‘Everyone’s laughing? It’s fine, I can laugh as well.’ But it’s very difficult to be the first one. For comedians and comedy, that’s the biggest challenge. Even if the audience is on your side, they’re constantly looking both ways seeing if they can laugh. It always takes the first person. When it comes to Poles, it’s always easier to see disapproval. It makes comedy very difficult.”

Nevertheless, Dzięgielewski remains confident that SNL Polska will thrive, and go on to join South Korea in becoming one of SNL’s longer-lasting international versions. After all, the show is, at its core, not far removed from those cabaret performances long familiar to most Poles—and again, it provides the kind of unfiltered social and political commentary that’s all but unavailable elsewhere, at a time when the country could use it most. At present, the cast and crew are still waiting to hear if they’ll be picked up for a second season. But while Showmax doesn’t release full viewership data, it reports that SNL is already No. 1 in its catalog, outdrawing everything else in both male and female viewers. It seems those audiences have found some common ground after all.

“If the comedy is good, if it’s the way it should be done—if it’s real SNL—it will resonate,” Dzięgielewski concludes. So far, it appears to be working.