Monoglot Movie Club Special: Netflix i Chłód

It’s the end of an era for us; indeed it is the end of us. After almost seven years, MostlyFilm – for most of this decade, Europe’s Best Website – is calling it a day. But we’re not going to just walk away without leaving you a few things to remember us by. Between now and the New Year we’ll be giving you some of our signature columns, and in early January we will look back at our favourites from the last seven years.

So, to begin our farewell, we bring you the Monoglot Movie Club Season Finale, with a slight tweak in the rules to make it feel special. For (almost) the last time, let’s go over to our man in… Front of Netflix?

“So these 13 Poles walked into a bar…” starts Spank The Monkey, ominously.

Patton Oswalt’s new stand-up comedy special has wrecked me, and I haven’t even watched it yet. It’s not so much the subject matter that’s the issue, more what happened when I added it to my Netflix queue for future viewing. I got the usual “Because you added Patton Oswalt: Annihilation to your List” spiel, followed by recommendations for half a dozen Polish stand-up shows from their current catalogue. (Plus a filmed rant from Italian fascist funnyman Beppe Grillo, but that’s another story altogether.)

I think you know where this is heading. One month after its release, I still hadn’t watched Annihilation. I had, however, watched over six hours of stand-up comedy in Polish. With English subtitles, mind you: I know that Monoglot Movie Club has given me a reputation for what MostlyFilm’s Twitter account once memorably described as ‘gonzo film reviewing’, but there are limits to what I’m prepared to put myself through. That didn’t stop this being a deeply brain-frying experience, though.

First things first: although the promotional art for all six specials is very different, the shows come from the same source. Each one features two or three comics, performing a set of 20-40 minutes. They’ve all been filmed in the same location (Klub Hybrydy in Warsaw) under the imaginative banner of Stand-Up Show – the show titles listed in Netflix never appear on screen at any point. Everything’s shot in a rather rudimentary style: all the lighting budget has been focussed onto the stage, illuminating the performer and the minimalist set, while the audience cutaways are so dark and grainy you could put your fist in between the pixels. You’d normally expect the audience shots to punch up the reaction to a gag or cover up edits, but many of them here appear to be inserted almost at random. We frequently get closeups of people looking distinctly unamused, or (in one bizarre instance) a shot of an audience area with several empty seats in it.

A comedy audience, yesterday

And the jokes? Well, this is where subtitling turns out to be an issue. You can try this at home – take any English-language comedy show and turn on the HOH subtitles, and you find that all the subtleties of the timing are wrecked when you’ve finished reading a gag a second or two before you’ve finished hearing it. And even in translation, watching foreign language comedy – based, like all stand-up, on a mass of assumptions of the cultural background of its audience – leads you down the distracting path of trying to reverse engineer that cultural background from the jokes being made about it. There are a couple of themes that re-occur here on a few occasions: the legalisation of pot, which is kind of expected, and the fear of accidentally raising a girl child, which is less so. (Michał Leja gives the closest thing to an explanation: “with a son, you just have to make sure he doesn’t die.”) There are also a few fascinating bits of common comic shorthand: ‘massacre’ to describe a bad situation, Radom to stand in for any bad place, and Tesco to stand in for any bad shop.

Stewart Lee has a routine where he talks about “all those Russell comedians you get nowadays.” It’s a similar story in Poland, apparently, except there it’s Rafał comedians. Rafał Banaś (Laugh Out Loud) is as young and cocky as one of our Russells, with an odd line in English language impersonations (Brad Pitt’s character from Inglourious Basterds as a swimming coach, and so on). Rafał Pacześ (Seriously Funny) is probably the least memorable of them, with a set largely drawn from horrifying stories of his nights out. Rafał Rutkowski (The Best Of…) has the best-structured set of the Rafałs, with some surprising digressions into religion and politics for what’s still a predominantly Catholic country. (He reports on a female politician who claimed that the morning-after pill interferes with sex. “So she didn’t know that you take it after? And also, orally?”)

Rutkowski stands out because he’s dropping local references, but explaining them for us beforehand. Why, it’s almost like he knows he’s got an international audience! Unlike Mariusz Kałamaga (Hilarious Trio), whose set is full of stories about unfamiliar political figures, his own obscure past (he used to wear a yellow jumper on stage, apparently), and his dodgy attempts at trying to support the disabled. 24-year-old Michał Leja (Laugh Out Loud) is the only one of the thirteen who actively acknowledges Netflix’s involvement In these shows – he’s amazed that people in Bangladesh will be watching him, but horrified because he knows that his name means ‘anus’ in the local language. (Eh, close enough.) You could see Leja as the token representative of the younger generation, which pulls you up short when he starts telling unironic stories about recently buying a CB radio.

There are certain standard tropes you expect from English language stand-up comics, and you can see those effortlessly replicated with their Polish equivalents. Karol Modzelewski (No Offense) relies heavily on banter with the audience, which makes those massively grainy cutaways to the crowd even harder to watch than usual. Łukasz „Lotek” Lodkowski (No Offense) plays the Funny Fat Bloke card, getting mysteriously timed rounds of applause for lines that really don’t deserve them. Karol Kopiec (Hilarious Trio) comes on wearing a suit, the traditional signifier that his attention to structure and running gags is as sharp as his dress sense. He’s also one of the few here to attempt physical comedy, with his delightful mime of a deer planning out the positioning of animal crossing signs with the highway authorities.

Tomasz Jachimek (Laugh At Hybrydy) is older than many of the comics here, and unusual in that his set has an overall theme: his job is basically redundant, because everyone in Poland is a comedian to some degree or other. “It’s like crossing the river for water.” He has a routine where he discusses the good old days with a teenage nephew, which takes a uniquely Polish turn: “in the 1980s, when you had a printer at home, it wasn’t called a printer, it was a mimeograph. You’d have the citizens’ militia at your house three times a week, checking to see what you’re copying.” It’s one of the few jokes in this entire collection to suggest that Poland has a history. The closest after that is Jacek Stramik (Laugh At Hybrydy) and his climactic riff about what a Lech Walesa cumshot would look like. Unfortunately, a few of the comics drift into lazy grossout material in lieu of an actual ending.

If you’re thinking it’s getting a bit boysey here, don’t worry, there are three female comics in this collection of thirteen. Olka Szczęśniak (The Best Of…) is the closest to what feminist stand-up sounded like in the UK in the eighties, with plenty of gags about lost tampons and the uselessness of men in bed. (“Doggy style is the best position, because we don’t see how you come, and you don’t see how we yawn.”) Katarzyna Piasecka (Seriously Funny) brings a rare older woman’s perspective, complaining about her younger boyfriend that “his childhood photographs were in colour”. Wiolka Walaszczyk (Hilarious Trio) is the most unexpected of the three: a 15-minute set about shopping and boyfriends, followed by a closing five minutes about her molestation at the hands of her doctor (he’s explicitly named in the show, and it’s easy enough to verify her story from there). It leads to some pitch-black lines: “I did think for a moment that maybe he healed me, because after that incident I didn’t go to the doctor for three years.” But this is where not speaking the language really puts you at a disadvantage, because to me this final section appears to be pitched at the same emotional level as her earlier material about shopping at Tchibo, which all feels really odd.

If you’re not actually Polish, then I can’t guarantee how much you’re going to laugh at these shows: you may well be better off going back to Patton Oswalt and his stories about his late wife. But as sociological experiments go, you could certainly do a lot worse than watching another country’s stand-up comedy for six hours. Could you perform a similar analysis of the British sense of humour from watching six episodes of Live At The Apollo back to back? I’d be interested in reading that if someone’s prepared to write it…

Hilarious Trio, Laugh At Hybrydy, Laugh Out Loud, No Offense, Seriously Funny and The Best Of… are all currently available on Netflix.

About Spank The Monkey

Spank The Monkey has been talking nonsense about popular culture on the internet since 1998. He can be found doing that in long form on his blog, and in short form on Twitter. He is a regular contributor to Mostly Film, where his specialist subjects are Asian cinema, cult movies and TV, and watching foreign films without the benefit of subtitles. He lives in London with somebody else.

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