LEBOWSKI’S - with Kamal Kharmach
Hooray, a new comedy club found its way to Antwerp! Last weekend, ‘Lebowski’s’ grand opening took place, programming Jim Speelmans, Bram van der Velde & Jacques Vermeire, three of the finest Dutch speaking comedians around. For that occasion, I met with the jolly cheerful Kamal Kharmach, the beating heart of the initiative. He welcomed me at his venue, located in former Café des Arts (opposite to Berchem Station), where we had a plainspoken chat…
This Is Antwerp: So Kamal, before we head to the more inspiring questions, let’s start with a short warm up for the audience: the four inevitable ‘W’-questions. Here we go!
Kamal Kharmach: "What?! Lebowski’s is a comedy club in Antwerp (duh!), meant to serve Flanders and The Netherlands. We dream big: we even want the club to be an internationally acclaimed home for comedians. We present live comedy shows and open mics, in two different rooms. Residency for artists is also available.
Who? May I introduce to you, the ‘dream’ team, fabulous, facetious, funny four! Bram (comedian), Ingrid (writing for TV), … (best bartender in Leuven according to glossy ‘Flair’) & me. Bram and Ingrid had the idea of starting a professional comedy club for a while; I asked if I could join them. Our team is a perfect fit. In only a few months we renovated the lorry. It was a ‘hard knock life for us’. When you walk in Lebowski’s you’ll be thrown back to the authentic glory of the building: an intimate Speakeasy, dating from the Roaring Twenties.
When? Professional shows on Friday/Saturday, open mic for starting comedians or professionals who want to try out a new show on Thursday. Other days of the week, the club turns into a hotspot where people can meet any time of the day for a delicious lunch or drink. Specialties: brunch on Sunday & Aperitivo on Monday.
Where? Our location is everything: right at the opposite of Berchem Station. This is a creative, upcoming neighbourhood. And it’s easily accessible for international comedians and audience."
TIA: Okay, ready for the real deal! How did you come up with the idea of starting a comedy club in Antwerp?
Kamal: "In fact, the decision has two motives.
Firstly, Antwerp already has a well-known comedy club (‘The Joker’), however venues to play as a comedian are scarce. Especially places where you can try out new stuff. A lot of people want to try out their new show at The Joker during their ‘open mics’, but they only have 1 to 2 open mics a month… So that makes it hard because you have to wait in line. It can take 3 or 4 months there, before you can try out again.
Before Lebowski’s, Bram and I already organised some open mics at Café De Kroon, which was a godsend. It was a big success. It pushed us to even go one step further, starting our own club. I bought the venue with my last savings.
Comedy in Flanders boomed commercially. This created a need for further enlargement of the artistic aspect of our discipline. Analysing the jokes of Geubels, what’s the idea behind Alex Agnews’ jokes, … these comedians are really good in entertaining a big audience. But the time has come that people search for a niche: some prefer dark humour, others like emotional comedy; we feel that this demand arises. Comedy is grown up because of its popularity. We want to anticipate on this at ‘Lebowski’s’.
Secondly, I’m writing on a new show (expected 17th of November), so I felt the need to try it out. A comedy show can take one and a half hour, but you don’t write it in that same amount of time. It’s a process of growth. It’s more likely you write 20 hours on it, so you have a lot of material and jokes. You enter the stage, try some things out and often you notice that your jokes don’t work or need some adjustment. So, to recap: I needed a space where I could experiment with comedy, in a safe environment. That’s when comedy is at its best, when your show/club attracts an audience that fits, which knows comedy and its method. People who know that not all succeeds right from the start, who can appreciate a premise of a joke or the idea behind it. So that the comedian can work on filling the hall, and evidently the rest will follow."
TIA: But, what makes ‘Lebowski’s’ so unique then?
Kamal: "Well, we truly want to be a safe homeport for comedians. A comedian makes a fool of him/herself 80 per cent of the time. Here, you know that the people will say, 'Don’t worry sweetie, it’s gonna be alright. Just work on this and this.' Constructive criticism.
Next, comedy is a lonely art form; it’s not like a music band, where you create together. In Lebowski’s, the comedians can ping pong and scan their ideas, they can brainstorm with fellow comedians. It’s a co-working space where you can swap ideas, techniques, … in an inspiring environment.
We, the organisers, can follow growth margins. If we see a comedian growing during the open mic, we can tell him/her when he/she is ready for the main stage. Professional comedians can visit the open mics, the day before their show, and mentor the young starting comedians.
And last but not least, we want it to be a place of talent scouting for TV makers. A place full of cross-pollination!
For the neighbourhood, we want to offer a great new brunch, lunch, dinner shack and café. We earth great here! Berchem is one big progressive, creative, co-working community, a home to innovative trendy businesses and creative young families. Our audience will find us in time, it promises to be epic!"
TIA: Intriguing name ‘Lebowski’s’… Did you come up with it?
Kamal: "The club is named after the movie ‘The Big Lebowski’. Bram and Ingrid are super fans; they had this name in mind for years. It’s a real ‘cult’ movie, not a big commercial one, with a great vision. It’s hilarious and qualitative. That symbolises a lot of things we want to attain with ‘Lebowski’s’. We want to be the professional club for comedy. We reach for intimate shows and insist on high quality. We don’t focus on the big masse. Even though you don’t know the comedian playing that night, you’ll know it’s comedy on a high level, that it’s gonna be hilarious."
TIA: Is there a comedian you look up to? That has inspired you or taught you a lot? Some sort of Kamal-paragon…
Kamal: "Bram van der Velde of course! I’m so grateful to work with him on this club. He’s been in the field for more than 20 years now, and especially known in The Netherlands. Also Michael Van Peel, with which I will tour as a support act in a few months, like I did last year. I just love him!"
TIA: So… a Dutch-Flemish influence?
Kamal: "Yes. Besides, we can take an example to The Netherlands, they are way more grown up… They have a different comedy culture, developed a real comedy world even. In Belgium, comedy has never been taken seriously as an art form. Something we want to fight against with Lebowski’s. We want to professionalize comedy in a way that we can convince other industries of our strengths and qualities. Comedians are too often seen as jokers. You know: ‘tell us a joke’ and stuff like that. As if a composer or musician is asked to play and sing a new song, without preparation! We can also accomplish this by making the work process, what preceded, visible and by being transparent to the audience. So that they see it is as a working method."
TIA: That brings me to the question: what’s good comedy for you then?
Kamal: "For me… personally… They always say, 'You have to open the mouth with laughter so that you can input food for thought'. That somewhat sums it up. I again compare it with music: you have different music genres like pop, rock, jazz, classical music, etc. just like you have different genres in comedy: vulgar, dark, intelligent, emotional, … You don’t often remember a joke or you only tell it at a boring moment. Good comedy is for me when people exit the concert hall after show time and think, 'Well, what Kamal said is true.' That it reverberates."
TIA: That’s what I recognize in your comedy style, even how you handle daily life. Self-relativity and humour as a weapon. Realistic and socially engaged, pointing to the misery in the world. I think people have to laugh more in this hard time.
Kamal: "True. I notice that a lot of people have issues. It is human to be insecure. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence: people focus on things they don’t have and they always find something to be jealous of. I deleted my Facebook profile for that reason. I wonder if other people feel the same way. And thàt is comedy. Humour is recognizable. I used to weight 100 kg, with which I struggled a lot. I talk about it in my show, openly, because everyone recognizes that kind of pain. I also talk a lot about politics, because I think they are doing it wrong, they mismanage.
I’m happy when people leave the show and think, 'Damn what Kamal just said is true' or when they even tweet about it and say, 'Hey, that reminds me of one of Kamal’s sketches'. That’s what I want to achieve."
TIA: To close the interview: we wouldn’t be This Is Antwerp if we didn’t ask you this: can you share your favourite Antwerp spot with us?
Kamal: "The ‘Vlaaikensgang’, not far from the Suikerrui. It’s a small street, inside a building. It’s a part of Antwerp where time stood still; it’s medieval and original. I highly recommend this hidden spot for a first date."
What a charming romantic guy, you are Kamal! Thanks for the tip!
Boomgaardstraat 350 :: 2600 Berchem :: lebowskis.be
Text by Lize Colson
Pics by LEBOWSKI'S