AT 8 p.m. every Saturday, life in Poland comes to a screeching stop.
This is when about 75 percent of the population tunes in to the country's most popular TV show, the political satire "Polish Zoo." For a brief 10 minutes, Poland's most loved and despised politicians prance across the screen characterized as puppets from the animal kingdom.
More than three years ago, the show first aired with only five puppets. It starred an over-stuffed lion with a fuzzy mustache as Solidarity leader Lech Walesa - Poland's own king of the jungle.
Since then, political parties here have multiplied like rabbits, and the population at the Polish Zoo has had to keep up. The zoo's keepers got to work and created 25 more animal characters, including a pair of squeaky-voiced, Chip-and-Dale-like chipmunk twins, representing two brothers in Parliament.
The show is written by one of Poland's long-standing satirists, Marcin Wolski, and is a 180-degree turn from the days when, in the writer's words, "the main task was to cheat the censor."
Now Mr. Wolski has a free hand and can let the barbs fly as he will. He fires his salvos in rounds of rhymes, with plenty of puns and witticisms for extra kick.
One Western diplomat in Warsaw, a true fan of the show, comments that the program is a little heavy on the intellectual side - you have to know your Polish history and literature in order to fully appreciate it.
But Wolski says fiddlesticks to that. "Children love it," he enthuses. They have their favorite animals, and the show's song has become a hit. About half of the viewers, he says, give the show a five-star rating, the best there is.
Each week features a new plot involving the zoo's animals and two well-known cabaret actors, Jerzy Kryszak and Andrzej Zaorski.
No topic is too sacred for the satirists, says writer Wolski, although actor Zaorski admits the show is "afraid" to make a puppet representing Poland's archbishop.
That doesn't mean the Roman Catholic Church is off limits. It is not. Letters show viewers split on the show's treatment of the church, with about half of them expressing outrage and the other half begging for more.
Wolski is also happy to go after Poland's reformed communists as well as the scads of parties that split off from the Solidarity movement. But he doesn't just pounce on the bigwigs. He targets the Polish people themselves.
"We're quite tough with society. The biggest problem [in Poland] is that society is not really prepared for change. People have to learn a new way of living," Wolski explains.
AS an example of their finger-wagging at entrenched Polish attitudes, Wolski names a skit in which the zoo's two actors go on strike at a weapons factory and complain because nobody wants to buy the missiles produced there anymore.
When Wolski first began writing the scripts for the show, he had never heard of the hugely successful television satire in Great Britain, "Spitting Image," which uses doll-like characters with wildly exaggerated features to represent Britain's political elite.
"Paradoxically," muses Wolski, "using animals makes the politicians more human."
There was no method to matching politicians with animals. In some cases, animals were chosen simply because they physically resembled the politicians. In other cases, they were picked because they mirrored certain politicians' characters.
Former Polish Prime Minister Jan Olszewski, who Wolski describes as "a little bit unconscious," is portrayed as a koala bear who's lightheaded from eating too many eucalyptus leaves. Former Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki, who in real life speaks slowly and deliberatively and is prone to heavy sighing, is a turtle. (Mr. Mazowiecki reportedly kept an aquarium with a pet turtle in his office.)
The program is obviously low-budget. In the episode just preceding last fall's parliamentary elections, the animals were gathered around a roulette wheel, waiting for the ball to land on the winner. The roulette wheel was a bicycle wheel; the roulette ball a tennis ball that eventually bounced out of control - rather like the elections, which returned an astonishing 29 parties to Parliament!
Zoo actor Zaorski, who is also the voice for lion Walesa, says they intentionally play up the fact that they haven't got much money. "This characterizes Poland. We're a poor country."
They spend a hectic week putting the Polish Zoo together: Sunday and Monday, Wolski is busy writing the script. Wednesday is voice-recording day, involving up to 15 people barking, roaring, and wheezing their lines into studio microphones. Thursday is reserved for filming the puppets and two actors. Friday is for the show's song and the last opportunity to update material.
Satire in the post-communist era is a new ballgame, says Wolski. The jokes are too obvious, he says, and this makes it doubly hard to deliver a subtle, refined jab. He doesn't just want to make viewers laugh, he explains, but to think as well.
"I'm not frightened or scared by the changes in Poland" or the changes necessitated in his writing, says Wolski. "I like being challenged. I feel like I'm in your wild West, that I've been driving a stagecoach and now I'm switching to a real car."