If you didn’t laugh, you would have to cry. It was as true when the lone voice of Pieter-Dirk Uys took on the apartheid government with his wickedly satirical pen as it is now as a whole slew of new voices poke fun at South African politics, life and peculiarities. That’s not so say the world doesn’t come in for a bit of a pan, either.
A new voice has joined the pack. South African journalist, columnist and stand up comedian, Marianne Thamm, is the head writer for ZA News, the homegrown satirical ‘puppet show’ that forms part of the daily diet of South Africans who would rather laugh than cry.
Today sees the launch of the ZA News comedy portal and its fifth season. And while Top TV has secured the television rights to the excellent show, those who watch it on the internet can still do so.
It will be Thamm’s first time out with the team, which includes Ben Trovato and Andrew Donaldson, also journalists.
“I did write for the filmed sketches we did for our Cracks Only comedy shows so I had started working with dialogue and looking at the narrative or development of a skit, how to build towards the punch line etc. But this is different, stuff needs to be topical and racy and relevant. For now I am finding it comes relatively easily, the writing of dialogue and the attempt at finding the heart of each of the characters. I find some of them talking to me in my sleep. Particularly the Tata and Tutu puppets…” Thamm says.
There are some new puppets this time round. Mitt Romney joins the cast on the international front but it’s back home where some interesting actions is taking place.
Tim Modise, the “sanguine host” will be joined by a new co-host, “seconded from etv: she of the clipped vowels, orange tan and mean flick of the fringe”. Then there’s the “local presidential contender, he of few words, stern demeanour and nicely trimmed chin rug”. And last, but most certainly not least, there’s the president’s “wobbly relative, the man with the gigantic appetite for mines, fast cars, fast women and fast food”.
To handle the demands of writing for a show in which news is the blood that gives it life, you have to immerse yourself in it. Not always easy considering that bad news is often the root of much biting humour.
Thamm says she’s been a news junkie for 30 years. “I read all the newspapers, the weeklies and the dailies, including the tabloids and Gauteng-based papers like the Soweto. I read a lot of news online. I read Huffington Post and various other American websites as we have a Mitt Romney and Barack Obama puppet as well as various other American celebs. I listen to the radio on the way to work. I watch TV news…I’ve been a news and politics junkie for over 30 years so it comes easily to me.”
Of course much of it will make her sad and angry but as Thamm says, “The anger and frustration usually drives my humour but I have to be careful not to be bitter as Joan Rivers says 51 percent comedy, 49 percent anger”.
The ZA News portal, described as a one-stop portal for satire in South Africa, will host cartoonists from Zapiro and Brandon to Gaddo, as well as Hayibo.com. Comedians, writers and “agents provocateurs such as Ndumiso Ncgobo, Ben Trovato, Chester Missing (Loyiso Gala’s ‘political analyst’ from his LNN show) and Rebecca Davis.
It’s an exciting time for satire, says ZA News producer Thierry Cassuto. There’s the ANC’s rubicon at Manguang coming up. There’s the US elections in November. Julius Malema has certainly not shut his mouth as he travels South Africa and the world polishing his image and tarnishing that of former bff, Jacob Zuma.
All of which gives the ZA News writers much fodder. It must be quite tricky deciding just who to pan on any given day. “The news often dictates who gets to feature and sometimes we come up with wonderful reasons to get the puppets out of their boxes. I would like to use or write for as many puppets as do exist – around 52 of them…” says Thamm.
Just how do they deliver their skits? What is the process they follow? Thamm explains.
“The news cycle begins on a Friday. I read the headlines, the writer on duty that weekend, either Andrew Donaldson or Ben Trovato, do as well. We have a ‘permanent ideas’ document on Google docs where we all post interesting snippets or bits of news we come across and think might make a good interview or a sketch.
“Then on Sunday night the writer delivers a script with eight hot news items, an interview, a sketch and a sports or entertainment story. Then Thierry (Cassuto) and I go through the scripts usually until late on Sunday night. Then on Monday we shoot the sound and the puppeteers come in and act out the news or sketch.
“Then we do the whole thing all over again on Tuesday for the rest of the week…. In between I have ideas for and write other sketches or news ideas.” Not for sissies, then.
Thamm says she believes the appetite for satire is developing, that it is o longer a a luxury only the privileged can afford. “I think it is growing, particularly among younger South Africans….Mdu Comics and the LNN live show on etv are examples of that,” she says.
She finds no lack of inspiration out there, citing Jon Steward, Pieter-Dirk Uys, Zapiro, and Tina Fey among those who inspire her. “Then there are local comedians like Nik Rabinowitz, Loyiso Gola, Tumi Morake and others. The clever people who come up with the Nandos ads and all those other ads we all find hip and funny…I find that kind of talent inspiring. And then there’s loads of stuff people are creating and loading onto YouTube. I love coming across local stuff, parodies on bad renditions of the National Anthem etc.”
And it’s not just them who make her laugh. Thamm says she finds “a lot of things funny, actually. I usually laugh at people who are clever at making humour, those who can pull together ideas or concepts that are not obvious but that in some weird way make sense. I love Eddie Izzard’s jazz comedy, Chris Rock’s in-your-face tell it as it is”.
The thing is, though, how good are South Africans at laughing at themselves? “I think ordinary South Africans are. The comedy circuit is huge and shows that are funny on TV are hugely popular. I think some of our politicians need to find a sense of humour though…We’re also encouraging people to sign up with us and become Bloody Agents or Special Bloody Agents and submit their work for the My ZANEWS section…”