Social satire calls for all sacred cows to be slaughtered at will.

Posted: September 13, 2009 in Theatre & Event Reviews and Interviews

First published in The Weekender, 12-13 September ‘09
By: Astrid Stark

The politics of puppetry

Conrad Koch is a social anthropologist and one of South Africa’s most sought after corporate comedians. He enjoys spending nights with his hand up a puppet. “Don’t knock it till you try it,” he laughs, “We have a working relationship; no strings attached.”

Koch is slight of frame and has a gentle blond hair blued eyed look. He was bullied as a child. “So instead of fitting in, I just talked to myself; hence the puppets,” says Koch. As a young boy he also fell in love with ventriloquism at the College of Magic. Koch went on to study anthropology at University. “Anthropology is the study of culture, and comedy is the most accessible way to comment on culture,” says Koch, “I did an MA in culture to give my comedy clout. All the psychology and anthropology stems from not fitting the mould.”

Koch’s first big break came through 5FM’s Heavyweight Comedy Jams, followed by the Smirnoff International Comedy festival and the Vodacom Comedy Festival. He has toured across Africa, as well as the USA, the UK, Australia and Greece.
His popularity as a corporate educational comic stems for his characters that are uniquely placed to speak to people at the various levels of a business organisation; from the CEO to the cleaning staff. Obtaining a Master’s Degree in social anthropology, in which he examined the politics and social dynamics of two of South Africa’s biggest bank, must help somewhat as well.
Koch is in constant demand for roads shows and training events for companies dealing with issues such as diversity, restructuring, mergers and culture change. “The words, ‘humour’ and ‘business’, are almost contradictory,” Says Koch, “We are serious about business and light about laughter. I would like to suggest that this is a big and very expensive mistake. Anthropologists would argue that laughter is one of the few social skills that span all cultures and peoples – George Bush is funny in any language. Ignoring our ability to laugh is the psychological equivalent of ignoring the clutch in your car and still trying to drive.”

It is peculiar that once you stick your hand up the behind of a puppet you can just about get away with murder. We are so much more forgiving of a ventriloquist unleashing a string of obscenities and politically incorrect comments from the mouth of a green monster called Ronnie who thinks he is a sex symbol. This is precisely what Koch uses to great effect. His puppets were made by director and puppeteer, Janni Younge, and CFX, a special effects company. Koch has come a long way since his first puppet, Cedric the Snake. “I went through puberty with a talking snake,” Koch realises during the conversation. Hillary the diva puppet is an ostrich that looks like a drag queen. She has the mouth of a sailor and a laugh like a choking steam train. Hillary enjoys picking on audience members and asks one of the elderly gents in the audience; “Did you come in your car?” To which he replies, “No”, and she says, “Would you like to?” – and then that vulgar chortling laughter. The audience loves her. “Puppets can comment on society in a way people can’t,” Says Koch. “When things get a bit out of hand I always say, it wasn’t me. It was the little guy.”

His latest addition is a finely crafted Julius Malema puppet. “It’s the puppet that didn’t make the Nandos add,” he smiles. And who can forget the Nandos versus Julius Malema electric chicken affair. On the eve of the elections, motor mouth Malema declared publically that Nandos will ‘invoke the military youth of South Africa, if the ad in which he features as a puppet is not removed within 3 days.

The illustration for Koch’s Malema puppet was done by cartoonist, Jeremy Nel, and made by Janni Younge who also created the puppets for Zapiro’s Z-news that would have seen the light of day on Special Assignment, had the SABC not pulled the plug on the show. It is international standard procedure for puppets to be used for making political, social and satirical comment. One just have to think about the famous Muppet Show and the UK’s Spitting Image. Yet our South African politicians are a bit squeamish and Zapiro still has a multimillion rand lawsuit threat dangling like Zuma’s shower head hovering above him.

Koch feels we are a bit slow on the uptake, “because we have had 15 years to go through what everyone else went through in 50 years.” He wants to use the Malema puppet to change attitudes and perceptions. Why are people so obsessed with Malema failing woodwork? “Its complex,” says Koch. “I am guessing that if you made me grow up in Seshego in Polokwane during the 80s I would also have failed woodwork. It’s an easy way to bring him down a notch or two, but I would prefer we attack Julius for what he says and for his politics than his woodwork marks. Only a racist would judge a black dude by how good he is at manual labour.”

Koch feels that there is a cultural negotiation around how to comment on society. “African culture has had its own stops and releases for generations; like the Swazi Incwala ceremony,” explains Koch, “There is a different flavour to western rituals of rebellion. In the Special Assignment program most of the guys interviewed were white guys from Cape Town – like me. The slight differences between what is culturally acceptable and what isn’t are definitely at play. Different jokes for different folks. I don’t know any black stand up who calls himself a satirist.” Koch says that the rules are constantly changing depending on the location and he ponders on whether we are aware of how we sound in different contexts. “It’s a mistake I make all the time,” Says Koch, “What’s true in Sandton or Cape Town is not necessarily true everywhere else. If I ignore this I am being Eurocentric. At the same time, saying that every criticism is Eurocentric is like saying President Zuma is completely Zulu. I guarantee you that King Shaka never drank rooibos tea with honey and lemon, as our president does. So the other side is that we are way more similar than our politicians want us to believe.”

Satire calls for somebody to be offended and laughter at ourselves can be cathartic and should be encouraged. Are there any holy cows that Koch hesitates to slaughter? “Nope,” He says, “I am seriously thinking of making a Jesus puppet. He could be a Rasta dude; his dad – Jah.”
The End


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