ZA News: A Molotov cocktail in the making

It’s no secret that Julius Malema is unwilling to hand over his throne as the country’s grandest comedian—but it seems that his spoof will outshine his classiest deliveries.

The ANC Youth League president has tight competition with the arrival of ZA News. It takes the form of a Malema puppet—one of the political satire TV show’s lead characters—that resembles and sounds like Grumpy. And the Malema puppet is bound to ignite the same indecision among his fans and followers: is that a line to laugh or cry about?

Watch the first episode

On the first shoot at the ZA News set at Both World studios in Bo-Kaap, Cape Town, journalist Tim Modise (the puppet version) interviews Malema the puppet.

Malema the puppet says the internet does not exist because he couldn’t find that word in his Pedi dictionary.
He could probably have stolen those words straight out of his real-life reality star’s honey-lined mouth.

Cameras started rolling on Monday and fresh episodes of ZA News will be broadcast on the Mail & Guardian Online from Tuesday to Friday, with a weekly wrap-up on Saturday. The show will also be flighted on the ZA News and Kulula.com websites.

ZA News guns for social commentary on the political fraternity. It’s all puppets and voice-over artistry that parodies via interviews with newsmakers.

Executive producer Thierry Cassuto steers the project that feels like a Molotov cocktail in the making. It could explode if politicians find it hard to swallow, not to mention slap the show’s producers with legal action.

“What lawsuits? This is satire. It’s comedy. I’m not saying I’m not thinking about it [the legalities]. But we’re not going to worry about it, otherwise we’re just going to be lame and not funny,” says Cassuto.

He is scripting most of the inserts with writers Ben Travato and Stephen Frances—who is part of the Madam & Eve comic-strip team.

“It’s not about going mad. It’s about finding a voice. It’s taking things to another level. Everybody in the country can still participate in a debate and not be at each other’s throats,” says Cassuto.

There has been an attempt to stifle the show from going public. Cassuto and collaborator Jonathan Shapiro, perhaps better known as Zapiro, couldn’t get the South African Broadcasting Corporation to flight ZA News. This was after the national broadcaster spent R1-million on a pilot—Z News—that was canned.

With the internet as a fast way of spreading news, and without broadcaster hassles, Cassuto believes “we’re here to stay”.

“This can become a feature of everyday life. It’s part of your chats on the internet and at work. But know how to take everything with a pinch of salt,” he says.

‘We take what’s there and bring it to life’
In the dressing room, Hillette Stapelberg dresses the Modise puppet in a “reject” Carducci suit. The Archbishop Desmond Tutu puppet’s bright purple costume brightens the room, just like the real deal.

“We went to every single shop in town and found that [bright purple] colour in Wynberg [Cape Town],” says Stapelberg.

She says she’s been with the ZA News team—dressing and maintaining the puppets—since it started about a year ago. Stapelberg has done her homework to ensure that the puppets don’t drift too far from the persons they’re based on.

“We go with what their style is in the real world and include little peculiarities that they might not pick up. Like the way their glasses sit on their face or the way they hold their hands when they talk. We also look at colours that they usually wear,” says Stapelberg.

“We’re not altering the personalities. We take what’s there and bring it to life. We’ll also have new characters because the political scene changes.”

On a white board in one of the studio’s meeting rooms, other possible characters are listed: newsreader Riaan Cruywagen, United States President Barack Obama, and America’s top socialite, Paris Hilton.

Magic sparks in the makeshift voice recording studio, with its green, puffy foam walls. Aggrey Lonake, actor and voice artist, imitates Modise and Malema. Once done, he breaks into a perfect impersonation of former president Thabo Mbeki.

“It took me two years to pick up Mbeki’s voice and do his mannerisms,” says Lonake, not indicating whether that was because the statesman wasn’t around often enough.

“I record them, listen to them over and over. I also look at their mannerisms. It’s a struggle to get the voices right,” he says of his research process.

Lonake believes that ZA News is “not just entertainment”.

“It helps people to think about looking at us in different ways. And laughing at ourselves. We’re a mature nation so we should be ready for this,” he says.

“Politicians make serious decisions that affect us but they’re all the same. They only differ in colour and height. They attack one another but also laugh together. Most of the time watching them makes me laugh. But I can also be laughed at.”

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