Q&A: The man behind Chester Missing
Chester Missing has become one of the country’s toughest political analysts. He’s called Ronald Lamola a starving revolutionary and Mmusi Mamaine Helen Zille’s new black handbag. The Late Night News interviewer has challenged Gwede Mantashe on corruption and asked Terror Lekota if he’s s’khothane for life. This week he has become the toast of the ANC’s national conference in Mangaung, injecting humour into often tedious affair. GREG NICOLSON meets Missing’s maker, Conrad Koch, the man whose puppet is beyond his control.
DM: You’ve got a master’s degree in social anthropology. Why ventriloquism? Is that even a word?
Koch: It is now. We just did it. No, it’s definitely a word. I did magic when I was a kid. Stuart Taylor and Riaad Moosa – we went to the college of magic. There’s a strong Cape Town thing on Late Night News. A lot of us started together.
The ventriloquism is because I’m quite subversive. I don’t like authority a lot. I went to a private school-type situation in Cape Town. I don’t like authority and Chester’s a great way to get around that. As a ventriloquist it’s never you; it’s the puppet… [But] I think of myself more as a puppeteer, comedian, political commentator.
DM: Did you ever confront authority without a puppet?
Koch: I’m not part of the “I’m a rebel culture” because that’s not really confronting authority. It’s just another set of authority. You’re against that but still in the same system. I wasn’t cool like that. I was never cool. Puppets weren’t cool. There’s something cool about being Chester Missing but there’s nothing cool about being Chester Missing’s bitch…
I went to a private school – Bishop’s – which is very much that elite, liberal “we didn’t support Apartheid but we benefited from it” scenario. Not that I was thinking that then, but I didn’t fit in. Puppets became my thing and then puppets became a way to speak back to those chinas.
As a kid there was a sick situation where my dad would be having an event with his family or friends and my parents had been divorced so I’d sit there with the puppet nailing my dad and my mother would be feeding me jokes…
DM: Did your political consciousness start back then? You’re obviously politically astute.
Koch: No, not at all. I just wasn’t accepted by the world around me. If you grow up in Rondebosch obviously there are liberal leanings. My mum would be like, “Thank your lucky stars that you weren’t born black in this country, Conrad.” She’d be shaking her head at whatever happened in the 1980s.
That kind of thing is there but when you then go to UCT it’s like, “This is the shit that went down. This happened over there, down the road.” And the TRC [Truth and Reconciliation Commission] was happening, 1996. Then you meet TRC commissioners and then you see someone who got tortured during apartheid. And once you meet someone who has been tortured during Apartheid you can’t fuck around and say it’s fine, it’s fine that those guys are still in shacks, because the shit that went down was ridiculous and it’s still going down and we’re not doing anything about it and that pisses me off. Amandla! [laughs].
Watch: Chester Missing interviews Buti Manamela
DM: Did you always want to use your comedy politically?
Koch: I have thought about my comedy, but the truth of it is I just enjoy the magical playfulness of playing with puppets. They reach people in such a cool way… The dynamic of the puppet and this relatable character and the dynamic between us, I love that. Not for political reasons, just because it’s fun.
DM: But you use your anthropology studies in your work with Chester Missing?
CK: Well it’s just cultural debates in South Africa. Chester and I play out a dynamic with that. I’m a white guy using a black guy to get somewhere, literally. In my one-man show [Chester] literally says, “You just use the black puppet because no one wants to laugh at a lame ass, unfunny white guy.” It’s true…
DM: Tell me how it started with Late Night News.
Koch: They interviewed Jimmy Manyi on the second night of LNN and Jimmy wasn’t funny. The thing is when you interview someone it’s only possible to make it funny if there’s a dynamic, if there’s an audience watching and you can tune them. But if I sat right now and started doing gags that were mean to you, that’d just be uncool! Especially with Jimmy Manyi who’s quite a nice guy.
So I came in and I did Chester Missing material. Then we realised that while I’m there, first of all it’s just a bit weird, and second of all it’s like 11 at night and the thing has to get delivered immediately and we were like, “how are we going to do this”. And plus I have to worry about my lips and all sorts of other shit.
“I’m gonna hide” [I said], and that just let the monster out of the box, because I can do anything. Nobody knows who he is. Nobody knows what race he is. He’s a nonracial guy who’s of colour, so he can get away with that area…
We just kept going. Late Night News progressed in its political thinking… We have a sort of “we’re not going to conform” attitude so that just made it better. In the writing room there’s a lot of debate about “here’s someone; they did this; let’s rip them to pieces.”
DM: Is that what allows Chester Missing to be so forthright in interviews?
Koch: He knows what his position on a topic is without having to think about it. He doesn’t have a one-dimensional thinking. In fact, I was frustrated once with a review in Cape Town where the reviewer said Chester Missing just hates politicians, whereas you get other reviewers where they just think a bit harder.
I can criticise myself in a complex way, but just saying Chester hates politicians shows you haven’t thought about the politics of what he’s saying. What he hates is exploitation of poorer people. So he’ll criticise any politician that is inclined in that direction. Plus he speaks back to power so if someone has power he will question the validity of it, but to greater and lesser degrees, which is why Chester struggled to interview Ferial [Haffajee] because Ferial and him are very much alike in what they think.
Watch: Chester Missing on Mangaung
DM: How can you get such high-profile leaders on the show when Chester is downright rude? He’s obnoxious.
Koch: He’s a dick, I’m sorry. I’ve tried to talk to him.
DM: He insults guests to their face. Why do you think they go on the show?
Koch: The reason is simple and I’m saying this as part of the show, which is a bit weird because I’m a white guy and I don’t want to be full of it. But it is really South Africa’s top black satirical show. The people who write the show are mostly black. The presenter is a black guy who’s very outspoken on rights. He’s never going to be a sellout in his comedy. I’ve seen Loyiso grow up from starting comedy in matric at 17, doing gags, to where he is now.
When I phone the ANC Youth League, let’s say, they know Loyiso Gola. They know Chester Missing. The first response is, “Oh, satire. Satire is bad. Everyone who does satire is bad.” But when it’s Loyiso Gola, they love, love Loyiso Gola. And you’re always getting in because [for example] Gwede Mantashe’s [communications manager] is a very cool young black guy who’s very strong ANC but he understands. He’s young, he’s like us, he gets the vibe. You know, we’re just playing around…
But there’s one alliance guy who’s got an old white man as a spokesman. If he had a young spokesman the interview would have happened already, but because you’ve got an old guy… Maybe I’m wrong, but I know when there’s a young guy the door opens very quickly.
DM: There aren’t many political shows that target youth. Is there a problem with the political discourse in South Africa?
It’s a weird space. It’s super pretentious. It’s like, “Ok, now we’re going to discuss this. And you, minister, what do you think?” This youthful rebellion against stuff and this irreverence, I don’t think there’s enough of that and people are a bit scared of it.
It’s important for the senior dudes to come on [Late Night News] because it makes them accessible, especially to young guys who kind of don’t give a shit about the bullshit. When they start waffling, and they love waffling, they go “Shut up, stop waffling. I want to know why that’s happening. Why were there no walls on that toilet? Does your husband have walls on his toilet? Does your daughter? So why is it okay for those people?”
I think young people expect that and the ANC Youth League is right, those dudes who are making all these decisions, they’re old, man, a bit out of touch. Like [when Zuma said on radio], “I was surprised at how poor people are.” You’re the president, dude! What’d you think was going on?
For me, that’s why people like comedy. It brings us together. It makes the problems accessible. We can talk about them and cope with them and the politicians need to come with us on that road. At the moment they’re a bit humourless, other than Juju. Half his success is because he’s got a great sense of humour. DM
Photo: Chester Missing and Conrad Koch, whoever he is.