The XYZ Show: New horizon in political satire on African TV, but room to grow?

Anyone can do ABC; it takes effort to make it all the way to XYZ...
Anyone can do ABC; it takes a special effort to make XYZ...

Update on 1 Sep 2009: Controversy over XYZ Show: Kenyan politicians forgetting Hakuna matata?

I ended a recent blog post, News wrapped in laughter, with this thought: “There is another dimension to satirising the news in immature democracies as well as in outright autocracies where media freedoms are suppressed or denied. When open dissent is akin to signing your own death warrant, and investigative journalists risk their lives on a daily basis, satire and comedy becomes an important, creative – and often the only – way to comment on matters of public interest. It’s how public-spirited journalists and their courageous publishers get around draconian laws, stifling regulations and trigger-happy goon squads. This is precisely what is happening right now in countries like Kenya and Sri Lanka, and it’s certainly no laughing matter.

An interesting experiment in political satire on Kenyan television has just ended its first season on 9 August 2009. It’s a show called the XYZ Show, which was broadcast weekly on Kenya’s Citizen TV. Started in mid May 2009, the first season introduced Kenyan viewers to a new form of satire television, with life-sized puppets made to resemble famous persons, mostly politicians.

Gado the Creator
Gado the Creator
The XYZ Show was inspired by famous puppet satire series like the British “Spitting Image” and the French “Les Guignols de l’Info” shows. In the XYZ Show, the puppets commented on news and current events from both Kenya and overseas.

The XYZ Show was developed by a team led by Kenyan cartoonist Godfrey Mwampembwa, alias Gado. He is the most widely syndicated cartoonist in East and Central Africa. He publishes a daily cartoon in The Nation, the largest newspaper in Kenya, and his work has been published in Le Monde (France), Washington Times (US), De Standaard (Belgium) and The Japan Times.

According to its creators, the XYZ Show challenged famous figures from Kenyan high society and politics using humour and satire. It aimed to become a new forum for social and political debate, one that provides room for open discussion.

Watch XYZ Show’s first episode trailer, produced one year ago:

Says the Prince Claus Fund of the Netherlands, which supported the show’s production: “Although freedom of the press is a constitutional right in Kenya, it is difficult for many journalists to practice their profession without interference. Gado and his team hope that the XYZ Show will contribute positively to strengthening freedom of the press and increasing political and social awareness among the people of Kenya. The show provides commentary on current social and political developments and aims to use humour and artistry to reinforce freedom of speech in Kenya.”

From what I’ve been able to watch online, on the show’s YouTube channel and elsewhere, the production values are at a high standard, comparable to such shows made in Europe and East Asia. The puppets are attractive, movements convincing and the pace quick and slick.

Who pulls his strings?
Who pulls his strings?
The producers have also tried hard to make XYZ more than just a TV show. The website, in English, shows how the content is being adapted for the web (as webisodes) and mobile phones (as mobisodes). The show’s official blog takes us on to the set and shares with us the story behind the story, and introduces us to the artists and technical geniuses involved. Full marks for trying to engage the audience.

Then there is Barack Obama. Using his Kenyan connections, the show casts him (really, a puppet in his image) in a ‘supporting actor’ role. This has clearly inspired some interest in the show beyond Kenya.

So far, so good. But how does it work with the audience? The show is directed mainly at local audiences, and even if it’s presented in a mix of English and local language, it’s not something a complete outsider like myself can appreciate.

So I ‘crowd-sourced’ by asking a Kenyan reader of my blog, Marion N N, for her opinion. Marion is part of Sojourner, which her blog introduces as “a social enterprise that exists to promote the origination, production and distribution of African viewpoints through visual media. We are passionate about African film-making and seek its viable promotion globally”.

Marion wrote a comment in her blog after watching one episode a few weeks ago. She lives and works in Kenya, and her views are far more valid than my own.

Behind the screen, creators at work...
Behind the screen, creators at work...
She wrote: “My first off impression was fascination about the quality of the show in terms of animation which is very new to the local TV production scene in Kenya. Once past the fascination of the animation, I found that the content failed to hold my interest, connect with me or engage me as an audience. As a socio-political spoof show, humor ideally should be the hook that captures audience but in this case, humor comes across as mindless, illogical or simply stupid action on the screen. As if in evidence to this fact, at some point my husband in between laughter remarked ‘This show is really stupid’. I would imagine this would be a compliment to the Production becuase it provoked laughter in a viewer. However beyond that moment, it seemed only natural for us to flick over to more substantial entertainment having enjoyed that brief flight of fancy that failed to arouse an appetite for more.”

Marion also wondered what the show’s intended audience was, and highlighted the many challenges in getting the levels and balances right in doing political satire: “That politicians sometimes (nay, most times) behave ridiculously is not new or fresh. But the treatment, underlying themes, ideas communicated to audiences should be. Why do I suggest this? Because political satire by its nature speaks to an audience that is fairly mature, and exposed. To use childish humor that is poorly developed will not hold the audience’s attention. Infact at some point the content may become a tad irritating to watch. Political satire needs to be treated with a peppering of fact, wit, fresh perspective or take -out: The achievement of some underlying objective and not just mindless visual gimmicks that lead to the feeling of ‘stooping to idiocy; by audiences. This seeming insult of intelligence causes us as an audience to switch off.”

XYZ Show logoIn my own view, The XYZ Show had at least three major challenges. Doing any puppet show is hard enough, and these days the on-air competition is neither local nor fair: it comes from global entertainment corporations like MTV and their regional variations, usually with deep pockets. Doing political satire is even harder, especially if the political culture is intolerant or repressive. To get the look, feel and balances right in a country where such a show is being done locally for the first time is a formidable challenge by itself.

But I’ll let Marion have the last word. In spite of the various concerns, she feels that the XYZ Show has ‘room to grow and conquer the airwaves’. But, as she notes, “The production team have their work cut out for them in pre-production. It’s back to the drawing board and ask who is my audience? What appeals to them? How do I connect with them, define an objective for the show and its audiences? Research facts and opinions about national sentiment on issues then develop scripts and sequences…”

Read Marion’s full comment on her blog

All images used on this blog post are courtesy The XYZ Show.

Author: Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 30+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing.

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