A white comedian and his black puppet help South Africans talk about race

The World

Late Nite News is a satirical news program in South Africa, similar to The Daily Show in the United States. One of the program’s best-known characters is a loud, brown-skinned puppet named Chester Missing.

Missing is billed as “South Africa’s top satirical political analyst puppet.” He regularly conducts hard-hitting interviews with politicians, and he often brings up a subject that can be difficult for South Africans to talk about — race.

On a recent show, Missing spoke with Diane Kohler-Barnard, a white member of Parliament who oversees a committee on crime. Missing — who is generally seen as “colored” (the South African term for mixed-race) — asked Kohler-Barnard why South Africa’s crime statistics are so high.

“Corruption and greed, and international syndicates,” Kohler-Barnard responded.

“You don’t think it’s also because white people like you forced black people into a system of economic servitude that destroyed families and has created a cycle of poverty?” Missing interjected. “When are you going to blame yourselves for the crime statistics?”

This kind of in-your-face satire has earned Chester Missing a lot of fans, particularly among black South Africans. But here’s the thing: the guy who voices the puppet is white.

Comedy for social justice

Conrad Koch, the comedian behind the puppet, began doing ventriloquism a little more than a decade ago. He said he wanted to do thoughtful comedy — the kind that would touch on difficult issues and push for social justice. Even today, he said, twenty years after the end of apartheid, the racial disparities in South Africa are staggering.

“White South Africans still earn, on average, six times more than black South Africans. I mean, it’s ridiculous,” Koch said.

Koch said taking on the persona of a black South African — and expressing those views through a puppet — allows him to make jokes he otherwise couldn’t.

“[Chester Missing] gets away with asking insane things. Only a puppet could do that,” he said.

Koch doesn’t just do his routine on television — he also performs at comedy clubs around the country. Koch, the ventriloquist, plays the straight man to his wise-cracking puppet.

At a recent performance, Koch stood on stage with the three-foot tall dummy by his side.

“Chester, race is a scientific fallacy,” Koch explained to the puppet. “There’s no such thing as race. And accent is just who you grew up around.”

“No, no, no,” Chester responded. “Ask anyone in the room here today — your race and your accent are connected. The darker your skin, the slower the white guy talks to you!”

Modern blackface?

Before Koch’s stage performances became popular, many who saw Chester Missing on television didn’t realize that the man behind the puppet was white. So when fans saw the reality at his live performances, some took exception to the act.

“I think the beef was primarily that this is blackface,” said T.O. Molefe, a South African writer. He criticized Koch’s performance on a popular blog called Africa is a Country.

Molefe said Koch’s act certainly isn’t old-school blackface, where the intent was to mock black people — in fact, Koch often makes white people the butt of the joke — but still, Molefe said, when a white man gets on stage with a black puppet, it can feel like mockery. “And you can’t just let these things slide,” he said.

Koch said he understands this criticism, and he knows his act can offend. “I’m very, very conscious of the dangers of it. To say I ever stop doubting myself would be a lie,” he said.

“On the other hand,” he continued, “I have black friends, black comedians, black academics who are just saying, ‘Conrad, get over it, just do what you’re doing, it’s amazing work.’”

For now, Koch has taken that advice and continues performing. But he has also tweaked his act. He now brings attention to the awkwardness of what he’s doing.

At a recent stand-up performance in Cape Town, Koch stood on stage with his puppet, answering questions that had been tweeted by the audience.

“As a puppet of color, why do you have a white ventriloquist?” Koch asked the puppet, while reading from his cell phone.

“Exactly!” Chester answered. “He’s using me!”

The puppet then railed against the puppet master. “You stole our gold, you stole our land, you’re even stealing our freaking accent!” Chester shouted. “This isn’t comedy, it’s blackface!”

The show was met with explosive laughter from the audience, which included people of many races.

Koch said, when he hears laughter like this, he gets the sense that he’s doing good — and maybe even helping South Africa heal.

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