Comedy White, white, white guilt

White, white, white guilt

Conrad Koch is the ventriloquist behind Chester Missing, one of South Africa’s better-known political analysts. Like most comedians in this country he talks about race – a lot. Missing, his new show at the Festival, is filled with barbs about colonialism and racial profiling, mostly delivered by Chester, a racially ambiguous puppet. Koch, though, is white, and deeply aware of it. Shortly before his opening performance on Wednesday night, which also featured two additional puppets, neither as funny as Chester, he sat down with Cue to talk about trolls (the virtual ones), satire, and white audiences not quite getting what he’s about.

You spend a lot of time arguing on Twitter. Do you believe in feeding the trolls?

Sometimes I engage because I’m the moer in; other times it’s to create dialogue. And based on the feedback I’m getting, these are useful conversations to have. Chester’s career has taken off and here I am, this white guy, trying to ride on his success. It’s a powerful metaphor. So Chester doesn’t talk about blackness; he mostly talks about me, the white guy. He won’t make jokes about lobola or Jacob Zuma’s marriage, for example.

Because that’s a stale trope, right? Privileged comedians punching down, I mean.

Exactly. Look, I’m a white, heterosexual, cisgender dude. It’s good to speak back to that.

You might be provoking important conversations, but they often seem to boil over. Just a few days ago you were called the new Rachel Dolezal, a white person faking blackness.

But I am the new Rachel! That was my joke in New York last month. I’m aware of all these criticisms, but I also have a lot of support. And I discuss these things in my show. The only difference is that Rachel Dolezal’s tanned and non-tanned selves didn’t talk to each other.

But does the conversation evolve? Or are you just going around in circles, doing the same things, and being accused of blackface every few months?

It’s always evolving. When I created Chester, he had a very clear identity position. He was coloured. But I’ve started to play with that.

He looks like F.W. de Klerk from the back.

I know! In the shows, he often switches identity now. Sometimes he addresses me as “you”; other times he speaks about “us”. It confuses people.

And the blackface accusations?

I’ve taken Chester’s accents away. When you do accents in comedy, you hype up conradthem to make the jokes funnier. That’s blackface, I’ve realised. There were black artists in the United States who would stereotype black people for white audiences in the Jim Crow era. And we have South African comedians now who do that quite a lot.

So this year you’re performing in Grahamstown …

… at the Settler’s Monument! It’s insane! This is like the most colonized place on earth!

… but it’s also the site of recent student uprisings against systemic racism. No matter what dialogue you’re having with your puppet, the fact remains that you’re one of two white men on the Festival Programme cover. What needs to change?

Chester does a guide to colonialism in my new show. If you put this in the paper you’ll be giving it away, but the sketch ends with a picture of that very front cover. Why is satire in SA still about white men pretending to be something they’re not? I don’t know what the solution is. I didn’t know the cover was going to end up like this. But here it is, so that’s the conversation we’ll have.

Satire was named this year’s featured artist too.

And it’s all white people! Chester is the only brown thing on that whole page! It’s awkward. But what do you do? If my voice is being heard, then that’s reinforcing white privilege. I understand that. But at the same time, how many white people are there with the ability to deliver this message – that this white privilege exists, and matters – in a fun, relaxed way?

Are white people your target audience, then?

Chester makes white people uncomfortable and he has a huge black following. It’s frustrating as hell, because my message really should be for white people. My critics keep saying, “Oh, you must speak to white audiences,” and I’m like, “How?” It’s not like there are separate rooms for these things anymore. Unless I go to Orania, all venues are mixed now. As a comic, I need to talk to the whole country.

Sounds like a paradox.

It is. Look, audiences buy what they want to hear. If I’m going to attract white audiences, I’ll need to not piss them off too much, which means not delivering the message. Fuck, I don’t know what to say. There are times I need to shut the hell up and there are times I need to use my platform. The hard part, I’m finding, is knowing when.

Kimon de Greef
Cue Specialist Writer

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