The Strengths and Limitations of Waiters: Zimbabwe’s very own Situation Comedy
The Sunday Mirror, Mirror Review, 23 May 2004.
In the Mirror Review of 11 April 2004 I made a bold claim that “it should go in the history of broadcasting that the first Zimbabwean made sitcom was Waiters”. I had looked at other programmes which claimed to be sitcoms, but found them wanting in most of the generic codes I outlined. However, the mere fact of qualifying to be a sitcom does not render Waiters free from blame. It has got its own limitations that need to be rectified before it qualifies to be an exportable media product. But let us first look at its strengths.
The first strength stems from Creative Native’s involvement of intellectuals in the creative process. It will be remembered that last week I bemoaned the undeclared animosity that exists between intellectuals and production houses in so far as both of them do not seem to be working together for the good of art. However, in this particular programme (which is a rare case in Zimbabwean art) Steven Chifunyise was engaged to create Waiters characters. All of the characters created by Steven Chifunyise are firmly rooted within parameters that define a situation comedy. Edgar Langeveldt, a University of Zimbabwe practical drama graduate is also one of the scriptwriters. A combination of writing skills from Leonard Matsa, a film writer and Edgar Langveldt, a theatre creator helps to catapult Waiters miles ahead of either Timmy na Bonzo or Chatsva. This marriage between artistes and artistic intellectuals is also evident on programmes that ZTV imports. On titles, portfolios like consultant script editor, consultant director or consultant so and so are often a common feature at the end of each of each programme. It goes on to support the view that people who are knowledgeable and action oriented should occupy creative portfolios. However, I must add that the mere fact of being an intellectual, but without passion and discipline does not guarantee a great work of art. I am informed that because of Edgar’s failure to meet deadlines among other things, the task of scriptwriting has been taken back to the originator of the idea Steven Chifunyise.
Waiters has got an experienced cast which makes it an erstwhile programme. Waiters director Marian Kunonga once described her performers as “an intimidating cast”. Dylan, Ehyra, Tickeys, Simon and Jason have got a wealth of experience from the theatre. The bravura melodramatic style of acting, which they got from the stage, suits the sitcom genre, which does not normally rely on close-up shots. These performers are not chancers; they have a passion for art and most of them are trained. In Zimbabwe, some directors still think that performers are born and therefore can be picked from the street in the fashion of modelling schools. They will give their friends and relatives a chance to appear on television and get some little pocket money even if they have never seen an acting school in their lives. The results are obvious on our sets. We are not cursed. We have to kill the enemy of art within ourselves who believes that art is any fools’ game. Art loving directors should repent from this sin against art.
Waiters is very Zimbabwean in its tone, texture and flavour. The opening montage of each episode of Waiters is accompanied by some sweet African jazz theme music played by a Zimbabwean musician Willom Tight. It prepares the viewers to get into an African restaurant with those ethnic colours on the walls. The laugh track plays a typically Zimbabwean laughter. It gives the viewers the feeling that they are watching a Zimbabwean product.
The final but not least strength of Waiters lies in the fact that it satisfies all generic codes of a sitcom- a four part narrative structure, humanoid characterization, exploration of internal space and the inclusion of a laugh track. Let me expand on characterization. There is a great deal of stereotyping in Waiters. It should be noted that whereas in other dramatic television genres it is a weakness to create stereotypical characters, it is a strength in sitcom characterization. Much of the humour comes from this stereotypical depiction of characters. Take Marcelino, for instance as the ‘brandaya’ house cook who is fuss and stupid. Get me right here. I am not insinuating that it is wrong to create a three dimensional character. In fact it is an extra bonus if a scriptwriter achieves that level. Some channels like BBC actually require three-dimensional characters as asserted by Matthew Carless “the characters that force us to reject scripts are often one dimensional or stereotypes”. For those who want to create comedy characters, this is the realm of characterization that they should be operating in.
While Davies Guzha and his Creative Native should be credited for producing Waiters, ZTV Quality Control Committee should be cracking the whip at Creative Native to mend the seams inherent in Waiters. A major shortcoming in Waiters is the absence of a recognizable main character. Everybody in Waiters seems to attract the same kind of attention. This does not help the entertainment value of the sitcom. The main character should carry the bulk of the action and is the one that viewers are supposed to watch for the better part of the episode. Because of the time limits of each episode (24 minutes) it is painstakingly difficult to give every character enough spotlight to make all of them main characters. This is the major dilemma of Waiters. When each character is equally important, each takes away from the others time that viewers can spend with other characters. Ideally, there should be one or two main characters and a sizeable number of supporting characters. Need should be the guide for the inclusion of supporting characters. They should be included to inspire or force the main character to act or react. The nearest Waiters have come to having a main character is when they bring ‘a guest star’ like the MP, Brenna Msiska or Oliver Mtukudzi. In these episodes, the viewers spent more time with guest stars. Dishearteningly, not all guest stars lived up to the expectations of stardom. The result was that when viewers were supposed to have quality time with the so called guest stars, they had torrid times with novices who struggled with lines and the craft of acting. It was much better with Mtukudzi and Masuku as they are artistes by profession.
Waiters is also limited in its scope of comedy creation. Essentially, the funny thing should come from the situation/story itself. The scriptwriters and the director seem to be doing well in that area, although they are not always successful in all the episodes. There are, however, other techniques of creating comedy over and above the ‘situation’. One way of doing this is through dialogue. In American sitcoms, there is meant to be a laugh every thirteen seconds. Zimbabweans should decide at what intervals they want laughter. However, the bottom line is dialogue must also be funny. This is generated through juxtaposition of two contrasting modes of speech. Ambiguity is another technique. Here an utterance is made in all innocence but is suddenly seen to carry a second possible meaning which clashes with the first.
Puns can also be employed. This is sheer pleasure in the perfidy of language (word play). “the forms of everyday speech are praised but transcended: copiousness of insult, fluency of repartee and inventiveness of word play go far beyond anything encountered in everyday world” (Nelson, 1990). Another source of comedy is visual comedy (Mr. Bean style). Here characters exploit parody, comedy of errors, comedy of manners and so on. It looks like Marcelino is the only character operating in this realm. The rest do not want to experiment with visual comedy. Sutherland (2000), a specialist in sitcom writing warns: “if you are not funny for any length of time, it had better be deliberate and you had better have a good reason”. If all these techniques are employed, Waiters can be a better comedy than it is at the moment.
Another worrying thing found in Waiters is that not all episodes follow the generic sitcom structure. I have watched a good number of them, but here let me single out the one in which Marcelino was dancing through out the episode. A drunkard later joined the dancing but the narrative remained on the same structural level. This did not precipitate further complications and confusion. The climax should not be taken out of the protagonist ‘s hands. If the events are going to be funny but without movement of the narrative, it will most likely put off the viewers. In his Ten Commandments of Writing Robert Mckee explains how characters have to be manipulated: “thou shalt seek the end of the line, taking characters into the furthest reaches and depths of conflict imaginable within the story’s own realm of predictability”. Multiplying complications on one level surely does not help the story, as it also remains static. The same mistake was committed on the 24 April episode where Marcelino got drunk and the story remained at that level without venturing into further complications. The introduction of Willom Tight did not add any further confusion. Viewers cannot be hooked to the screen by stasis.
In as much as I respect Steven Chifunyise, I have problems with his construction of sitcom characters. I appreciate the fact that the characters are unique. Apart from the Mariyawanda- Simon and Marcelino-rest-of-them relationships, the other combinations are not clear to me. A good script should make clear each character’s relationship to other characters in the series. Each character must have a comic flaw which creates potential for comic clashes between personalities and that will make these relationships funny, an excellent attribute of a sitcom. A situation comedy should really be called “character comedy”. We have seen from previous false sitcoms that a series of jokes strung together will not carry the day. Good writing is reliant on strong character outlines, which seem to be lacking in Waiters. E-mail this writer at firstname.lastname@example.org