Sunday, November 13, 2011

Two Zimbabwean Sitcoms: What Sitcom?

Samuel Ravengai

Sunday Mirror Review, 11 April 2004
Zimbabwe Television (ZTV) has so far produced two sitcoms – namely, Timmy na Bonzo and Chatsva.  In 2003, Susan Makore, the then Kidznet and Television Services head announced a new television season by emphasizing that a new sitcom Chatsva would be part of the new menu.  I waited with nudging anxiety to watch Chatsva as the previous so called sitcom Timmy na Bonzo, though sometimes funny, had failed to fit into a genre which it was being asked to belong.  When the new season opened, I followed all Chatsva episodes with keen interest until ZTV itself decided to take it off the air.  It was neither interesting nor did it belong to the situation comedy genre.  At the present moment (April 2004) ZTV is screening a sitcom called Waiters produced by Creative Native, the video production arm of Rooftop Promotions.  The question that comes to mind is:  What is there about a particular show that makes it fit into the situation comedy genre? I attempt to answer this question and provoke others as well. 

The answer to the first question motivates shocking revelations at Pockets Hill. In this Art Talk column, we have revealed time and again with concrete evidence, that some dramatic serials, which are being screened as soap operas, are in fact not soap operas.  When the visuals of Amakorokoza are pointing to something far removed from a soap opera, ZTV news anchors, reporters and presenters brand Amakorokoza a soap opera.  The same naming crisis comes to light with regards to Timmy na Bonzo and Chatsva.

Who at Pockets Hill allows and endorses those erroneous names to programmes that do not belong to such genres? The Productions Strategic Business Unit sanctions these dramatic programmes. Sources privy to the issue reliably inform me that executive producers of this SBU meet every morning to check the quality of programmes that will be aired on a given day. The drama unit executive producer Dorothy Chidzawo should voice those concerns to those who commission the programmes so as to protect her reputation. I believe that the commissioning team should be made up of people who are thoroughly grounded in television production. I understand Norbert Ferro, Emma Shamuyarira and until recently Noel Sibanda comprised the Commissioning Team. I have great respect for these individuals as artisans. However, I doubt their ability to read works of art and pass unquestionable judgments on them. It looks to me that they cannot distinguish chrome from mampara, gold from silver and lead from tin. All of these minerals, to them, are the same (metaphorically speaking). If a seller sells his silver as gold, they will buy it as gold without verification. Some mechanism has to be put in place that will ensure that mediocre programmes are cast in the recycle bin before they are beamed to the viewers.

And now to situation comedies. Because of the shortcomings of the commissioning team, such programmes as Timmy na Bonzo and Chatsva were named situation comedies. Lawrence Simbarashe and Marjory Mugoronji could have gotten away with it had their programmes been interesting as I suspect Amakorokoza will be. Timmy na Bonzo and Chatsva were a false start. The real start is Waiters. It should go in the history of broadcasting that the first Zimbabwean made sitcom was Waiters.

Jasen Mphepo played Marcelino in the sitcom Waiters

What is there about a particular show that makes it fit into the sitcom genre? In situation comedy a special funny thing happens to a special set of characters. As opposed to other dramatic genres, this special set of characters will appear at the same time during the coming week in another funny situation which will be entirely nondependent on what happened in the previous episode. One is tempted at this stage to ask; wasn’t Timmy na Bonzo like that? However, there is more to it than just this ‘funny thing’. Hansen (1991) defines situation comedy as “plot centred and involving setting up new and interesting situations into which familiar characters move”. Being ‘plot centred’ is where the real crux of the matter is. The plot of a sitcom falls into four basic parts: exposition (teaser), complication, confusion and more confusion, and finally alleviation of confusion. Both Timmy na Bonzo and Chatsva registered the first part in their stories but they seemed to end at that level without taking the story forward. In one episode of Chatsva, Mbanje falls hungry and conjures a plan to get a free meal from their workplace canteen by faking illness. The situation doesn’t take off from this level as the rest of the characters ritualistically follow the same trick crafted by Mbanje. There is no confusion that ensues leading the story to remain flat and hypnotically dull. What should ideally happen is that when the situation has been established, it is the one which precipitates the complication that follows. Take Marcelino of Waiters for instance. He goes back to Mozambique, but mistakenly locks Mariyawanda and Adam in the restaurant. What are they going to do with no help in sight? This is the complication. The complication leads to confusion. At least Adam has a cell phone, so he can phone to solicit for help. But before he phones, the handset drops down and breaks into pieces. Confusion. There is power failure. More confusion. The more thorough the confusion, the more the audience is let in on a joke that will backfire on the characters, the more comic the episode. Nothing is done out of malice. Everything happens by mistake or out of good faith. When confusion has reached its peak there is the alleviation of the confusion and everybody is happy. The balance of power returns back to its original position; as it was at the beginning of the show.

Timmy na Bonzo does not present a situation but a series of situations in one episode which are not given time to develop. Four or so situations cannot be fully developed in less than 24 minutes. However, as individual artistes, Tapfumaneyi, Lawrence and Arumenda have great potential. They have two options: either to look for a talented scriptwriter and director who will do what they cannot do better or revert back to their trade as standup comedians. We don’t have many of them in Zimbabwe and that is a grey area!

Like soap operas, the space of a sitcom is always internal. There is nothing of substance between houses and office blocks. Movement from one place to another is accomplished by means of fade-out or fade-in. It is only Waiters which passes this generic code. The other two programmes flirt around with all kinds of spaces. Chatsva would move to fuel stations while Timmy na Bonzo would go to grave yards, climb up trees, open spaces and so on. Waiters is, however, consistently internal as it should. The standard of living in these internal spaces is based on comfort and neatness. There is only shabbiness or disarray when called for by the script.

At the centre of the situation comedy are the characters. Sitcom characters are not fully developed, as the plot formula does not allow real psychological development. They are very predictable, as they will behave the way they have always done and will continue to do within their stylistically individual manners. They are not fully human, but humanoid. Though they have the appearance of humanity certain qualities are exaggerated to the point of grotesque. Take Marcelino for instance. His more stupid side is emphasised more than any other quality. Sally is garrulous, soft minded and very fastidious. This is what she will play for the entire life of the sitcom. While there is great potential for Timmy na Bonzo and Chatsva characters, they can only be more useful if all other generic features are present in the narrative.

Situation comedies have types, namely action comedy (actcom), domestic comedy (domcom), pseudo domestic comedy (pseudo-domcom). Waiters is more on the actcom side while Timmy na Bonzo and Chatsva are not firmly located in a specific genre.