In the comedy popularity polls, Chester Missing surpasses his puppeteer Conrad Koch. This is evident by his growing social media fan base.
Aside from bagging two international Emmy nominations, the puppet was the first recipient of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation’s AntiRacism Award.
All Chester’s strides are a compliment to Koch, who has poured 25 years into his craft.
“Ventriloquism takes a very long time to get good at,” says Koch. “A very long time because you’re doing several art forms. You’re acting. You’re doing satire. You’re doing stand-up. You’re doing puppetry. You’re doing ventriloquism and you’re doing commentary on South African society and world society.”
The tricky juggling act explains why few have tried to follow in his footsteps.
On stage at the Pieter Toerien Studio Theatre in Montecasino, Koch unleashes his mastery in puppetry and comedy with aplomb. This is his second run, albeit with a few tweaks.
“What I try to create is a world-class – America’s Got Talent-like – level of South African political flavour shows that I can tour.
“In order to do that, I need stage time. It’s not like stand-up; you write a couple of jokes, you walk on and say those jokes. I’m doing five other things that stands up are not having to do. That explains the amount of stage time.
“The show is incrementally more than the shows I did last year because it had global stage time.
“And Chester is doing a TV show on politics, so some of that is coming in – just to give you the tone of that.
“Ventriloquism is so difficult, you look like a moron for most of it. It’s so hard to get right. It’s also a Eurocentric art form. In the UK, US or Canada, it is the English oeuvre of work. In South Africa, the whole industry is smaller compared to any market that doesn’t have apartheid.”
That said, ventriloquism isn’t the obsessive core of who Koch is. But it’s something he continuously improves on.
And the past two decades have been a wonderful learning curve for him. “It’s such a growth,” he says.
“You’ve got to first think, Chester Missing’s career is going really well. Emmy nods and a TV show right now. He’s doing fine. And a more satisfying form of credit is accessing the political landscape. He can talk to powerful politicians. I find that and working with such interesting people, like (comedian and actor) Kagiso Lediga, and the writing team all very satisfying.”
That doesn’t mean he hasn’t navigated his way through a few tricky situations.
The ventriloquist said: “I went through a very political space. I mean Chester Missing went to court fighting racism and that got very dark for my wife and I. It got very ugly. Threatening things started happening, which I’d rather not go into too much detail about. I took on the right wing directly.”
Amid everything, he was also called to “be an expert on white privilege right where I studied”.
“Imagine if you benefited from apartheid and then you are talking about how you’re benefiting from apartheid, it’s like you’re benefiting from apartheid twice.”
Koch is mindful of how he works comedy and social commentary into his work. He feels strongly about changing the narrative and steering it away from the tropes that apartheid reinforced. He is heading back to Australia and Canada for more tours. After which, he will be looking at his next show. “I’m thinking of Chester doing an hour of stand-up, unpacking his life…,” he hints.
And if you haven’t caught his show, be sure to do so. It is funny, interactive and insightful. Besides, wouldn’t you like to know more about his visit to a place called Regina and its Roughriders football team?
Puppet Guy is on at Montecasino until April 14, from Thursday to Sunday. Tickets start from R130, from Computicket.