EVERY day, Rico Schacherl checks his inbox. In it will be a note from his partner, Steven Francis. The note will either be agreeing with the cartoon idea, finessing it or suggesting something for the next day.
There’s a six-hour time difference between Parkhurst, Johannesburg, where Schacherl’s studio is and New York in the US, where Francis is based - but the arrangement works. The result is Madam & Eve, surely one of South Africa’s longest-running newspaper comic strips and without doubt one of the most loved.
Hadeda La Land is the 26th annual since the creative genius of Rico, Francis and Harry Dugmore was first harnessed.
Dugmore was the business manager for Rapid Phase, their company that eventually saw Madam & Eve evolve into a live-action sitcom television series for eTV - a “completely different animal”, he says - and other merchandise.
The TV series was popular, low budget and done at pace. Schacherl and Francis eventually went on to do a pilot for an animated series, much like The Simpsons - and aiming for the same production quality.
“It was an interesting lesson,” remembers Schacherl, “the animation tech is relatively cheap, but it’s the voice actors, the rehearsals, crafting the scripts and post-production that are so expensive. Extrapolating from that, it would have been as expensive to make as Egoli.”
The three creatives met in the very early 1990s, working on the short-lived Laughing Stock satirical magazine, edited by Arthur Goldstuck. Schacherl, Austrian-born but Joburg-bred, wanted to join the magazine after he heard its founders, Gus Silber and Goldstuck, on radio.
He went to the magazine, but bumped into the expatriate Francis, who had just returned from the dentist and was still under the influence of the local anaesthetic.
“It was surreal,” says Schacherl, “half his face was full of novocaine.”
The magazine lasted for 13 editions before closing, but it was enough to forge a bond between them that would become Madam & Eve, inspired by Francis’s observations of his new domestic arrangements in South Africa.
When the magazine closed, the three tried doing joke books and greeting cards for the same company before venturing out on their own - initially working out of Schacherl’s then house in Melville.
“When he first came to South Africa, Steve was staying with his in-laws in their beautiful house in Alberton and observed this bizarre relationship between his mother-in-law and the maid.”
It was 1992 and the country was on the cusp of seismic change. Inspired by Gary Trudeau’s Doonesbury, The Far Side and Calvin & Hobbes, it brilliantly captured the zeitgeist of changing power relations.
“The title popped into his head, we did a couple of mock-ups and the Mail and Guardian (then still the Weekly Mail) picked those up,” Schacherl remembers.
“It’s outlasted everybody, even our marriages,” he laughs. “We pre-date all the current newspaper groups as they exist today and only Doonesbury is still going from the three iconic strips that inspired us.”
Dugmore, who had been a writer with Laughing Stock, became the trio’s business manager before leaving in 2004 to return to academia. Today he’s an assistant professor at Rhodes University’s school of journalism.
Rapid Phase was eventually pared down until all that remained was the Madam & Eve comic strip.
Madam & Eve isn’t Schacherl’s only work either, it’s about a third of what he does every day: he does political cartooning for FinWeek and broadcaster eNCA in the digital space, as well as working on educational projects that are very close to his heart, particularly in the science and literacy fields.
“Having to pay attention to current affairs all the time is tiring; working on children’s illustrations for Nal’ibali (Xhosa for “here’s the story”), a national reading-for-enjoyment campaign to spark children’s potential through storytelling and reading, the Meerkat comics and science posters allows me to get into a different head space.”
In his seminal book, What’s So Funny, Under the skin of South African cartooning, Andy Mason attributes Madam & Eve’s enduring popularity to the fact that the creators play on the stereotypes so typical across the length and breadth of the country - and their attendant absurdity.
Eve gives as good as she gets from Madam, but in Mason’s words, they’re co-dependant and, while from different backgrounds, they have similar common enemies that bind them.
Their success is not that their creators try to hide their differences, but rather exaggerates their ethnic and cultural differences to such an extent and with such humour.
“Madam & Eve operates as a kind of funfair mirror in which ordinary South Africans can see themselves reflected but in a distorted way that exaggerates their failings.
“The laughter stimulated by Madam & Eve is often the laughter of recognition, as readers recognise elements of their own behaviour,” writes Mason.
Today Madam & Eve is a regular feature across Independent Media’s titles, which publishes the Saturday Star, as well as the Mail & Guardian.
The strip in the weekly M&G was the reason why the strip started shifting from ordinary satire to politics.
“They forced the change,” remembers Schacherl, “it became very issue and politics driven, like so much about humour and satire these days in SA.
“Thanks to technology, those issues can now become reflected on a daily basis.
“The media space and logistics have shifted dramatically,” says Schacherl, “it’s changed from photostats and overnight bags to e-mail. We went from working weekly to producing daily. Our deadlines are 11 every morning for our newspapers, but working in the digital space can be even faster.”
It’s not something that he’s too enamoured of.
“I don’t like it often, I prefer to let the cartoon ideas stew for a little to make sure we’ve got all the facts, otherwise speculating on insufficient or incomplete information can open us up to being accused of making fake news.”
The one thing they don’t often do is sport. “It’s out of Steve’s remit.”
Francis does a rough script from New York which he scans and sends overnight to Schacherl in his Parkhurst studio; sometimes it’s the other way round and Schacherl takes the lead.
The six-hour time difference often works in their favour creatively, but distance can be a problem, something that Francis tries to overcome by visiting South Africa at least twice a year.
Social media, though, helps them keep in touch with their fan base. “Because of it, we now get instant feedback.
One of the most interesting aspects is that South Africans think we are the only ones with problems. Take potholes, for example, people say to us: ‘Come to Paraguay, Italy or Canada. You think your potholes are bad?’
“The problem is we often tend to compare ourselves to Switzerland and Sweden - that’s where our expectations are. It’s not real, but that’s South Africa.”
The Saturday Star