Behind the scenes at The XYZ Show

| May 14, 2013 - 13.07UTC

The 2013 elections lifted the already hugely popular satirical The XYZ Show to cult status and led to its recognition as the Best Television Series in Africa at the African Magic Viewer’s Choice Awards. Curious to look behind the scenes, we sent Jackson Biko to meet the XYZ team.

You could decide – in fleeting moments of grandeur – to call Eric Mokua a god. After all, he brings to life the personalities you watch on The XYZ Show. Puppets that are a spitting image of the people they portray; that eventually talk, act and sound like the twins of the individuals they characterise. Even though the puppets will eventually require a more diverse set of talents to bring them to life, it is Mokua who sets this creative process in motion, by first crafting the men and women who have made The XYZ Show one of the most culturally and politically significant programmes on Kenyan television, and across Africa as a whole.

But you won’t call Eric a god, because you know better. That kind of thing will get people’s knickers in an ugly twist.

At the Godown Art Centre, where Buni Media Studios – the creators of The XYZ Show – are located, Mokua sits in a small cramped workshop that smells of artificial life forms. On one wall is a large corkboard onto which numerous impressive sketches are pinned. In the middle of the room is a massive old table strewn with detached puppet heads, rubber eyeballs, unfinished masks with holes for eyes, and lifeless latex limbs. A puppet massacre. It reminds me of something from a Tom Cruise movie, where he (Tom) wears a rubber mask to gain access… oh, just look for the movie.

Amid the melange Mokua sits at his computer, watching a YouTube video of President Obama. Mokua watches tons of YouTube videos of people he intends to caricature, looking for their unique behaviour, facial features, expressions and general mannerisms. Then he sits down with a sketchpad and captures his characters on paper.

“The hardest personalities to nail,” he says, “are those who are not popular. Because then you have less margin of error. You really have to reproduce them well so people can identify them.”

When he is satisfied with his sketches, he walks across the yard to the main Buni Media offices, where he sits down with the show’s founder and producer, Godfrey Mwampembwa. You already know Mwampembwa as ‘Gado’, the editorial cartoonist with the Nation Media Group. Gado will pore critically over these sketches and either send them back for more work or give them the nod.

That approval will then take this process to the lap of Ross Franks (Head of Buni Workshop) whose role is to supervise the creation of these puppets.

The sketches will give way to clay work, which is a bit like something you may have done in art lessons at primary school, only much more delicate and purposeful. Ross and his team will build a three-mould sculpture out of fibreglass, then mix liquid latex in a cold room and inject it into the mould. This sculpture will then be put into an oven and baked. After three hours the mask will be washed and dried.

It will then be sprayed to the right complexion of the person it represents. After that, there is a lady who, using a needle, will painstakingly sew hair onto the puppet’s scalp and eyebrows. Of course, she spends less time on characters like Mukhisa Kituyi or former president Moi.

What will be remaining at this point will be the eyes. These used to be problematic, because when the show was launched they imported the eyeballs, but they came in specifications that the Buni team couldn’t use. So Ross and his boys had to have them specially made, from scratch, including a mechanism that allows them to blink and move from side to side.

A month from the time Mokua started sketching, the eyes will finally be lodged in the puppet and it will now be ready for showtime.

At this point Buni Media would have spent a substantial Ksh500,000 on a single puppet.

The XYZ Show has about 60 puppets stored in a room that has tens of boxes piled to the ceiling and clearly labelled: Marende, Kilonzo, Sang, Bufwoli, Sonko, Kiraitu, Raila etc. The irony isn’t lost on me, as I stand in this windowless sanctuary, staring at these politicians who are finally locked in boxes and who are now at the behest and whims of the scriptwriters and producers.

However, the process of making the puppets isn’t without its challenges.

“Silicon has been a major problem. The local product is of bad, unusable quality and so we are forced to import at a hefty price,” remarks Irene Mukonyoro, the production manager. “Latex also has a very short lifespan, which means we can’t afford to import it and leave wastage around. Then there is the kiln for cooking these puppets, which we have had to improve over time. And did I mention the problems we had with the eyes?”  Yes, you did.

XYZ isn’t a comedy show: it’s a satirical show”. That’s one statement I heard constantly during my visit to the set. Unwittingly, however, they have managed to blur the line separating the two. The fact is XYZ is mostly hilarious. But it’s funny in a clever way. In an educated way. And because it is funny, because it satirises politicians and allows us to laugh at them every week, the show that has run for seven seasons is watched by not less then eight million viewers a month, has over 200,000 ‘Likes’ on Facebook, over 41,000 followers on Twitter and some three million views on YouTube.

Which means it has become more than just a satirical show: it has become a social statement.

Although XYZ is the first satirical puppet show in Africa, its concept was borrowed from the popular show Spitting Image, which aired in the UK from 1984 to 1996, and also from France’s popular show Les Guignols de l’info, which also featured latex caricature puppets of politicians and celebrities.

Gado picked up on this concept during a study trip to Paris in 2003. The story is well known: he came back to Kenya armed with this burning idea, which he tried selling to TV networks, none of which were very enthusiastic. After all, it was 2003.

So he sent sculptor Gerald Olewe to France to train to work with sophisticated materials like foam latex. Armed with his newly acquired skills, Olewe returned to Kenya with the first puppet of Mwai Kibaki stuffed in his luggage.

Then followed six years of Gado knocking on TV doors selling this idea that pretty much seemed like flogging firewood in hell. There were also conversations that yielded some hope: those he had with embassies (like the French Embassy) that generated some funding to make a pilot, and with Mike Rabar (CEO of Homeboyz), who offered his studio for recording.

“At the beginning, everybody was on voluntary service. We weren’t paying anyone; we were getting on board people who believed in the concept and who offered their services for free until it picked up,” Gado told me.

The turning point came in 2009 when Marie Lora-Mungai (now the co-founder and an executive producer), who was then working as foreign correspondent for AFP TV and Reuters, helped him put together proposals and budgets based on a new business model for the show. With this, they visited Nairobi’s NGOs and foreign embassies, and something finally gave. The rest, as they say, is old tale.

The 30-minute show is expensive to produce, admits Gado. One episode, for instance, costs about Ksh2 million to produce. “We have funding from the Ford Foundation, the Open Society Institute, Omidyar and Twaweza, which keeps it afloat.”

XYZ Voice Director Edward Khaemba’s slim frame belies his huge talent to imitate such a range of personalities with unsettling precision. That wiry frame is the source of many voices. Khaemba, a Sports and Science graduate from Kenyatta University, is the voice behind Mutahi Ngunyi, PLO Lumumba, Bifwoli Wakoli, Kenneth Marende, Robert Mugabe, Yoweri Museveni, the late Muammar Gadaffi and Kofi Annan.

The XYZ Show employs about 85 people, 20 of whom are voice artists. “My job is to source and audition for voices,” says Khaemba. “Normally you won’t find an artist who can imitate a personality perfectly straight away; maybe 40 per cent of what you are looking for is what you will get. I then embark on turning that 40 per cent into something closer to perfection.”

I mention to him that I liked his impressions of the political analyst Mutahi Ngunyi, and also Bufwoli Wakoli, and he honours me with an off-the-cuff impression of Mutahi. It’s hysterical. Rather, Mutahi is, and I like the way Khaemba aptly depicts Mutahi, who is known to pack English verbiage and imagery into a slow-moving – and almost tiresome – narrative.

“The trick is to pick on nuances in someone’s speech patterns, little idiosyncrasies of how they sound, their facial movement…,” Khaemba explains. But over and above the din of mirth and satire, Khaemba hopes that the message isn’t lost on the audience, and that they will be able to see that “the emperor is naked” indeed.

In the recording studio three chaps hold up their scripts. One is playing Uhuru Kenyatta, a dreadlocked fellow with one of those faces you feel you have seen somewhere. He’s called Tony Mboyo. Next to him is Axon Wafula, who plays William Ruto. Across, donning a dodgy-looking baseball cap, is 26-year-old radio presenter Dennis Mutuku, who plays Raila eerily well. In fact, he plays ‘Tinga’ so well it sounds spooky, with a voice that too many harsh drinks appear to have passed through.

“I can also play Pius Muiru [the preacher]”, he says, before launching into a hilarous imitation of him asking his wife for food in Pius’s voice. “Sometimes I call her on the phone and speak like Raila,” he tells me, “and she always laughs her head off. It’s never gotten old for her.”

Another radio presenter, Nick Odhiambo, who plays the show’s host Keff Joinange, hasn’t gotten over the fact that he earns a decent living off the XYZ gig: “What I earn here is almost what I earn at Radio Africa.” He adds, somewhat tongue in cheek, that he was never the “books” kind of guy in school, that he didn’t “go far” in education, and so to earn money from his voice is a great blessing.

“Given my background, I feel the need to help the many talented young people who need a break, by organising workshops at Sarakasi and in high schools. The talent out there is amazing and I’m certain there is a guy who can do voices or act or sing and all they need is the exposure and the confidence.”

For Doreen Karau, the voice behind Martha Karua, this is more than just a gig: it’s a deeper inquiry into the character of the politician, and her contribution is seemingly driven more by a concern about gender participation than by satire. “For my Master’s case study [media representation of female candidates] I focused on Martha as a political candidate, and my thesis explored the way the media underplays the position of female candidates,” she tells me.

“During these past election campaigns, for instance, Martha was barely covered in the news by the major media houses, and it’s amazing how she was unflatteringly positioned.”

At this point I’m compelled to ask if she is related to Martha, given her own surname. She isn’t. But she feels connected to her beyond the show. “Sometimes I will read a script that I feel misrepresents her, or casts her in bad light, and I request to have it changed,” says Doreen.

When the voices have been recorded, the filming is carried out, headed by the director Brian Kyallo, who translates the scripts into what you see on your screens. And a lot goes into that. Remembering watching them shoot, I recall thinking how monotonous, tedious, repetitive and boring it was.

Here’s a rough account of what happens: Brian sits on a chair behind an intimidating bank of consoles and bellows the puppeteers into action. Puppets start acting. At some point he will bark “cut!” and they will stop, upon which he will give instructions and then bark “action” again, whereupon the puppeteers will come to life again. It’s a process that is repeated over and again until he is happy.

Watching The XYZ Show at home, it is difficult to appreciate the innumerable hours that Kyallo and his team put into making it the success it has become.

You don’t see the gaggle of cameramen, gaffers, sound engineers and wardrobe assistants who fuss around the set during the long hours of production.

You don’t see that there are two puppeteers who control each life-size puppet. One handles the mouth and eyes while the other manipulates the arms. Both have to be in sync.

You don’t see the lengthy brainstorming sessions that give rise to the ideas for the skits. You don’t see Lily Wanjiku and her band of writers mulling over how to translate political happenings into captivating satirical pieces. (“It’s the best gig ever,” says Lily, almost making me jealous.)

It is the result of all this hard work and attention to detail that led to the show winning the 2013 African Magic Viewer’s Choice Award for Best Television Series in Africa, at a ceremony in Lagos in March.

The XYZ Show has done more than entertain; it has exposed the underbelly of our democratic space and the media freedoms that we enjoy. “We have moved on a great deal as a country, given the level of tolerance the political class has shown in the light of the type of political satire that The XYZ Show deals in,” says Gado. “But most importantly I hope we are seen as contributing to the political space and conversations in our own unique way.”

More than that, Gado, more than that. You and your team make us laugh heartily just when we are beginning to think that there isn’t much laughter left in us as a country. Long may that continue.

Plays: Martha Karua 
Day job:
Owner, 512 Agency
Have you met Martha?  Yes, I can say now we are friends. We first met in 2011 when she had come to The XYZ show set to see her puppet and meet the voice behind it. She always laughs when she sees me. I attended some of her events during the campaign. People think she’s my mom.
How are you similar to Martha?  I’m strong-minded but have room for negotiation, I’m a go-getter and we both love politics; I was a student leader (secretary social welfare, KUSA 2007) at Kenyatta University. I also gave her a hand with her campaign.

Plays: Uhuru Kenyatta 
Day job:
I work here; I also double as a puppeteer.
Describe Uhuru’s voice: His voice, like mine, is not so deep; a bit husky. At the beginning his voice had a bit of arrogance and anger. Now it’s more civil, more composed. More stately, if you will.

Plays: Mike Mbuvi “Sonko”
Day job: Kenyatta University student, studying biochemistry.
Any relation to Sonko? None. Why him: I’m in his voice range. But I also work at honing this skill by watching loads of YouTube videos, looking out for body language. He speaks differently in rallies to, say, the way he does in press conferences or at small gatherings. I’ve nailed him about 50 per cent, and I want to improve that.

Plays: Jeff Koinange
Day job: Presenter, Radio Africa
Why Jeff Koinange?  He’s easy to imitate because he exaggerates things. He pokes fun at people. He says “Oh, my” a lot. I suspect that he does all these things to stay awake during interviews. It helps that my voice is as deep as his.

Plays: Raila Odinga
Day job: Radio Presenter, Musya FM, Royal Media.
What’s a Kamba doing imitating Agwambo? I have been doing him since high school days. I was always that guy in class who would imitate any teacher. Raila is an interesting character because his speeches are never dull; they are punctuated with stories and imagery.

Let’s put together a compilation of Kenya Yetu readers’ XYZ Greatest Hits.
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Twitter: @kenyayetumag


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