Meet the puppet who has called out his creator for racism
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(Credit: Stan Kaplan)
Ventriloquism is often seen as light entertainment. But dummy Chester Missing and his handler, South African comic Conrad Koch, have long been out to get serious, writes Holly Williams.

Chester Missing is a familiar figure in South Africa: a fast-talking political analyst, satirist and interviewer who's been on TV, radio and social media interviewing the country's political elite – all the way up to current president Cyril Ramaphosa. 

Warning: this article contains offensive language

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Chester Missing is also a puppet: a fact that his creator, Conrad Koch – a white South African ventriloquist – believes helps Chester get away with saying almost anything. Chester has spent his career calling out racism and pointing out both the injustices and the absurdities of post-apartheid politics, using the disarming fact of being a puppet to earn remarkable access to the powers that be.

Ventriloquist Conrad Koch is using his puppet Chester Missing to interrogate his white privilege in his new show White Noise (Credit: Stan Kaplan)

Ventriloquist Conrad Koch is using his puppet Chester Missing to interrogate his white privilege in his new show White Noise (Credit: Stan Kaplan)

"Chester is a guy who says crazy things and gets away with it – he's a tiny little ball of rubber, so you can't really get offended," says Koch, acknowledging that no one wants to look like the person who gets upset by a puppet. Well, almost no one: in 2014, when Chester criticised white singer Steve Hofmeyr as racist, and called on brands to stop working with him, after he tweeted that "blacks were the architects of apartheid", Hofmeyr responded by taking out a gagging order on Koch. Koch challenged this in court – and won the case.

Now, Chester is making his debut at the Edinburgh Fringe festival – and this time, the racism he is calling out is his own creator's. In a comedy show called White Noise, the puppet decides it's time to ask the man who keeps him in a suitcase all about his own white privilege. In fact, Chester refuses to do the show until Koch deals with his racism. 

"He gets me to say 'hello my name is Conrad, and I'm a racist'. The whole show is him mocking me," Koch says. "It's what I love about ventriloquism – you have a suspension of disbelief that allows a level of self-reflection that very few other art forms allow."

And reflection is the aim of the game here. Koch's show explores white supremacy and colonialism, to look at how, as a white person, he may not be to blame for them but does nonetheless still benefit from them. It's also meant to be fun – there's ventriloquism, and a rude puppet, and, of course, a lot of jokes. But the hope is also that such a personal mea culpa may also open up space for audiences to reflect on their own lives. 

"It's not about feeling guilty – I didn't create slavery or apartheid – but if I don't deal with the bullshit that's in front of me, then I am enabling it by my silence," points out Koch. 

As a white man who has won an award for his anti-racist work – in 2015, Koch received the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation's Anti-Racism award, given by the anti-apartheid activist who was in jail with Nelson Mandela – it would be easy, Koch says, to simply congratulate himself for being "one of the good ones". 

But that would be a mistake. "Chester gives actual, very awkward examples of me [being racist] in my personal life," Koch says. "I once tried to order coffee from my own black friend," he offers as an example, acknowledging the racialised assumptions that live in his head as a white South African. "He came up behind me and I saw a black arm, and all the servers are black… well, not all, the really racist cafes have white servers! That's apartheid!" 

Most exposing, perhaps, is Koch's admission that he has stayed silent in the face of racism, even when it hits extremely close to home. "I haven't spoken up when I've seen racism against my wife in social situations. My wife is a person of colour, and I see on a daily basis – an hourly basis – colonialism and apartheid in her own life." While Koch does mention this in the current version of White Noise, he no longer goes into as much detail as he initially did while developing the show, because, he says, "she found it really triggering".

Now, the show stays more firmly within Koch's direct experience. And ventriloquism is the perfect medium for this dialogue with the self, he suggests, because "Chester is always a version of me".

Koch learned the art of ventriloquism when he was very young, attending The College of Magic in Cape Town as a child. He recalls watching classic US ventriloquists like Ronn Lucas on TV when he was growing up: "I loved the cheekiness of the puppets, the concept of this puppet getting away with this kind of stuff," he says, remembering Lucas making jokes at the expense of literal US presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton watching in the audience, and them just laughing. 

Ventriloquism flourished as light entertainment in the 19th and early 20th Centuries, via acts like Maude Edwards and her puppet 'Nobbler' (Credit: Alamy)

Ventriloquism flourished as light entertainment in the 19th and early 20th Centuries, via acts like Maude Edwards and her puppet 'Nobbler' (Credit: Alamy)

And so it was that through Koch spotting the electric potential of combining politics, stand-up comedy and ventriloquism, Chester Missing was born. Not that there was much of a tradition of stand-up to draw on in South Africa. 

"Pre-1994, there were no comedy stages," he says. "Where you guys [in the UK] have a host of people who built up an architecture of what it means to speak truth to power – your Jo Brands, you Stewart Lees – we didn't have that." And if Koch had to forge his own path as a comedian, that was even more the case as a ventriloquist: "They used to market me as 'South Africa's best ventriloquist'… I was the only one!"

The evolution of the art form

Such is ventriloquism's potential, Koch is surprised that there aren't more political acts performing today. Ventriloquism is thought to have ancient origins, in Israel, Egypt and Greece, and has long been found in Zulu, Maori, and Inuit communities, often playing a religious or ritualistic role. However it was in the 19th Century that it came to be popularised as a form of entertainment in the West, via the music halls of the UK and the vaudeville tradition in the US, where it has always thrived on the puppet's ability to get away with saying the unsayable, and in the self-aware humour that comes from its speaking back to its master. But for a long time, the art form's popularity sat firmly within the realm of light entertainment. 

It translated, rather surprisingly, from the stage to radio in the first half of the 20th Century, with the legendary US ventriloquist Edgar Bergen hosting a comedy radio show between 1937 and 1957. Ventriloquist acts later became a staple of family-friendly TV too, on both sides of the Atlantic; in the UK, figures like Ray Alan and Keith Harris were household names – as were their puppets, Lord Charles and Orville the Duck.

Such acts were not exactly edgy, however, and ventriloquism's subversive potential was not harnessed; instead, as an art form, it began to feel more and more old-fashioned. Then, counting against it too, there's the fact that it's always been a bit, well, creepy. At some point, you became as likely to see a ventriloquist's dummy in a horror story as in a holiday camp – thanks to their appearances in everything from The Twilight Zone in the 1960s to the Goosebumps books and TV series in the 1990s, via the Anthony Hopkins-starring 1978 film Magic. While there were hundreds of ventriloquists working in the UK in the middle of the 20th Century, by the 2000s there were only 15.

The art form has arguably achieved new international reach through Simon Cowell's Got Talent franchise

But you can't keep a thrown voice down – and ventriloquism was soon being reinvented by a new wave of artists. The sheer technical skill of ventriloquism has prompted a resurgence of interest within the 21st Century's version of the variety show: Simon Cowell's talent-contest juggernauts in the Got Talent franchise. Three ventriloquists have won America's Got Talent: Texan evangelist-turned-puppet-Elvis-impersonator Terry Fator in 2007; British comedy ventriloquist (and pantomime staple) Paul Zerdin in 2015 – who is also taking a show to the Edinburgh Fringe for the first time this summer – and then 12-year-old Darci Lynne in 2017, who seemingly belted out songbook classics via her puppets. The art form has also arguably achieved new international reach through Got Talent: there have been successful ventriloquists on the Indian, Swedish, Romanian versions of the show, and in South Africa, a 16-year-old girl called Isabella Jane came second in 2015 (meaning Koch can't claim to the be the only one anymore…)

Meanwhile, on the British comedy circuit, Nina Conti rehabilitated ventriloquism with Monkey – her grumpy, no-filter alter ego, who gives foul-mouthed voice to her ruder or lewder inner thoughts about audience members, as well as continually castigating Conti herself, for being disingenuous, inept, or messed up. Painfully funny, fiendishly quick-witted and darkly self-examining, Conti's ventriloquism is far from cosy: in her 2012 documentary Her Master's Voice, she used a dummy of her late lover and mentor, experimental theatre-maker Ken Campbell, to point out that she had started voicing Monkey almost to the day her aborted child would have been born if she'd kept it. Conti's latest show can also be seen in Edinburgh this month. 

Questions of appropriation

Yet strangely, perhaps, the most well-known ventriloquist using the medium to say something political is also the world's most popular: Jeff Dunham. The US star is absurdly successful. He packs out stadiums, holds a Guinness World Record for the highest-selling comedy tour (with almost two million tickets sold), and is regularly in the Forbes list of the top five highest paid comedians in the world, as well having several Netflix specials. A clip introducing his most infamous character – Achmed the Dead Terrorist – has had over 38 million views on YouTube.

Nina Conti has brought new energy to the artform in Britain with her rude alter ego Monkey (Credit: Alamy)

Nina Conti has brought new energy to the artform in Britain with her rude alter ego Monkey (Credit: Alamy)

Dunham's humour ploughs a firmly middle-American furrow and although, like Koch, he would no doubt argue he's using ventriloquism to say the unsayable, their targets are rather different. Dunham has declared himself a Trump supporter – although he used various puppets to take shots at him during his presidency, too. In general, Dunham uses his shows to call out political correctness, including the suggestion that he shouldn't perform certain stereotyped characters from other races, be that an Arab terrorist or a Mexican immigrant, or other classes, or those peddling somewhat tired gender tropes. His humour is rarely vicious, and his technical skill and comic timing are extraordinary – but you can't imagine Dunham will be interrogating how he's benefitted from white supremacy very deeply any time soon. 

That said, the question of which characters a white man is allowed to voice is pertinent to Koch too. Originally, Chester Missing was black, in appearance and voice; however since 2015, Koch has over-dubbed old videos and changed the puppet so he has pale skin and blue eyes. 

Initially, it seemed to make sense to Koch that Chester would be a black character – someone well-placed to hold both white and black politicians to account for racism. Chester has always had a predominantly black audience in comedy clubs, while the TV show he was a political pundit for, Late Nite News – which ran from 2010 to 2015 – was made by a black creative team.

I can't get white people in South Africa to see this. And they desperately need to understand what I'm saying, I think – Conrad Koch

"I still have black people angry with me that he became white – because it took him away from them," says Koch. "That being said, Chester had a black accent and that was racist because he was a comedy character. Implying that black [voices] are a comedy trope was not my intention. We have white comedians here who go on stage in front of white audiences and stereotype black accents, unquestioningly, so by even doing an accent I was contributing to that."

In one show, Koch confronted the issue by having Chester himself accuse him of "blackface" – and afterwards, felt there was really no further to take it. Either that was the end of Chester, or he needed to become Koch's "super politically aware white friend who holds my more centrist views to account. Which is what he is now".

While White Noise excavates Koch's personal culpability, the show's Edinburgh run has also been specifically tailored for a British audience. You can expect discussion of post-apartheid South Africa, but also of Britain's colonial crimes and of our current political situation (let's just say, Chester suits a blonde Boris wig rather well). 

"I do bring in South African history but in direct connection to the British narrative, because it is part of it," says Koch. He discusses the far-reaching economic consequences of colonialism, and in particular the impact of Cecil John Rhodes, the British 19th Century imperialist and politician whose detractors say engineered conditions in Southern Africa that allowed white settlers to oppress indigenous populations through displacement, poor wages and conditions, and limiting their rights and opportunities.

Jeff Dunham is the biggest ventriloquist in the world – and controversial in his use of characters (Credit: Alamy)

Jeff Dunham is the biggest ventriloquist in the world – and controversial in his use of characters (Credit: Alamy)

"He planned black poverty [in Southern Africa]. [He said] we're going to turn black people into what he called 'hewers of wood and bearers of water': he renamed slavery and outsourced it," claims Koch. And he points out that this economic and power disparity still exists today, with most black South Africans earning less than white citizens and many living in crushing poverty. 

At home, Koch's audience is almost entirely black – something that he believes is down to his anti-racist stance. "I can't get white South Africans to come and see this show. What happens is [white audiences] love laughing at the black politicians: do jokes about Jacob Zuma, our very corrupt ex-president, and white South Africans will laugh and laugh. And then you say, 'but we threw him in jail, for 10 years, on Robben Island' – 'ohhh why do you have to bring that up, it's in the past'…"

And so his plan to bring White Noise to Edinburgh has a stealthy side to it, he says: "[White people in South Africa] desperately need to understand what I'm saying, I think. The only way I can get them to watch, is to get your white people to say 'that was good'."

"The idea that I could change the country is arrogant and obnoxious and I'm just doing comedy…" he quickly adds, backtracking slightly. Nonetheless, his urge to start the conversation about colonialism, racism, and white privilege is very real – and as long as he has Chester on his arm, Koch will always have at least one person who won't stop talking to him about it. 

Conrad Koch: White Noise is at Pleasance Courtyard in Edinburgh till 29 August; Nina Conti: The Dating Show is at Pleasance Courtyard till 28 August; Paul Zerdin: Hands Free is at Gilded Balloon at the Museum, 11 – 17 August. All tickets available from edfringe.com

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