Tyson Ngubeni’s alter ego as American newscaster Bob O’Connor is winning the internet.
Towards the end of April, Tyson Ngubeni shared a skit from his archive. In the video, the South African comedian impersonates a typical American TV news reporter in a news feature about wall fences which are colloquially referred to in South Africa as “stop nonsense.” The depiction resonated with thousands of South African Twitter users.
“The first viral Bob O’Connor skit was part of a long-form news skit I created for some folks at church who started a social media community to connect during the lockdown,” says the comedian in an interview with OkayAfrica. “I was called to a Zoom meeting on a Monday, where I was asked to perform live stand-up from home. Knowing how long it takes to craft jokes (and that much-needed feedback from an actual audience), I told them I’d rather create skits, since that’s a strong suit which I figured would work much better and, thankfully it did.”
Bob O’Connor, the name of the fictitious character Ngubeni takes on in the viral skit, made a return in two more skits the comedian has shared on his social media platforms. Ngubeni’s depictions of the character are accurate—from the typical mispronunciation of African words, the exaggerated hand and bodily gestures and the gaze with which Western media looks at the continent.
The skits also poke fun at South Africans and their ways, from the country’s jargon to such tendencies as keeping plastics in a plastic bag (like all black people in the world, I guess).
Tyson Ngubeni is one of the country’s most promising comedians. His ability to play characters has entertained audiences across the country and earned him a spot on the showmax series Funny People Africa.
In the interview below, Ngubeni explains his love for voices, coping with the lockdown and his future plans.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What inspired you to rollout the Bob O’Connor skits?
What really inspired me to just get it out there was seeing one of [comedian] Loyiso Madinga’s now-famous #BadJokeOfTheDay clips on his Instagram. I love it, and I just thought, ah, what the heck and published it. The intention was to re-record it with better equipment and slicker production value. The response to it caught me completely off-guard, but it was cool to see how people connected to it.
The first time we saw Bob O’Connor was in this clip in 2019. When did you create the character, and what was the inspiration?
That clip was part of our work at web series Politically Aweh! I think Bob was born in a conversation with myself sometime in 2015. I’m obsessed with voices. I also spend a lot of time alone; I suppose when you spend as much time alone as I do, you end up creating good company. I did [that] by talking to myself in as many different voices as I could. With Bob, there was this super weird, funny backstory about his time as a CIA agent in late-sixties Thailand. When I’d speak about it to friends at the time, they loved it.
What role do you think comedians can play in these tough times?
It’s interesting because we’re all figuring this out; we’re all equally uncertain about how long we’re in this situation for, and just how we’ll ride it out from day to day. I suppose from time to time, the odd effort we make to stay creative or put ourselves out there might strike luck. Though I also think, considering how odd it is to be living through a pandemic and anxiety-inducing the whole situation is, it’s okay for comics and other creatives to take the time to make sure they’re okay. For the few who do somehow continue to create, I’ve seen how powerful that sense of connection and still relating to each other can be. It’s very encouraging for both the creatives and our audiences.
How has the lockdown affected your work?
I’m a live performer, both on stage and screen and in the voice booth, so work came to a complete halt.
What ways (if any) have you found to cope?
In terms of coping mechanisms, I suppose the big thing was making sure the family, especially older members, were okay. Being unable to go for a run in the initial weeks was tough, but I found a lot of solace in books I was lucky enough to have had delivered in time just before the lockdown started.
What are your plans for the year as a comedian?
The pandemic threw everything upside down. I had hoped to have a new hour of comedy ready in time for the National Arts Festival, but that’s on hold (even though it’s gone virtual). In terms of comedy, I’ll try stick to a routine of writing, and the skits have been a welcome creative outlet that keeps the brain engaged.