behind the laughter

Behind The Laughter

A decade ago, there were almost no Ethiopian sitcoms being broadcast on television or the internet. But for the past two years, the number of sitcoms is growing dramatically.  On top of putting a smile and laughter on the face of viewers, sitcoms serve as a platform to criticize social and political related problems. Yet, behind the laughter and criticism, producers of sitcoms has to stride an arduous journey as EBR’s Kiya Ali found out.

Tokichaw, a disappointed, bald and short man, is sitting on the porch of a small shabby hut that is made of mud. While drinking Tela, a traditional Ethiopian drink, he refuses to accept the apologies of five of his neighbors who left him behind when they returned from a trip a certain rural area. He begins tearing apart his T-shirt in anger. Tokichaw is a poor man who has 11 children with his wife and earns money by collecting trash from different houses. Since all of his neighbors, who are customers of Emama, a woman who brews and sells Tela for a living, know his financial problems, they ask him why he would tear his own clothes. So begins the 28th episode of Ye Emama Bet, one of the Ethiopian sitcoms which serves as a platform to criticize the country’s social and political culture.

As the name suggests, the purpose of a situational comedy, or sitcom, is to bring humor and laughter to the audience. The plot is centered on a particular situation set in a typical place such as a home, internet café or guest house. The same is true for Ye Emama Bet. It starts with the status quo where everything is normal among the characters. Then, a disruption will occur via its characters’ foolishness in all forms, such as vanity, hypocrisy and sentimentality, like Tochichaw. Even though these issues affect the characters’ situations and relationships, by the end of the episode, everything is usually back to normal.

According to Surafel Daniel, executive producer and director of Ye Emama Bet, before the 28th episode aired, young people in different parts of Ethiopia were protesting against the ruling party, damaging cars and public buses as well as destroying factories. This specific episode tried to criticize those acts in a humorous way. In addition to criticizing the political culture, Ye Emama Bet touches on social issues like violence against women, respect, and forgiveness and advocates the importance of discussion to solve differences.
“In the area where I grew up, there is a mother like Emama who brews Tela, although it was not for sale. When problems came up, the villagers would go to Emama’s house and try to discuss their problems. I came up with the idea of Ye Emama Bet from this experiences. It is very helpful when you start with things that you know about,” says Surafel.

The setting of this sitcom is the traditional drinking den. Except for one of the protagonists, all of the five main characters are living with poverty. “In the majority of Ethiopian movies, it is common to see people living lives of luxury. In reality, the number of people living in poverty outnumber the rich. We wanted to show how the majority of Ethiopians live by setting it in a traditional drinking den,” Naomi Mohammed, co-producer of Ye Emama Bet adds.

Other sitcoms seem to be following this general trend, including Tinishwa Parlama (the Small Parliament) and Aleme (My World), which are set in an internet café and a guest house, respectively. Tinishwa Parlama tries to show the impact of social media on peoples’ lives, and criticize those who simply accept the information on social media without verifying the facts. “Our main target is social media critics. We are trying to create awareness and help people make conscious decisions about their actions,” states Tilahun Sheneberk, producer of Tinishwa Parlama.

Aleme, on the other hand, has seven main characters who criticize social and political issues and try to solve their problems and differences by the end of each episodes.

But the growth of sitcoms had not been without challenges. “When we decided to produce Ye Emama Bet, Ethiopia was under a State of Emergency,” recalls Surafel. Although satire allows for criticism by conveying the messages with humor and slapstick, their freedom was still limited, so they were obligated to focus on socially objectionable behavior and actions.

The other challenge sitcom producers faced was convincing people and media outlets to work with them. “Sometimes what matters is not the content, but the person who does it. We had to prove ourselves,” Naomi tells EBR. Tilahun agrees. “Instead of giving us the air time we requested and allowing us to market later, media outlets want producers to find advertisers first,” he says.

One source of profit for producers is income earned from Youtube, where their earnings are calculated based on the number of viewers. The other source of income is from advertiser agreements with broadcasters. According to Surafel, producers earn as much as ETB 20,000 for each episode broadcasted online. “However, considering the production costs, the payment is not that much,” Naomi tells EBR.
A large chunk of the earnings goes to the actors. The actors on Ye Emama Bet, for instance, are paid between ETB 700 and ETB 1,000 for each episode. “Many of the actors are young and energetic. They work for passion, more than money,” says Surafel. On the other hand, Aleme’s more experienced actors make as much as ETB 10,000 for each episode.

Equipment expenses are also another burden. For instance, 5 Dmax 3 Camera, cost ETB 90,000, while it is rented for ETB 800 to ETB 1,000 for a day. Other production costs include buying lights (which cost as high as 800ETB a day), film scoring (ETB 18,000 on average), animation (ETB 15,000) and sound recording, which costs between ETB 28,000 and ETB 30,000.

Taking such costs and other expenses into account, Beniel Teshome, who directs Aleme, says the production costs for one episode could go as high as ETB 100,000. But for Surafel, it is possible to produce an episode with production cost of less than ETB 15,000.

8th Year • May.16 – Jun.15 2019 • No. 74

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