Sun, 08 Apr 2001

'Wayang Orang Humor' staged amid humorless crisis

By Yusuf Susilo Hartono

JAKARTA (JP): The humor industry in Indonesian television has scaled new heights. The Javanese Wayang Orang Humor has found a niche on state television station TVRI, following the success of traditional ketoprak (Javanese drama depicting historical or pseudohistorical events), in its humorous cloak on private television station RCTI.

In a similar move, private television station Indosiar has been airing Javanese leather puppet shadow plays and Sundanese wooden puppet shows enliven by comedians' jokes and guest stars singing dangdut and pop songs, sharply lowering their literary quality.

Interestingly, these humorous shows have found fertile soil exactly when Indonesia is in the bind of a protracted economic crisis, worsened further by interelite bickering, incessant pro- and-contra-Gus-Dur street rallies at a number of places, like the People's Consultative Assembly/House of Representatives compound, at the Hotel Indonesia traffic circle or in front of Merdeka Palace.

The country is thrown into further chaos with bombings and communal clashes in a number of provinces, such as in Sampit (interethnic fighting) in Kalimantan, and Ambon (interreligious clashes involving people of the same ethnic group) in Maluku, with secession as the motivation, leading to an exodus of refugees.

How must all this be interpreted? The late Sardjono Jatiman, a noted sociologist, said that release valves would be needed for the Indonesian people after long repression under the New Order regime and later being tossed into a whirlwind of reform euphoria following the collapse of that regime.

One of these release valves is humor. Understandably, when humorous shows are aired on television, the community seems to find it the right time to laugh, forgetting, albeit only for a while, their increasingly heavy burden in life.

As the "king of humor", President Abdurrahman Wahid seemed to validate the hypothesis that laughter was necessary during a crisis. A few months ago, for example, he watched a humorous ketoprak performance at Graha Bhakti Budaya, Taman Ismail Marzuki (TIM) art center, Jakarta. A visit to TIM was nothing special for the President as he had his office here in the 1980s when he was chairman of the Jakarta Arts Council.

What made the visit unusual was that along with the rest of the audience, the President laughed freely in response to the jokes and jests of the comedians, who were criticizing the present situation.

The ketoprak performances aired on TV are actually recordings of performances held at TIM or the Jakarta Playhouse (GKJ).

It is strange to find that someone paying a lot of money to see the live performance will usually watch the same performance on TV and laugh equally hard. Editing shortens the recorded broadcasts, which are then also interrupted by commercials.

It is obvious that watching a performance live differs, in terms of impression or experience, from watching its rerun on TV. In the case of the former, there are no commercial breaks.

Humorous Javanese stage shows

The airing of Javanese stage shows on TVRI has been made possible thanks to the Samiaji Art Association Foundation, TVRI Service Company and Kogas, a company dealing in consulting and multimedia businesses. The players come from a long-established troupe, Wayang Orang Bharata.

As TVRI is still commercial-free, airing these shows is doubly beneficial for the station: on the one hand it can earn money and on the other it helps conserve a traditional art form. Timbul said that his traditional art form is facing extinction.

Only a few young people in Central Java, where this stage show was born, grew and developed, are aware of the noble teachings in the stories played out. As many of them can no longer speak the high form of Javanese, these young people have greater constraints in appreciating the traditional Javanese stage show.

"As Javanese, we actually do not find it very fitting to use Bahasa Indonesian. However, we have decided to use Bahasa to ensure that communicating with our audiences countrywide can be well established. The narrative convention, however, is unchanged. Although we present humorous pieces, the play must not change because of its philosophical value," said Timbul, who assumes the role of Bagong, on the sidelines of a recording session at the central station of TVRI in Jakarta.

Uki Bayu Sejati of Kogas, agreed that the recording of a play called Kongso Adu Jago (Kongso in a Cock Fight) showed some awkwardness in the dialog exchanges in the play. Only in the recording of the next play, Petruk Jadi Ratu (Petruk Becomes King), did this awkwardness slowly disappear.

However, he said, some expressions which are better conveyed in Javanese will be spoken in this language and have subtitles.

If these performances are meant to bolster appreciation, most people, including journalist-turned-performer H. Sujiwo Tejo, suggested that humorous Javanese stage shows should use Bahasa Indonesia. "Honestly, something is inappropriate, I feel," he said, prior to his departure to the Netherlands to join a Traditional Arts Festival.

As director, Aris admitted that language and interpretation were two main constraints to humorous traditional Javanese stage shows.

An important requirement for inclusion in the cast is that a player must be able to dance, while an ability to sing traditional Javanese songs is a prerequisite to guest stars.

It is this prerequisite, said a source from Kogas, that has reportedly kept famous comedian Tarzan, an important figure in Samiaji and Timbul's close friendship, from joining ketoprak.

TVRI airs Wayang Orang Humor every Friday at 8 p.m. Kongso Adu Jago, the debut show, was broadcast on March 16, and will be followed by Petruk Jadi Ratu and Pergiwo-Pergiwati.

Will humorous traditional Javanese stage shows be able to help repopularize Javanese stage shows in the midst of pop entertainment? Who knows, after their merry laughter, people will simply forget the original traditional Javanese stage shows now in anguish facing gloomy days somewhere on the stages of WO Bharata in Jakarta and WO Sriwedari in Surakarta, Central Java.

Any effort made must be appreciated, especially one to preserve our traditions. It is not a bad idea at all to laugh and learn something of a philosophy of life amid the serious crisis keeping the entire nation tightly in its grip.