Remember when you were a kid and you wished you could fix your issues with a wacky scheme, or by inventing a time machine or homework robot? Mom’s asked you to make dinner and she wants it just right? You’ve done something naughty to the family’s new TV and now you need to change your name and leave the country?
Tapiwe “Taps” Lembwa (played by André Lembwa) is just like you. He’s also Cartoon Network’s (DStv 301) biggest fan. His “imagination room” is filled with his favourite recordings from shows like The Powerpuff Girls, Gumball, We Bare Bears, Mao Mao, Regular Show, Teen Titan Go! Apple and Onion and more. Whenever there’s a problem, Taps turns to his toons for solutions. He frequently ropes in his nerdy brother, Garcia (André Lembwa), to help science him up a solution based on what he’s seen in his shows, too.
Now get ready to see what mischief Taps and Garcia get up to, and prepare to meet the guys’ strict, slay queen Mama (André Lembwa), and beloved Gogo (André Lembwa), who always has a muttered word of wisdom for the boys, in African family sitcom Cartoon Network To The Rescue. This fun, 7-episode blend of live action and cartoon clips aimed at kids aged 8-14, goes live on Cartoon Network’s (DStv 301) YouTube Channel on Saturday, 14 November.
2 bros and a show
Congolese-born André calls himself a social media memeologist. He loves making people laugh with his slapstick comedy sketches on his Instagram account. His film buddy on Cartoon Network To The Rescue, Howard James Fyvie, is an actual award-winning director who has made shorts, adverts, and feature length films including 2015 zombie thriller Last Ones Out. Their partnership on Cartoon Network To The Rescue looks just as beautiful, fun and chaotic as the action onscreen. It’s a combination of preparation and inspiration that allowed the spirit of comedy to run free. Read on as they take us inside their show…
How did you approach André – you know each other from church?
Howard: We have a home group, 15 young people who meet in my house every Wednesday night. We have dinner together and stuff. So we naturally came to know each other. Everybody in the room had always been making jokes and quoting stuff that he’d done. I didn’t know what was going on, and I was like, “Hey, what’s all the laughs about?” And then I got to see André’s Instagram account, and I was like, “Hey, epic! This could be an amazing fit for Cartoon Network To The Rescue.” Up until that point, I wasn’t thinking of having one actor play multiple roles, but when I saw his stuff… well, actually it was my wife Christine’s idea. She was like (Howard puts on a high-pitched voice), “You should use André!”
At what point did you guys realise, “Oh, oh, this is actually happening”?
André: When I got the message from Howard, he said something about Cartoon Network and I thought he needed my help, like advice and ideas and so forth, my wisdom and knowledge as well. I was like, “Okay, cool, what’s up, dude?” We met up and he said he’s doing this shoot for Cartoon Network and I was still like, “Cool, what ideas do you need from me?” Then he mentioned he wants me to act in it and I was like, “What? Me out of all people?” So it was in my head. But the moment when I realised was when Cartoon Network Africa actually started following me on Instagram. I was like, “Okay, no, this just got real.”
Howard: You took a screengrab of that and sent it to me!
André: I sent it to everyone! I still have the screenshot on my phone now.
Howard: The way this brief originated was broad. Cartoon Network came to me and said, “We want to make content for our African YouTube audience.” The early conversations were about whether it was going to be live action or puppets or animation. I already wanted André, but I had to “sell” him to Cartoon Network. So one night after church he came to my house and in half an hour, from 9pm to 9:30, we filmed something. I set up a light and quickly got him to say some funny stuff and filmed him and sent it to them the next morning as a “proof of concept”. We were holding thumbs. The big issue was that André’s beard makes him look much older. You were pushing maybe 35! So we showed them this video and they loved it, but they were like, “Can he shave?” The way André knew that he got it was I messaged him back and…
André: He said, “Oy, are you ready to shave your beard?” At that moment I knew, okay, it’s about to go down!
How did you divide who would do what when it came to scriptwriting?
Howard: We took the concept and sat out here in the garden, and I would pitch an idea to André and ask him, “How do I make this more African?” And he would start to chip in and throw out ideas and tell me, “No, no no, no, no! A black person’s mom is never going to do that.”
André: I took from my experience as a black African, and added it to the script that Howie wrote.
Howard: It started off with asking what are some things that African families go through. And André was throwing out ideas like with the hairstyle…
André: Yes, the wearing of the do-rags, those coloured material things that I was wearing on my head? That's super popular right now there by us.
Howard: Which I had no idea about! I didn’t even know what a do-rag was. We were both learning from each other. What I learnt also from André was the different dynamics between parents and children in an African home vs a Westernised home. In a Western home, often the kids can run around and do whatever they want. In an African home…
André: It’s strict. Listen to what your parents say. You basically have no say. Whatever your mom says or your dad says, that’s what’s going to stand. No matter what.
We often joke about strict parents and physical discipline as grown-ups. But what was your approach to that in a show aimed at kids?
Howard: It’s funny, in the proof of concept, we alluded to that. When Taps was naughty, we’d end with the mom saying, “I’m going to beat you!”
André: We’d put in a slow-motion slap…
Howard: …Like she was going to slap him on the butt or something. And that would be the cliff-hanger. But then we realised, because we’re dealing with a family show, that it’s quite controversial. So instead of the mom beating the kids in any episode, we took all of that out. We didn’t include any of that. She just kind of shouts at them or grounds them
André: Basically just a punishment that replaces the whole discipline thing.
Howard: It did require some scriptwriting. More accurate would have been the mom grabbing a wooden spoon, right?
When shooting the show, what kind of a balance did you strike between the script and spontaneity?
André: In the Breaking News episode (episode 2, which airs on 14 November), we changed the script completely. We went off script. I think we used 10% of that script and 90% we just sat down for 20 minutes and re-wrote everything. And it turned out to be quite good.
Howard: A lot of the time in the creative process, it’s re-made in the edit and re-made on set. In that one episode, Breaking News, André (as Taps) is carrying a TV. He’s not supposed to be carrying a TV but the 2 of them (Taps and Garcia, both played by André) are both carrying Mama’s TV. In the script it just says that they’re carrying the TV and then the TV drops. As we were filming, we thought, “This is a little bit boring. How do we make him drop it in a comedic way?” And I was like, “André, can you dance?”
André: Ja, sure can. Just do fancy footwork.
Howard: So he started doing a moonwalk and all kinds of ridiculous stuff that you would never do when you’re carrying a gigantic, heavy TV. As long as something was going to be funny, we’d just go with that direction. That came out of nowhere and 1 hour later we’ve added a whole minute to the script because of this dance sequence while holding the TV.
How to make a show
So many kids out there are going to be inspired by Cartoon Network To The Rescue. We asked Howard and André for some words of advice, and to walk us through how they put an episode together. “People always wait for the right moment. They always say, ‘Oh I need a good camera quality,’ or something with the lighting or the space or whatever. But I feel that as long as your content is interesting, it will attract people’s attention and keep someone focussed on what they’re watching, then you’ve already sold your idea to them,” insists André. “There is no perfect time. If your video is quality and interesting enough, then you’re one step ahead. Use what you’ve got.” Howard agrees. “Don't wait for somebody else to give you stuff. Start with what you have and then other people will notice that, he advises.
It was a write what you know, then go with the flow kind of show…
Taking episode 3 “What’s Cooking”, in which Taps and Garcia must cook for Mama, break down how you went about that from script to screen?
Howard: It started with me and my co-writer, Andrew, who was there in the beginning when we had some brainstorming sessions about family situations. One of them that came up was making dinner. That was literally the idea. Then I sat down with André and asked whether this would be something that’s relevant to an African, black household. Is food and making dinner something of importance?
André: Well, yes. But it depends what you make for dinner. We had rice and beans and we had bacon and pancakes (in the episode). I’m going to be honest: We wouldn’t go to bed with bacon and pancakes. Rice and beans is more ideal and more like the tradition in African homes. When Howard mentioned that we were going to go with these 2 different dishes, from there we knew exactly where we were going to go. Because once the mom sees the bacon and pancakes, we knew that she wouldn't have been impressed. Obviously, because that’s not what she expected. But it had a bit of a twist, which was that it led to Taps having to make dinner every night.
Howard: With that script writing conversation, we always ideally wanted to find a little “button” for the end of the scene that makes it pop. A twist. And in this one, the twist comes in that the audience expects the mom to hate the bacon and pancakes because it’s so non-traditional. But she loves it… and Taps hates the idea because after that he has to make dinner every night. And I’d take this conversation (which we’d just capture in MS Word) and I’d write it into script format in some script software that I got called WriterDuet. I’d spend a couple of days doing that and maybe go through 3 drafts. Then on shooting day, André would get there really early in the morning, because the scary thing was that we didn’t have a lot of time. I pretty much gave him the script on the day, per episode. On another kind of show there’s lots of actors so you can learn your lines while the other actors are on camera. But André is the only actor, so he was learning lines in between setups. It was pretty hectic.
André: This was my first big production!
Howard: By day 4, he was running the show. We’d shoot one character at a time, so we’d get André into the clothes for Taps, normally, first.
André: Taps is definitely my favourite character. With every other character like Mama, Gogo and Garcia, I can say there I was acting. But with Taps, I’m not. I was being me. That’s how I am – loud, positive and thinking of things that are out of this world. I didn’t do much acting with Taps.
Howard: And we’d be trying to remember what happened, writing, doing continuity, while he was getting into the wardrobe of Garcia. We’d shoot that. Then shoot Mom. And with that particular episode, we had to make food. We had one of the production crew making food and then it would go cold and gross. And they’d have to re-make and re-heat it up. And we had to get the rice and beans looking right for André, who grew up with rice and beans. Then something weird happened on that episode…
André: The dark energy liquid! Garcia put in the dark energy liquid (in the rice and beans) and it looked all “scientific”. That was not the type of rice and beans I would expect in my house.
Howard: That wasn’t even planned. Along the way in the series, the whole genre started to incorporate more sci-fi. We started with traditional comedy, but along the way we started developing Garcia’s character into more of a science fiction scientist. He was just going to be a nerd. But that gets a bit boring on camera, so we started adding in potions and experiments and before you know it…
André: Howard literally stopped recording and he was like, “Wait, dude, I have an idea!” And then he brought Sunlight liquid or food colouring or whatever and said, “Let’s throw this in to give it some more taste.” I was like, “What? Okay, cool, let’s go with it.” It turned out to look pretty cool.
Howard: This purple bubbly liquid. And then in the editing, we added a whole new character in that episode called Voiceover Guy. In the script, there was one line of voiceover when we said, “Countdown: 3, 2, 1, cook!” and that’s all we had in the script. But then in the edit, we realised we could make it funnier if we had a voiceover character who introduces himself and throughout the next few episodes he keeps making a cameo. Then Voiceover Guy wants his own TV show. And that became funny as well. We were exhausted by 8pm that day (of shooting the cooking episode). And then next morning we’d be there again.
Learn as you go
Even with his expert knack for comedy and performance, André learnt a lot about making a show and the world of TV shows. “Honestly I learnt that it’s not easy. It was 8 days of shooting for 7 episodes. I started thinking, “What about those bigger industry movies and productions where they have to shoot for a whole year and there’s a main character… how tired must that person be?” I was already so tired from something that we just shot in 8 days. But it was a fun experience,” he says.
“There was a lot that I never knew about what happens behind the scenes. Stand-ins – I didn’t know about stand-ins (like the crew member who dressed in Garcia’s wardrobe and was shot from the back, so we’d see Taps and Garcia – normally also played by André – carrying a TV together) and stuntmen. I learnt some new words from the movie industry like gaffer (chief electrician on set). Fly this, fly that, no, walk away, walk away, and ‘on the day’. On The Day actually got to me because Howard kept repeating this. After every shoot or before every shoot, he’d be like, ‘Okay, guys, so on the day, it says Taps will be walking…’ And I kept on getting confused on day 1. On day 2, I was like, ‘Howard, you keep saying on the day. What do you mean by on the day? Are we practicing right now? Is there going to be a final shoot sometime in the future?’ But it just means in that moment, when we are on set and filming. So I learnt a lot. And I got to see Howard’s strict side! I was like, ‘Okayyyy’,” André laughs.
Watch Cartoon Network To The Rescue on Saturday, 14 November 2020 on Cartoon Network’s (DStv 301) YouTube channel at 18:00
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