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#24 CREATING FROM NOTHING - with Bennie Fourie

Updated: Oct 13, 2021



Hello everyone, welcome to another episode of Fresh Perspective. With me today: friend, and creative genius, Bennie Fourie. I’d like to kick off with a simple question, as I like my guests to be very comfortable in the beginning. So tell us, Bennie, what do you do?


I like to use one word to explain it, I think that’s what really defines it. In Afrikaans it’s called “skep”, but it’s “create”. I love woodworking, I love making films, I love writing, I love doing voice-over work. But it feels like it’s all creating from nothing. So that’s my thing, to create.


Create, I like that. And what’s the project you’re working on now? What are you creating?


I’m currently working on a film, a feature film that I’m writing, called “Lyk soos Ouma”. It’s a family, dark comedy type of thing. And then I’m also currently writing season 5 of a show we do for Kyknet. A mocumentary called “Hotel”. That’s the two things for work. And then I’m also doing a sketch show, a sketch comedy show on the side. Also just renovating my little flat with a lot of woodwork stuff that I like to do.


Awesome. For people who know you, you’re a very humoristic and funny guy. You like to see the funny side in life, and I think that's a great perspective to have on life. Could you maybe just tell us what you feel that gives you? What advantage do you feel that gives you in approaching the difficulties in life?


Starting out my career and starting out at university, we were like the improv group together. You know, that’s a part of you. You get laughs. And it’s so… aansteeklik, what’s the word -


Contagious.


It’s very contagious. And it just makes you feel unbelievably good. I felt like, I can’t do this for a living, it’s not taking it seriously, you know. And then I was like -


It’s not fair.


Yeah, it feels weird. Or it just feels like you’re fooling around. And, are you just attention-seeking, or what are you doing? But then, I really believe that I’ve got this set of talents for… it’s really my calling. I really believe that I’m put here to make people laugh and brighten people’s days up. So having started believing in that, made it shift the focus from me to the audience and what I can give them to enjoy. Which is fun. I don’t like creating stuff that I think only they will enjoy. I like to think of my audience as my friends. So, what are the things that I enjoy that they’ll enjoy? That’s the litmus test for if I want to do something, if I think it’s funny enough to do. But I’ve also got a little ad agency, and it’s given me such a nice angle on… on anything. Because there’s so much clutter out there. Everybody’s marketing, but everybody’s saying the same thing in a serious way. But when you add comedy to that, it just gives another angle. It rises from the clutter. One big thing that I realised is: it’s difficult. Without sounding pompous, you’ve created a body of work, and you’ve learned to do this, and it isn’t second nature to everybody. That is a benefit for me to use and to capitalise on.


Okay. So you mean, it’s difficult for many other people to use humour to either market something or to create something?


Yeah. But for myself as well. When I write, to get it right. To get the comedy really right. Because I think it’s easy to do something funny, but it needs to really work. There’s a structure to it. Realising that there’s actually a structure that sits behind comedy, to see the mechanics of it and go, okay. So if I do the work, if I really sit and do the structuring behind it, there’s a way to mine it.


I like that a lot. Okay, explain to us what’s the structure. What’s the mechanics behind comedy? How do you make people laugh? I also wanted to comment on you saying that you like to create stuff that you find funny. So that means you laugh at your own jokes all the time.


All the time. Yeah. I’m always the funniest guy in the room.


To yourself?


To myself. That’s actually quite funny because 90% of the time I don't feel like I’m the funniest guy in the room. Even at home, even between my friends, there’s always someone that’s like, geez, that guy is so funny. And it’s great because you kind of try and learn from everyone. Anybody that’s funny. Like, that’s great. How did he do that? What’s the little… the pause he had there? Or whatever.


The mechanics. I’m very curious to hear about that.


There’s a lot of that in the TV series that I write. So at first, I never thought about structure in the sense that... if it’s going to be a funny storyline, it’s going to be funny. But continuously doing that… now we’re like, 5 seasons in, it gets difficult to still create scenarios that are funny. But people don’t care about what the story is. They do care about that, but they just want the characters to react in a good way. And if you set that up right, that’s how it works. For instance, when we do Hotel, we have a set-up structure, which is, you create the trouble, the world before. You put them in deep water. You can test this with any show. Eight minutes into a sitcom, you know exactly what the story’s going to be about.


Literally on the eighth minute?


Pretty much.


Wow, that’s cool.


Just before the first ad break. Or you’ll see a blackout on Netflix or whatever. You know that that’s the part - this is what it’s going to be about. From there on, they make decisions to get more into trouble, or there are power shifts. So in Hotel, we’ve got a thing called the trouble, the muddle, the wobble, and then the triumph or the failure. Then you’ve got your kicker. And you just set it up. Because I think plenty of guys just start writing, and they just depend on dialogue, for instance, to be funny. But there’s a lot of work structure-wise that lies beneath it. It’s really fascinating to see. And then from improv, the stuff that I learned in what we did, way back in the day we had an improv-trio called Lagnes. Just the amazing life skills separate from the structured stuff. But getting out the whos, the what and the where’s, creating context, the first three sentences need to be, who are we, where are we, what are we doing. Then it’s finding the game of the scene and hitting it as hard as you can. To the naked eye, it just seems like, for some reason, this is working. But from the beginning of time, we know a story has got a beginning, a middle, and an end. And if we package these things as a small beginning, middle and end, that’s the base structure.


When it’s formulaic like that, don’t you feel like it interferes with your creativity?


People say that it does.


It sounds like it should, you know.


Like, don’t pressure me into getting on top of this thing. And you just realise when it’s not there. Because it just becomes, what is this about? So sometimes, yes, it doesn’t rely on a structure. Sometimes like a beeline, it’ll just be a quick joke here or there. But a story’s got a beginning, middle and end. Like, when you’ve got a fight with someone, it started somewhere. It started with someone saying something wrong, and you took it wrong. That’s the beginning, that’s your act break. It’s actually just life imitating art, you know, in a big sense. I feel like, even if you say, I don’t use structure, you know you use structure.


You say, life imitating art?


Yeah. And I think it goes both ways. But - that's why we relate to stories so much, because it's basically life. You recognize what you see. And as soon as you recognize what you see, you're in. If something’s too way over the top, we go, I don't believe it. Because you don't relate to it. You need to see that. And that's something that was a fascinating thing for me to learn whilst I was at Second City in Chicago, where we were always more focused on externalizing things. We said, we should never just be talking to each other, we should find the thing that's interesting around us and go to that.


Just explain that a bit more, Bennie, talking heads?


So talking heads would be two characters standing on stage, and then just talking to each other. It becomes boring because they're just having a conversation. So we actually went a bit too far, in a sense. We went to – not necessarily relational, but plots. So we'll say, where's the treasure? Where is the thing outside of us?


We'd always be talking about something, but we were not talking to each other. We were talking about the thing that's standing in front of us. Relational is the stuff that nobody's really been treasure hunting. But everybody's been a brother to someone who was frustrated because you don't ever want me to have what you have, or something.


So that's a relatable situation. And if you turn that on its head, that's funny because I can relate to a brother relationship, or something like that. But not necessarily always a treasure. You can imagine that, and it does work. You’ll have a treasure scene, but you actually don't worry about the treasure. You worry about the relationships when you watch it.


I understand. So the audience, the people watching, engage with the relationships because they relate to what's going on between the characters, not necessarily what they want or what they aim for.


Yeah. And I think sometimes it gets so truthful. We laugh at it because it’s us, but we didn’t go that far. So, what do you try and do - you amplify what's already there that we can relate to as an audience, you amplify that. And that's actually part of what makes it so funny because you can just imagine what will happen when you react that way.


Yeah, so simple things, like – if a dad and a son have a scene together, but the son is always like, I have to look after my dad. That becomes the funny thing in the scene. And you exaggerate it, make it much bigger, like literally pouring milk into a bottle for your dad, whatever. That could be funny, but that's a metaphor for someone that's like, I don't want to look after my father, and I’ve got this relationship with my father not being responsible, or something like that. I really believe that you need to feel, but you need to relate to something for it to really have an impact on you.


Makes sense. I know that both of us read Save the Cat. Also, you mentioned Second City. So maybe just share some of the big learnings or key moments in your life where you felt like, I'm still using the principles or the concepts that I learned. Either from a book, like Save the Cat, or Second City. And maybe just tell people who don't know what Second City in Chicago is, what goes on there.


In South Africa, we don't have a big improv background. Where in America, it's very big. So like a lot of people know Saturday Night Live, and so on. In Chicago, there’s –


And Whose Line Is It Anyway.


Exactly. And in Chicago, there’s this school I read about at university, called The Second City, and there’s - say, a lot of the students that go to Saturday night live, or actually, some of the guys that are in Whose Line Is It Anyway, they were in the Canadian Second City. I went for three months and I ran a couple of courses, like Improv Diagnostics, Improv Sketch-Writing, Acting, Stand-up. It was like school for me. And it was fascinating because I never studied that. I studied law and had a different pathway set out. And that's also something that was fascinating - like we are in a world where there are people that went to drama school and did acting and all that jazz. And now you're coming from the side, and you also want to do it. They're like, you're not trained. And you're like, do I need it?


So that was my bit of training. Eventually, after seven years. I’ve learned a lot. Just from a basic point of view, going to Second City and being a South African in the big American system over there, I never felt that unfunny in my life before. Because the cultural difference is massive and we forget how detailed comedy sometimes can become. I was in this improv class, and somebody would say, here's an American Spirit. Grab one. I'm like, I'll grab it if you tell me what it is. And then it's like a cigarette or something. You need to really get so submerged in the culture.


So that was quite interesting. Then, when you get to the ground level of improvising with someone and it becomes relational, it just works again, because we all know relationships on a very basic level. So that was cool to see, that if we strip down all the stuff, that’s fine.


On Save the Cat, that was the first film book I ever read. I always wanted to make a film. It's fascinating because it feels like it's impossible. How am I going to write a film? It's just getting the tools. It's reading up on what I need to know to do this thing. And as I spoke to you earlier regarding having the tools to do something, if I don't know how to do it, that book just gives you the basics. It tells you, this is where this usually happens. And I'm a firm believer that structure is great, but you can’t just go and break structure. You need to know what the structure is that you are breaking. You need to know what’s the thing that you are not doing. That book just teaches film structure from beginning to end.


So you mean, when you know what the structure of something is; the right way or the best way to do it, then you can consciously break the structure. Instead of, you know, I don’t want structure and I'm just all over the place.


Exactly.


Okay. Got you.


You'll say, I know the act break should be pretty much this, and there needs to be an exciting incident. But I know what I want to do with this story, so - I want to do this part very close to the act break. So you break it on purpose, but you know what the thing is that it needs to do. I hope I’m explaining it correctly.


Yeah, it makes sense. And you talked about cultural differences. In South Africa, I think humour is one of the things that kind of just unites people. I think there are probably only two things – rugby, and humour. So maybe you can share some experiences that you've had where humour has created new relationships for you or surprised you on a relational level, you know, connecting with people that you might not have connected to because of humour.


We've been doing a lot of the King Price commercials over the last few years, and we've forced ourselves to get into a place where - we say we’ve created a catchphrase for them, which is unapologetically South African, which gives you a lot of scope to play into - let's laugh at ourselves, and we're not going to apologize for who we are as people. We've got a strange history, relationships, many misunderstandings, and we’re just gonna have fun with that. The response has been overwhelmingly great. Every time, we’re like, this might be like... this white guy going to go to this black lady and asking her for lobola – lobola is something that’s holy to them. Are we gonna play with this, fool with this? And the reception on that commercial, for instance, was great. People were like, yes. So I think on a street level, people are like, let's do this. Let's get into each other's cultures. And obviously, from a political view, they don’t want that. They’ll rather drive fear.


But on the ground level, people are so ready for it. They want to do it, which is awesome. To be honest, like South Africa is a super difficult place if you want to break out in terms of comedy. Just to give you the background. We've got a captured audience. Afrikaans people are a captured audience, in the sense that they can’t get entertained in their own language by a whole lot of people. We’ve got 4 to 8 million people speaking Afrikaans in the country. A lot of brown people in the Cape area, they’re super Afrikaans, so those have actually been catered for enough. Which is a very cool market to get into. But, the movie-going audience is so small. There's like 2 million people that you can get to go to the films. And then if you want to break out of that, then you need to start working in English. But as soon as you make a film in English, you're competing against Avengers and all those. Also, if I want to make a vernacular film, it's just too far out of my reach because I don't understand the language, A. And B, it's a much different humour. I’ve done stand-up in a very mixed setup. And it just falls on deaf ears because we don't necessarily always laugh at the same jokes. We've got the same base level of things that we like to laugh at. So it's a difficult place to break out of if you want to go into another place. It’s almost - for me, growing up with a very western influence on my comedy - it's almost easier for me to go, are they Afrikaans? Or Western English big market? It's weird.


I understand. So you mean, go for Afrikaans, which is your language and your culture, or go for the bigger western market, but within South Africa. To try and go into the different markets within South Africa, that’s the hard bit, the tricky bit.


Very difficult, yeah. I think humour helps, but even with that, it's difficult to translate the right phrase. We've had radio ads that we do, for instance, in five languages. So we’ll do Afrikaans, English, Zulu, Sotho, Xhosa. Then you get a translator in to rewrite the script. But there's no word for this, or there's no concept for that. Or they don’t find it that funny. So I don’t have the tools. I’m like, I want to help! I want to make it funny! But there's a lot of meeting each other in the middle, I think, in English now. If you do a thing that is English, but very South African, then you’ve got something they can translate. It sounds negative, it’s not negative. I think it’s just where we are.


That makes sense. It's your observation, and obviously you move within that industry and notice these kinds of things. So, to me it's fascinating and interesting. So what's, what's the impact of the creation process on you as a person? So what I mean by that question, is - it can be, sometimes you're not in a creative space. So often we see creativity as something that we, we have to wait for. But I know that you have a very high, or big, work ethic. So how do you keep yourself in that creative space, even when you don’t feel like it?


So that's the thing they call writer’s block. It’s like when you just hit a point where you don't know what happens next in the story. But I don't think that's really a thing. There are tools to get out of that. You start brainstorming. I think that's usually a personal... like a lull. It's like questioning yourself, am I doing the right thing here? Is this working? A lot of self-doubts. Because you sit in a room by yourself, and you’re your own benchmark in that sense. And then halfway, you’re like, this is crap. It always happens. I've never written a script where it doesn't happen.


So you’re like, this is not good, it’s actually crap.


It’s crap, this is crap. I don’t know. Just walk away. Then I just walk out my door and I go and pitch to someone, and they’re like, that’s funny. And you’re like, oh, okay. You get a little bit confident again, you get back into it.


Okay.


It's interesting, having written a few scripts now – I know this happens. I know this happens at some point. So the experience makes you work through it. Which is cool. But something that you actually taught me was that you can work all you like, you can be busy with the coolest thing. If you don't have a goal, if you don't have a purpose, if you don’t have a thing that you're working towards, that will make you feel unhappy. Like, I’m not doing what I wanna do. It’ll be what my dream was three years ago - to make films, to write for television and to direct. Now I'm doing it, and now I’m not happy. And I’m like, why? I’ve attained that goal now, but I can’t stay here. I need to go forward. Personally, for me, it’s having plenty of goals, plenty of stuff that I’m working on at the same time. So when I get stuck in a rut with one thing, I'll jump to the other project and I’ll go, how can I kickstart this again? And that excites me. I go into that. Because it’s moving forward. It feels like progress all the time, which is great.


Yeah. I love that whole concept of having a goal that inspires you. Because often when we get stuck, it’s because - it's kind of like we subconsciously ask: why, why should I go through this pain and this effort? You know, when you're writing something like you do, and you put it out there for everyone to judge, why should I put myself through that kind of scrutiny and judgment. But when you have something that really inspires you, that becomes the why. And you can actually break through that. And what was interesting about our conversation, about your goals and moving forward, is the fact that you attained, you reached many of the goals that you set out at first to achieve. And that, actually, is not normal. It became normal for you. If I told you, you would be there after three years, you probably wouldn't believe it. And the way you’ve been able to raise that bar for yourself and set the goal a bit higher every time. It's really inspiring for me to hear how you do that, and see you do that.


One of the other big things – I’m not trying to market to you here, but –


No, write an ad.


(Laughs)


A big thing that I've learned, that was like a very special time in my life, that was bestowed on me by you, was to move towards growth. Because you feel like this is the thing that I probably should do, but you've done it a million times before and you're comfortable in that position.


You're comfortable there, and it's what everybody thinks you need to probably do, but you've got something inside you that you feel like - this needs to, this needs to happen. Or, why am I scared? Why am I scared to jump? Because it's uncertain. And then just choosing growth. Choosing, am I going to grow doing this one thing, or am I going to grow doing the thing that's scaring me? And you'll always grow doing the thing that's scaring you because you’re getting into a position that you don’t know yourself in. And being stuck in the other - not stuck, like - you're going to do the things that you do, but you're not learning from yourself. And I’ve found myself in positions where people ask me, what do I need to do? And just I channel that and say - I charge them a ridiculous fee, and I tell them, where will you grow more? Yeah, that's great.


Yeah, that's true. So, maybe on that point, it'd be great to hear what your current challenges are. What fears are you facing at the moment for you to grow as a - well, let's say as a writer, as a creator, like you put it in the beginning, and as a person?


I think the first one is a very external one, which is - South Africa and where we are now, with the whole pandemic that’s running around, our industry is standing still. They've started shooting now, but no theatres are open. So it's a scary time to chase my big dream, which is opening up a big collaborative theatre improv stage group with offices and - it's a big dream. Now, walking towards that, then with not knowing - like people can’t afford the rent for offices now. You’re gonna go in blind faith that this thing would work.


So for me, from an external point of view, it’s that. And another one, a personal one, is staying relevant. With the kids all jumping on Tiktok and consuming content. They're working on 10-second things, and it's funny, and it's quick, and they’re swiping and they’re getting through it, but I'm working on longer form.


I'm not crazy about it, necessarily. I think it's a great idea-starter. It's a great way to get stuff out there. But personally, I don’t like that 10-second type of thing. Because I want to expand into a bigger audience, a bigger story. But - staying relevant there. Not losing touch with the people around you. And I think that, for me, is answered in just keeping up normal relationships with everybody around me, keeping good contact with friends. Everyday situations where you just know, like, if this is funny for all of these people, then this will work. Just – don’t get disconnected. Because your work is sometimes something that really isolates you in a separate little place. Staying relevant is the scary thing, but staying connected, I think, is the answer.


And also, my 2 cents on the whole 10-second thing. Don’t you think it's a bit like one-liners, or punny; you know, word-plays will always be funny. But when you get people to engage on that deep emotional level, when you use relationships that people can relate to what you’re actually doing, the deeper thing – you know, that will never go away. And it doesn't matter which generation you're from. When you can connect with that person within that relationship where you identify with a character, you’re all in.


Yeah. It's true. I think that a lot of the TikTok stuff is very slam-dunk. Like, it's all just smash, and smash. As I said earlier, it's ingrained into us. The story is ingrained into us. We grow up wanting the guy on a horse and the princess and everything. That’s part of us. So we'll always... we'll always be open to those types of stories. But yeah, the relevance thing in terms of just comedy, is – I never wanna be the 50-year old guy who thinks he’s funny, and everybody’s just like, could this guy shut up?


(Laughs)


Well, maybe talk about who you look up to? Who are your comedy heroes? Or maybe I should even ask, comedy, but creative heroes? Because I like the way you said what you do: you create. So, who inspires you in that way?


Well, growing up, it was just watching guys’ comedies. The Will Farrells, the Jim Carreys, just nailing it. Growing up and doing what I do now, realising how hard that is to do. But I’m a massive fan of Jason Bateman, he was in Identity Theft and Horrible Bosses. And he produces Ozark now. I just love guys that do a little bit of everything.


Is it the guy from Arrested Development?


Yes.


Okay. I'm with you.


He’s a show-runner in that sense, he creates, but he also plays, and he directs. He's like a Jack of all trades in that sense. He's got a massive drive. He’s constantly putting out really good stuff. He started with comedy and then he made this show Ozark, which is mindblowing. I don’t know how they put that together.


I haven’t watched it.


It’s quite dark. I’ve got a fascination with dark comedy. That's another thing. I can’t shake it, I don't know what it is. I think havoc is also something that I really, really like. Todd Phillips did all the Hangover movies. And that was one of his taglines – mayhem. Mayhem is a word that describes all of his films, he says. He’s also the director of The Joker. So yeah, those types of guys. Someone else who’s a different type of guy is Conan O’Brien. He’s a TV host, but he has been a writer on Saturday Night Live since the ’80s. He was one of the writers of The Simpsons. He’s just been all over the place. He's got a podcast and you just listen and you realize, this is the kindest guy. His fame and his hard work have never stopped, but it never went to his head. He says, like, these types of guys that go up and they're not who they are... he doesn't want to be that guy. This guy really… he just puts everybody else in the spotlight. I really look up to him. He’s really cool.


I listened to one show with Mike Myers - Conan Needs a Friend, that’s the podcast, right?


Yes. It's incredible, the kind of relationships he’s built over the years and the stories he has to share.


I’ve got a last question for you, Bennie. What do you feel is your superpower? What are you putting out there to the world that you feel is making the world better?


As I said, I really feel like I’ve got a calling in making people laugh. So in that sense, I think I'm putting out there that people should not - everything's not that serious. It doesn't need to be that serious. Like, finding the lighter moments. Because for some reason, we believe we need to do – everything needs to be sorted, you know. And a lot of people hold on to, like... don't shake, don't shake my world. And I believe comedy is the greatest way to shake your world and to make you look at yourself and go, okay, maybe I shouldn’t take myself so seriously. So I think that’s something I put out there, making people feel lighter. Maybe we Afrikaans people, maybe we are a bit moerig, soms.


(Laughs)


I agree. That's definitely part of your superpower, to just go, lighten up a bit. Also, see the humour. It doesn't mean that you're not taking a specific thing seriously, or you're not going to work on it, or you don’t wanna change it. But you can laugh a bit. It reminds me, I did a course, Habits from Hell. It was like a whole thing about how to use habits in your life to reach your goals. And one of the people that attended, one of the big slogans he developed throughout the course, was - don't take yourself so seriously, which was his message to himself. And that kind of just stuck with me. Because generally in the work that I do with people, it can be quite serious. And that just kept on reminding me - just don't take yourself so seriously. You can still do serious and important work without being so serious. And that's also something that you teach me. So thank you.


Well, it's funny, because you say I taught you that, but something bigger that I learned from you was – we’ve done some really funny stuff together when I was at university. And then you’d be able to take the funny stuff and make it a bit serious. Like, bring the serious in, which was a good balance for me. And I know that in your line of work, there are very serious situations. But I think what differentiates you from it is to say, laugh a little bit at it. That’s a great angle to have.


Thanks, Bennie. So people listening, that was one big advertisement to book a session with me.


(Laughs) Exactly.


Thank you, Bennie. I’ll EFT you the hundred grand soon.


The first half?


(Laughs) The first half, yeah.


Yeah, the deposit.


Thank you very much, Bennie, for being on the show and thank you, everyone, for listening or watching, if you're watching the video of this. And remember, if you change your perspective, you can transform your life. Until next time, bye.


 

The book referenced in this interview can be found on Amazon by following the link below:


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