In Indonesia, millions begin Ramadan days with a laugh

by Nabiha Shahab Fri Oct 20, 2:16 PM ET

JAKARTA (AFP) - It's 2:45 in the morning, and Ulfa and Eko have already launched into another Ramadan working day with their comedy sketch team, entertaining millions of Indonesians tuning in to their pre-dawn show.

When Indonesians wake up early for "sahur," the meal before they commence their daily fast during Islam's holy month, chances are high that they'll also watch this high-profile pair for a giggle and maybe to win a prize too.

For a few minutes at the beginning and the end of the show an Islamic preacher talks on a theme for the day -- such as the importance of not deceiving people, or of being kind to strangers.

But in between, the objective is laughter.

Dressed in a fairy godmother costume, complete with lacy wings and a brunette wig, Ulfa twirls her pink wand trying to find the owner of a pair of sandals that a beautiful woman has left behind for the son of a rich man.

But the woman borrowed the pair from Tessi -- and there's uproar among the live studio audience when Tessi, a man sporting make up and tottering around in a batik skirt and traditional top, emerges to claim the man's love.

The sketch is typical of those performed on "Stasiun Ramadan," or "STAR," a high-octane variety show that some one third of TV audiences have been switching on for their time slot, according to TV ratings agency AC Nielsen.

"Sahur programs used to be more religious, with talk shows and viewers calling in -- that's about it," says Ulfa Dwiyanthi, known across the country simply as Ulfa.

"But after we started this comedy program with another television station, it boomed," she says, explaining how she and her stage partner Eko Hendro Purnomo pioneered the rowdy Ramadan genre.

That was six years ago. Now a multitude of similar shows compete to attract the once-a-year audience. With more than 90 percent of Indonesia's 220 million people following Islam, that's a hefty market for stations to exploit.

Thirteen-year-old Subekhi, who rises at 2:30 am for his morning meal during Ramadan, is one dedicated fan who commandeers the family's remote to switch from one program to another.

"I like watching Eko best, he's very quick. And Ulfa is funny. A lot of my friends at school watch them, too," says Subekhi, who has been watching the programs for about three years.

Subekhi's only wish is that he had his own mobile phone "so I can try the quiz and win a motorcycle".

At least 10 major Indonesian television stations compete in broadcasting the live shows during Ramadan, offering lucrative cash prizes to draw eyeballs and therefore sponsors.

STAR alone gives away cash and a motorcycle daily worth around 30 million rupiah (3,260 US dollars) -- but far more money is spun back in their direction for their holy month bonanza.

"This is the second year we've reached major success. It's now easy to find sponsors for the program," says Yul Andryono, STAR's executive producer.

Each show, with a regular cast of five, a band, 30 extras, a paid audience of about 70 and a crew the same size, costs around 100 million rupiah. Andryono says they make a "big profit" but declines to give details.

Murdjadi Ichsan, a spokesman for privately-owned Rajawali Citra Televisi Indonesia, the channel showing the program, says: "STAR is our 'star' program for Ramadan. It brings in a lot of sponsors."

RCTI broadcasts across all of Indonesia's 33 provinces, reaching about 177 million viewers.

The cast -- most of whom work on variety shows at normal hours the rest of the year -- are paid twice their normal rate for the early morning shows.

"The extra pay is fair," says Ulfa. "We start working when other people are still asleep. We have to be ready at the station by midnight for rehearsals and makeup."

Only one nationally broadcast TV station is yet to be dragged into the comedy frenzy, offering a purely religious program at sahur time.

"We cannot compare ourselves to other TV stations. We have our own target audience and we consistently try to cater to this segment," says Novelia Imelda, a spokeswoman for the mostly-news channel Metro TV.

AC Nielsen places them at the very bottom of the sahur program ratings.

Eko however believes STAR and other programs, through their comedy sketches that double as morality tales, are still teaching people about Islam.

"We are preaching our religion. We are no different from... other preachers -- but we use comedy to do it."
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