Interview: Knock knock, it’s Youngins’ Tshepo!

By Gen Terblanche19 April 2024

Interview: Knock knock, it’s Youngins’ Tshepo!

Olifantsfontein High’s Grade 10 class clown Tshepo Masemola (played by Tshepo Matlala) commits to the bit. It’s a busy schedule. Before class at breakfast each day he and his sexual harassment squad rate the girls on their looks, then it’s off to class with African Languages teacher Pearl (Keneilwe Matidze), where he will create some cheeky poetry, go off-book in a class reading, smuggle in an emotional support chicken, give birth to a whole student, present a mourning show-and-tell complete with blankets, wailing and singing, or offer lobola with R20 wrapped around a rose and a pack of meat. And for after-school activities, budding entrepreneur Tshepo keeps his classmates supplied with contraband, from vodka to vapes. 

Was Tshepo dropped on his head as a baby, as fellow student Tumelo (Lebohang Lephatsoana) once suggested? It’s a mystery. So we chatted to actor Tshepo Matlala about how Tshepo keeps us laughing even when he’s at his worst … and why that’s a problem.

Stream Youngins on Showmax now. 3 new episodes each Thursday.

What’s some of the wildest things that fans have said to you about Tshepo?

“We wish that Tshepo could date Pearl. Tshepo looks in love with Pearl, like sexually.” I’m like, “Ohh, child! I didn’t see that coming! And someone was like “This guy, maybe he was molested by Pearl.” That’s wild! Like, why? And other ones are more, “I wish I could spend a day with you just to discipline you! We want to give you a hiding because you don’t listen. You are a problem child.” It’s not even youngsters, it’s older people! The younger guys are like, “I think I was once in a class with this guy. He makes me laugh. He makes my day”. 

How do Tshepo’s pranks come to life, from script to screen?

You get a script, and from the writing you see “Tshepo gives birth in class” (episode 7). Tshepo (as a trained performer) knows that Tshepo, the character in the story, exaggerates every moment. So this birth is gonna be something out of this world. The assistant director and the director give you an idea how the scene should play out. And the performer in me comes out to support Tshepo Masemola. I fell in love with physical theatre, clowning, miming and slapstick, so I take all those things to that performance because Tshepo’s character is larger than life. I’m very good when it comes to planned improvisation within the script. It’s up to me to direct the narrative of what’s supposed to happen in that scene. When I’m bored sometimes, I’m thinking, “How is this thing gonna play out?”. And if I’m still wearing my personal clothes, I don’t feel anything. But the moment I wear that school uniform, in the environment that he’s in, with the people that he sees, something shifts. 

Which of his pranks had everyone laughing the most on set?

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It has to be the scene where Tshepo stages the memorial service for Zintle (Lihle Ngubo) [in episode 15]. That’s the iconic scene for Tshepo, like joh! The ADs said, “Guys, please gather here. Let Tshepo do his thing and we’ll see how he’s gonna do it. Laugh now while you can. Because when we call action, we don’t want to hear anything!”. And it was hard. We took time shooting that scene; people kept on laughing. The memorial scene stuck with everyone even after we had wrapped. Someone kept on singing the song that I was singing, and saying, “You need help!”. So for me, that was the most hilarious moment ever. 

What’s the craziest thing that you did for a laugh at school?

In school, we used to have a feeding scheme. Our Arts and Culture teacher is teaching and it’s about to be 12 o’clock. I have to go and eat. I haven’t eaten in the morning. And I was like, “This lady is eating my time! So what must I do now?”. I opened my bag, took out my empty plate and tucked it under my jersey. And the moment it was 12 o’clock, I ran out of the class! All the classes could see me running and they were like, “Ah, it’s that time.” Because if Tshepo’s not out of the class, it’s not lunchtime. But when I got there, some kids had come out before 12 o’clock and already the queue was long! So I went in front and I took the whole pot and ran away in the other direction. Then I started dishing up for myself. I knew I was gonna get in trouble the following day, so it had to be worth it.

Which of Tshepo’s jokes and pranks have made you squirm?

I was speaking to the producer and the casting director. They were like, “Okay, what do you think of Tshepo?”. And I said, “I think Tshepo is a cool guy, but the thing I hate about him is his hate towards queer people”. I don’t know what that thing is influenced by. Is it a monkey-see, monkey-do thing? I think he grew up in a society where there is a man and a woman, and this other thing is nonsense, and [he grew up in] a religious manner, where if you are queer, you are satanic, you are demonic and all those things. 

Sex and death, just for laughs

It’s no accident that Tshepo Matlala refers to Tshepo Masemola’s jokes and pranks as “tactics”. Tshepo’s most sure to crack a joke when he feels vulnerable or unsure of himself. 

“We call Tshepo the comic relief in the story, especially in difficult or heartfelt situations. And Tshepo is like our Twitter [X]. Once a certain celebrity flops, there’s always gonna be that one person who’s gonna drag that person. He wants to shift the power dynamic in his favour,” explains Tshepo. 

“If you’re in a one-on-one with Tshepo, he’s sharp with words and he’s gonna talk about sex and private parts to shift that power so that he feels very powerful. It’s very scientific in that when he does something, he wants to get a reaction. And once he gets that reaction, he’s going to keep on doing these experiments to get that reaction. If someone’s like, ‘Oh, Tshepo what you’re doing is wrong!’, he turns and says, ‘Oh, I didn’t realise. I’m really sorry’. But he knows what he’s doing. He wants his presence to be felt,” insists Tshepo.

“It’s a mask because he feels as though whenever he shows empathy, he becomes naked and everyone can see his nakedness,” reveals Tshepo. “During Zintle’s death, that moment was supposed to be his wake-up call. But Tshepo was there doing a funeral service. He always wants to play safe. He’s still a boy and he’s going to grow up to be a man that would never want to show his emotions.”

“I don’t know whether a death around him did something to him. He tends to cover up and has to come up with his jokes,” Tshepo muses. “I would relate to that a lot. When my dad passed away, I didn’t know what grief was. The adults tell you, ‘Okay, sit down, you dad had to go to heaven.’ You don’t know what heaven is because you’re still young. They are trying to protect you, but growing up in that kind of setup, you don’t get the opportunity to sit down with adults and have them explain to you what death is or how it might affect you. How you will feel certain things, or react in a certain way. No one wants to talk about it. So I think Tshepo also suffered from this. That’s why he doesn’t want to show grief, he doesn’t want to show that empathy.”

Acceptable targets

While the character functions as comic relief in the story, Youngins also uses Tshepo to show how communities encourage attacks on “acceptable targets” to maintain a power structure. Look closely, and much of Tshepo’s humour revolves around excluding and punishing difference. His tactics uphold restrictive values about gender expression, while treating homosexuality and women’s sexuality as deviant. Above all, they assert men’s right to control women and queer people’s access to (and comfort in) public spaces.

Tshepo Matlala as Tshepo in Youngins S1 on Showmax

His home life is not to blame. “I think he’s a spoiled brat!” reveals Tshepo. “He lives a soft life. You even see how he dresses. He cuts his pants. If you know that your mother is struggling to buy you the pants, you’d never do that. He does those things because no one’s gonna tell him anything. So I don’t think he seeks attention when he’s home. But Tshepo doesn’t spend 90% of his time at home; 90% of his time, he’s at school.”

“That’s our little community. Ninety percent of the time he is groomed by this little society. The problem is us, how we’re influenced by where we come from as individuals,” explains Tshepo. “Why do you love Tshepo’s jokes? You need to be the whistleblower and call it out. Like, ‘Dude, no. Men don’t do this. You can’t hurt someone and get away with it.’ If you laugh, you’re also adding to the problem.”

About Tshepo

Who plays Tshepo Masemola in Youngins?

Tshepo Matlala

How old is Tshepo?

Tshepo Masemola is 16/17 on screen, but Tshepo Matlala was born on 12 November 1998, making him 25 now in real life.

Where is he from?

Tshepo Matlala was born on the outskirts of Tembisa but now lives in the Johannesburg city centre.

Where did he study?

Rebonwe Primary School in Ivory Park Extension Seven, and JP Matabane Secondary School in Ivory Park. Tshepo studied performance through the Market Theatre Laboratory, graduating in 2020. 

What else has Tshepo Matlala been in?

He’s been in a number of Mzansi Magic films on DStv including playing Toffolux in Skhanda Love, school bully Mashobane in Manong, and Richmond/Itumeleng in O Mang.

Is Tshepo Matlala married?

He’s dating.

What else to know?

“Everyone tells me, ‘Dude, you’d do so well in standup comedy!’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, I tried it last year.’ So I’m looking to do it.”

Watch Youngins S1 now on Showmax, with new episodes every Thursdays.

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