Freed from the zoo and heading for new horizons

Former member of Malta’s most popular comedy troupe Zoo says that while the group’s recent dissolution was certainly painful, it was a necessary step forward… and that exciting times lie ahead

Owen Bonnici (left) “I wanted to do something that’s different from the Zoo stuff in that it would be ever-so-slightly more adult-oriented, and that the humour would be more on the witty side…”
Owen Bonnici (left) “I wanted to do something that’s different from the Zoo stuff in that it would be ever-so-slightly more adult-oriented, and that the humour would be more on the witty side…”

Leaving the 'Zoo' for the wilderness of local television? If that sounds a tad too dramatic, it wouldn't be the most outrageous speculation people have made about the dissolution of Zoo - arguably Malta's most popular comedy troupe - last month.

"Some people said we fought between ourselves, others still suggested that it may have been all down to political differences... listen, I was holidaying in the Far East two weeks before the election date - I can assure you that politics was the last thing on my mind."

Former Zoo footsoldier Owen Bonnici - he's the tallest one of the lot, for you non-initiates - is clearly here to set the record straight.

Practically bouncing into our offices after an apparently gruelling workout (made all the harder, he tells me, by the Saharan film of sand that enveloped our islands over the past week), Owen comes across as anything but crestfallen, despite the still-recent break-up of the comedy group which he formed part of ever since its inception nine years ago.

"I mean don't get me wrong, I understand that certain rumours will spread, and that people will indulge in speculation - as a group, we were in the public eye, after all. But what gets to me the most is people coming up to me - with the best will in the world, I'm sure - and telling me that they're sorry... practically offering me their condolences. And given that it's wedding season and I'm meeting a lot people regularly, I've been getting that a lot..."

So Owen sets about reassuring me that the publically-declared reason behind Zoo's split - basically a version of the safe and well-trodden 'creative differences' adage - was nothing but God's own truth. Luckily, having him in the office for the better part of half an hour means that he can actually expand on that - and he certainly turns out to be a loquacious (and candid) talker.

"We had already started thinking that we needed a change in direction. The fact was that we had been around for nine years and frankly, what was fresh nine years ago isn't fresh anymore. And in this industry, the second people get used to you - you've had it. If you don't stand out anymore, you automatically become less relevant. Having said that, our shows would still be sold out, and we still got good ratings on television... but the fact is that I just became less and less proud of the product we're delivering. People would pat me on the shoulder and tell me 'well done' about some recent show, but I wouldn't even be sure whether they meant it or not..."

Revealing that his colleague - and Zoo's token female, Claire Agius Ordway - and himself were most in favour of this "change in direction", Owen describes how this creative glut affected him rather deeply (this is where the candid part comes in).

"Back in November of last year, I started having certain feelings about the group that I had never felt before. Normally I'm full of energy and I can't wait to get to work in the morning - sometimes I would show up to our offices at around 7am - even before our employees. But come November, this all changed... I would wake up dreading to go to work, and then would be counting the hours to leave.

"Which confused me, because I had everything that I was after: a dedicated team of collaborators and employees - we were a very tight-knit group - along with our own company, whose offices we had just renovated, incidentally. So I would ask myself: why am I feeling this way?"

Owen wised up to the fact that something was up. And he decided to seek help. 

"I realised that it was about time that I went to see a psychologist. To some people this may sound like admitting defeat - I don't see it that way at all. The process was very helpful to me, and thank God I took that step because if I hadn't, I would have remained stuck in the same rut."

Finally, Owen's psychologist presented him with a choice. "He told me that we could either work on our group dynamics" - a psychological exercise, sort of like collective couples' counselling - "or that we go our separate ways". The latter option wasn't one Owen was particularly eager to go for. "Apart from ourselves, we had to also think about our employees, investments we would have made... not to mention the fact that, once we chose to let it all go, we would effectively be unemployed. We would have to reinvent ourselves from scratch."

But as perhaps often happens in life, the toughest choice turns out to be the only way to go. Once Owen voiced his concerns during a Zoo management meeting, his partners in crime were quick to conclude that calling it a day was the only sensible option.

"Chrysander [Agius] was the first to say so, so I'm assuming that he was feeling much the same way as I did. Daniel [Chircop] said that he knew it was going bound to happen at some point, though he wasn't expecting it to happen so soon... and Claire decided that since all three of us seem to agree that we couldn't go on, she wasn't going to get in our way...

It must have been a sombre meeting. In fact, Owen doesn't shy away from describing that decisive moment in the most dramatic way possible.

"Literally - it's the same feeling you get when you break up with someone you've been dating for a long, long time. And the aftermath was the same too - we would text each other in the evenings, to reassure ourselves that everything will be okay..."

But Owen himself, at least, seems to have bounced back nicely. Plans for a 'solo' venture are very much underway, though certain nitty-gritty details still need to be ironed out. So what can we expect from Owen, post the 'Zoo' era, exactly?

"I wanted to do something that's different from the Zoo stuff in that it would be ever-so-slightly more adult-oriented, and that the humour would be more on the witty side..."

Owen's 'pitch' is simple: have an "American-style" late night chat show, with a central gimmick.

"I would be interviewing female - exclusively female - Maltese personalities... though because the pool of people here is small, I think I'll also be interviewing women who happen to be partners of personalities."

Taking the format of one-to-one conversations, the show - set to air on ONE - will be Owen's attempt at "wittier, more mature humour that better reflects where I'm at right now as a performer".

"I'll be conducting the interviews as myself, and just myself, though. I won't have any characters to hide behind."