Nostalgia: Inside the crazy world of ‘Sic O’Clock News’ 2
The cast: (Clockwise from leftmost) Manny Castañeda, Joji Isla, Wilson Go, Jaime Fabregas, Errol Dionisio, Khryss Adalia, Ching Arellano, Celeste Bueno, Jon Achaval, Dinna Padilla and Ces Quesada.
Culture

Inside Sic O’ Clock News: ‘Crazy was not enough. We had to be weird too’

Born 35 years ago, the groundbreaking show parodied the evening news program, delivering the week’s real life news stories with humor, wit, and balls to match.
JEROME GOMEZ | Jan 10 2022

It came out just before the first People Power anniversary. Around the time President Cory Aquino was named Woman of the Year by Time Magazine, which came after another failed attempt to overthrow her government—a coup plot codenamed God Save The Queen. The month the show premiered over Channel 13, the Mendiola Massacre took place, followed not long after by a mutinee led by 300 pro-Marcos rebel soldiers who took over GMA 7 for three long days. 

The post-EDSA months were extraordinarily jubilant months for Filipinos. We kicked out a dictator, after all. But those were also extraordinarily stressful times—thanks to the tense political landscape. If you didn’t know how to laugh at yourself, or laugh at what’s happening, or find an escape, you might as well go batshit crazy. Hence, the moviegoing public quickly found refuge in comedy, fantasy and horror flicks. “Super Inday and the Golden Bibe,” “Rosa Mistica,” and “Petrang Kabayo” all enjoyed fantastic box-office turnout, and so did “Tiyanak,” “Maria Went to Town” and “Starzan.” 

Sic O’ Clock News
Marilou (leftmost) directing the cast. She instilled the no-sacred-cow policy. “Siguro ang Sic O’ Clock News sabihin na natin na pumepreno siya pero hindi siya lumiliko," says writer Jobart Bartolome. Image courtesy of Romy Buen. 

In 1986, the director Marilou Diaz Abaya was also looking for escape—from the pressure of making another bold film. She made a name for herself in the first half of the 80s as champion of bravely-told women’s stories: “Brutal,” “Karnal,” “Moral,” “Alyas Baby Tsina.” And then, all of a sudden, all the offers coming were sex-heavy projects. "Hindi naman ako for morality or what lang. It's just that I found it boring,” Marilou told Pep.ph before she died in 2012. “How many ways can you block sex [scenes]?!” Her way out was news and public affairs, which excited her. She took on directing Randy David’s political talk program “Truth Forum” for Channel 13. But she also wanted to do comedy. "Ayaw akong bigyan ni Mother Lily [Monteverde], 'Mother, sige na, gagawin ko 'to [drama], bigyan mo ako ng comedy...” the director begged the producer. The Regal matriarch’s answer: “Ay, hindi ka gawa ng comedy! Masyado kang serious!”

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The Sonny and Polly show 

In January 1987, Marilou would prove Mother wrong: “Sic O’ Clock News” premiered on national television. It was an hour-long news show parody that poked fun at current events and the personalities that made the political landscape sizzle. It was funny. It was obnoxious. But, yes, it was serious, too—as in seriously hard-hitting. It found a way to make us laugh at everything that’s happening around us while making sure we are reminded of the corrupt government official we shouldn’t vote for in the next elections, and the abusadong kapitalista we shouldn’t be working for. The show was headlined by Jaime “Jimmy” Fabregas and Ces Quesada, who played eccentric news anchors Sonny Esguerra and Lilliane Polly Katubusan Labaybay. Unlike ordinary news readers, Sonny and Lilliane were always outrageously costumed, they would bicker with each other in front of the cameras, and made it known what they thought of this or that politician with a well-timed eye roll, a quick ismid, or a snide remark.  “It was one of the most enjoyable shows I ever did,” recalls Fabregas who was then in his late 30s and has once gone the comedy gag show route via “The Fabulous Gamboa Show” in the 1960s.  “When I was asked by Marilou and Ishmael Bernal [the film director and Marilou’s closest creative partner] and Manolo Abaya [the cinematographer and Marilou's husband] into a meeting to talk about the possibility of a political satire, I went,” says the actor. “The first thing that Marilou said is we might be treading into a bit of danger. It’s the first time we will do it and we don’t know how people will react because it was never done before.” The country was coming out of a 20-year dictatorship, and it was the perfect time for people to fearlessly express themselves. “If you did [that show] during martial law,” adds Jaime, “you will be put in jail!” “The thing that I remember most about Sic was that it was the most exciting, innovative concept that broke out of television after the revolution,” offers Ces, who was plucked out by Marilou and Ishma straight from teaching Speech Communication and Theater Arts in UP. “It was a political satire with a news format that aimed to not only entertain but educate people about political, social, cultural issues. It was significant for me because here was this little show with no big stars—although Jaime was a known major support already while I was still in the academe—but our creative and production team belonged to the best and brightest stars in the industry: Marilou Abaya, [scriptwriter] Amado Lacuesta, Ishmael Bernal, Manolo Abaya, Nonong Buencamino etc. With a very limited budget to spare, the show created a lot of noise, ruffled quite a lot of political feathers, and it managed to snatch up awards along the way. It was very much like The Mouse that Roared.”

Sic O’ Clock News
Sic O’ Clock News earned a few awards along the way. It was headlined by Jaime “Jimmy” Fabregas and Ces Quesada, who played eccentric news anchors Sonny Esguerra and Lilliane Polly Katubusan Labaybay. Lilliane's name came from Ishmael Bernal. "He said I looked like a Polly and a Labaybay at the same time."

Sunday lang pahinga 

To hear the veteran character actress say it, Sic O’ Clock News was a very demanding endeavor. “While other actors would work only once a week, Marilou wanted all of us—actors, creatives, production crew, etc.—to work the entire week. She expected all of us to read the news. She wanted all of us to be collaborators. We would all meet in her house on a Monday—where she would prepare a feast of kare kare and pochero—and we would brainstorm on what news to cover for the week. Then the writers and songwriters will be off to do their writing.”  They would tape a new episode at the old Broadcast City on a Wednesday—from past noon to 5AM the next day. It took this long because, in the show’s need to be constantly current and relevant, they need to produce “flash reports” that would reflect what’s happening in the real news cycle. Recalls Ces: “We were like real reporters.”  Thursday, Friday and Saturday were spent in the editing room. “I would hang out in editing because of possible voice overs that needed to get done,” the actress continues. “Sometimes we would just hang with the VTR guys and keep them company while they rummage through a mountain of tapes for our clips.”  By clips, Ces is referring to the quick excerpts used as reaction shots to the show's “news” items. For a clear illustration, these are like the “Nye!” after every AngTV gag. Except "Sic O’ Clock News" made use of IBC-13’s vast archive of news footage and Filipino movies to take various reaction shots from, as in a Panchito letting out a sarcastic laugh, or a Max Alvarado giving a quizzical look, or a Ferdinand Marcos delivering a speech where he jokes, “If I become President I will order the arrest and imprisonment of President Marcos.” Cut to Willie Nepomuceno in a TVC saying “Ayos ba?” 

Marilou Diaz-Abaya
Abaya on bringing back the program: "Why would I do it? They're already doing it all over the place!” she said in 2012. “Manood ka lang ng impeachment trial [of Chief Justice Renato Corona], Sic O'Clock News na 'yon!” she told Pep.ph. Image from ABS-CBN Film Restoration.

Crazy was not enough

But it wasn’t exactly all work on the set. “Though it may sound like hard work, these tapings would be interspersed with a lot of food, laughter, teasing, even painting sessions,” offers Ces. “So it was work with fun. Most of it was fun. Kasi crazy was normal for us. And that was what bonded us real tight. Crazy was not even enough. We had to be weird too.” “Marilou used to bring her easel and canvas and paint,” remembers Jaime. “If we taped the show tuloy-tuloy, we will probably finish in three hours. But since there were a lot of social exchanges, Marilou loved to eat, she loved good food, we would stop and eat the food. After a while, the others started bringing their own easels, etc. and paint with Marilou.” The eating, the painting, the discourse were all part of the director’s creative process—which she wanted her crew to share. “We were all very comfortable with each other. It became like a family. Because it was not just work, work, work. There was  a time to paint, a time to eat, a time to chit-chat in that whole day of taping. It was the process, and [Marilou] was correct. If it wasn’t like that we wouldn’t have survived the show for so long.”  In the beginning, the Sic O’ Clock family was just the creative team, with Jaime and Ces in front of the camera—and a pato. “Pato as in duck,” says Ces. “Naglalakad sa set. Minsan inaaway ni Jimmy [Jaime] habang nag-eeditorial.”  Ces and Jaime, apart from being “newsreaders” would play other characters. Ces would take on “Presidentita,” the show’s moniker for Cory Aquino. Jaime would play personalities befitting his looks, from Uncle Sam to whoever was tisoy politico of the hour. But he always went back to playing news anchor Sonny Esguerra, who the actor describes as an absurd character. “Very boisterous, very loud type of guy, very opinionated. Somebody who if you met in the street you probably won’t like.”  It was inevitable that the Sic O’ Clock family would eventually recruit more members: there were more issues to tackle, more personalities to parody, and there needed to be, after all, a point of view of the “taumbayan.” So enter Manny Castañeda, Wilson Go (who would famously spoof Cardinal Sin), Jon Achaval (the Howhowrel to Ces’s Presidentita), Joji Isla (an excellent Marcurakus), Celeste Bueno, Dinna Padilla, Errol Dionisio, Ching Arellano, Khryss Adalia, and Rene Requiestas. The poet Domingo Landicho would join the cast, too, along with Nonoy Oplas and Noni Buencamino, eventually.  “The show attracted a very comedic kind of people,” says Jaime, “pero yung may konti namang brain.”

The brilliant Rene Requiestas was always assigned to play José Rizal. “His face was totally malleable you can do anything with it,” Jaime recalls fondly. “His delivery was to the point all the time. It was Ishma who put Rene Requiestas in and it was a really good move because he was just so much fun!” 

Sic O’ Clock News
Second writer Jobart Bartolome with his wife, Marilou Diaz-Abaya, the show's production designer, and Jaime Fabregas. Photo courtesy of Romy Buen.

Pushing the envelope 

Sic O’ Clock News won many awards during its run and was acclaimed by critics. “Sic O’Clock redefined comedy in the Philippines as it pushed the envelope and reasserted the newly-regained democratic freedom of Filipinos,” wrote Edmund Sicam in Philippine Star. “While it kept viewers entertained, it also updated them on current events, and helped them understand intelligently how the news affected their daily lives and even their future. The show made people pause and think while laughing at themselves or their situation.” The show was on air for a little more than three years—from January 1987 to September 1990. How the show lasted the length of time it lasted, considering it’s nature and the characters they poked fun of, is a puzzle. The show championed a no-sacred-cow policy from the beginning. “Satire only works if you hit those who are in power,” says Jobart F. Bartolome, a former teacher whose first writing job in TV was Sic O’ Clock News. “Siguro ang Sic O’ Clock News sabihin na natin na pumepreno siya pero hindi siya lumiliko. When it comes to Cory and the members of her Cabinet, hindi siya nangingiming banatan.” Jobart was second writer, next to head writer Amado Lacuesta, the banker turned screenwriter (“Working Girls,” “Balweg,” “Hinugot sa Langit”).  While the risky, ballsy content of Sic O’ Clock often put the life of the show in danger, it was clearly one of the biggest reasons for its success. “To a large extent, the credibility of the show comes from the fact that audiences know it’s not government propaganda,” adds Jobart. “You can’t expect a [Channel] 2 or a 7 to do [what Sic did] because the stakes are just too high for them.”  “We were trying to be as unbiased as we can,” recalls Jaime. “But because of the no-sacred-cow rule, we also started losing advertisers. Because we started talking about buy Filipino, and we started saying ‘Ba’t pa kayo iinom ng Coca-Cola, puwede naman kayo magsalabat?’ Coke was one of our big sponsors so after a while, they split. And then we started talking about the multi-nationals and calling them ‘multo-national.’ Even Del Monte, who was one of our biggest advertisers, also pulled out. That’s why the show died, because in effect we were losing advertisers because of the no-sacred-cow rule.”  “The thing with Sic is that we took a lot of risks. And when you do that with friends, they become family,” offers Ces. The team has gone thru a lot those three short years. For example, they’ve all been trapped inside the TV station because of one coup attempt, which was all the rage back then. “And then while taping an episode, we learned that Marilou and our VTR guys were in a police station because of some brouhaha over ownership of tapes,” recalls Ces. “Anyway, we all went to the police station in our costumes and it became clear that if they lock up Marilou and our VTR boys, they will have to lock us up, too. The police were dumbfounded as we were dressed as Cory, Imelda Marcos, Cardinal Sin, Fidel Ramos, Manoling Morato, etc. The police didnt know know how to handle us crazies, so they let us go.”

 

Sa uulitin? 

Over the years since its exit, the possibility of reviving the program has often been brought up. But one of the reasons why there can never be another Sic O’ Clock News is because there has never been and there will never be another Marilou Diaz-Abaya, the show’s mother hen and head creative. “Sure there are good, young and equally capable creatives now but to resurrect Sic, one has to have the steel resolve of a Marilou Abaya and the wicked wit of an Amado Lacuesta,” says Ces.  Mabusisi si Direk,” offers Romy Buen who was the show’s graphic artist (he created the artworks that end up as backdrop for the chroma set-ups). “Gusto nya laging bago ang idea, at talagang magdamagan ang taping.”  “Marilou listens,” says Jobart, “but in the end she decides on the look, the content, the mix.” 

But even when she was still alive, Marilou didn’t see the need to gather the old crew together again with the end plan of bringing back the program. "Why would I do it? They're already doing it all over the place!” she said in 2012. “Manood ka lang ng impeachment trial [of Chief Justice Renato Corona], Sic O'Clock News na 'yon!” she told Pep.ph. “Ano 'yon? Magre-repeat na lang ako? Manood ka lang ng TV, spoof na sila! Ini-spoof na nila yung buhay natin! Hellow!” Makes one wonder what she will think of Duterte-era, elections-gaga Philippines.  “We all believed in the power of our little show and up to the end, we never wavered,” says Ces Quesada proudly, looking back. “Political satire is a difficult genre because it is unforgiving. It can never stray off course.” She says she has very fond memories of the show and it seems she’d rather hold on to those than have them replaced by new ones. “More so now when people still ask if it is possible to do it again,” she says. “The need is palpable but our creatives are no longer here.”

[Photographs courtesy of Romy Buen]