Tanzanians aren’t funny. My roommate in campus was a Tanzanian. His mates would fill our small room, cracking these jokes and cackling like hyenas. I didn’t get them. Plus all the jokes were in Kiswahili sanifu. Who tells a joke in Kiswahili sanifu? However, when Tanzanians sing you feel your soul sit up. It’s like someone walking around a dark house, switching on the lights as they go. Music that lights you up.
Talking of music. Over in Uganda music is woven into their fabric. You can smell it in the air like you can smell impending rain. It’s always hanging there, like moisture. Unlike us they aren’t embarrassed of their local tongue, so they sing in it, and it feels authentic and honest. But are they funny? What brand of humour have they exported across the borders? With her huge fan base, even here in Kenya, I find Kansiime tiresome.
Enter Kenya. Cool old Kenya. The kid in the playground who everyone crowds around. Him with the fancy pencils.
You would imagine we would have lots of stellar standup comedians, but, surprisingly, stand-up comedy in Kenya is a non-starter. It’s held together by a tedious Band-Aid of tribal stereotypes and silly accents. It has refused to move on from the ridiculous circus attire that it continues to prop itself on. Our comedians have become caricatures of the jokes they tell. The material we sell as stand-up comedy has become humdrum.
Which Kenyan stand-up comedian is hilarious? Let’s go: Churchill. Churchill was only funny when he was hungry. Chipukeezy? His gaudy yellow suit is slowly replacing his humour. That guy who makes fun of Kalenjins? Almost amusing. Eric Omondi. Lots of potential but only if he spent more time with his material. His brother, Fred? Should stop hanging out with the wolves or he will howl the same way. Teacher Wanjiku. Was funny for five days then flew too close to the sun. Mtumishi guys? A Luhya choir with ashen knees. Sleepy? Your answer is in the name.
Then there are the other comedians, slapping and sticking, and picking a leaf from that old book of humour that should be locked up in a museum
of forgotten art. Nobody wants to venture further, to get material that is unique, fresh and different. Nobody dares.
What stand-up comedy in Kenya is experiencing is comic erectile dysfunction; it starts off strong with mirth, but grows flaccid in no time.
I was in Mauritius the whole of last week, courtesy of MultiChoice that was showcasing its content to some 85 journalists from all over Africa. The final night was a huge party thrown by MTV Base with a comedy hour sponsored by Comedy Central Channel 122, who invited two acts to perform. If you watch Comedy Central you realize we aren’t even a blip in the wider radar of stand-up comedy.
The first act was a comedian from South Africa called Kagiso. A lanky man. The moment he showed up on stage in suspenders, scraggly beard and geek spectacles I knew there was no way he was going to be funny. I have this theory that stand-up comedians who spend more time on their attire, will have most likely spent less time on their material. Clown costume for what? This isn’t Halloween. A loud costume is noise that drowns out good content.
And Kagiso was loud. Literally. He shouted in the mic. His material was grimy. He landed more “fuck” and “shit” than he landed punch lines. And the room paid him back by becoming more disinterested as his rants raged on. He drew a few laughs at the beginning, but things slowly went tits up as he pursued a narrative of deflated punch lines that drew blank, pained stares.
Even his sex jokes were too naked, too unshaven. At some point he gathered enough chutzpah to take a stab at Mandela’s death, and thankfully came out unharmed. That was impressive, though. Ballsy. But the night wasn’t his and upon realizing this truth, he tried lobbing some desperate flaccid jokes at the crowd, which were duly ignored. The crowd had moved on. Conversations become louder at the back of the room even as he shouted in the mic, “All right, all right, I know you want me to get off the stage you bastards…”
Stand-up comedy is ruthless. Making people laugh in a room is a daunting task. A dead crowd is a scary crowd. Finally the potty mouth threw in the towel and introduced some comedian from Uganda called “Salvado”. Never heard of him, but the clutch of Ugandan media in the room cheered riotously.
I honestly didn’t think he would hack the diverse demographic in that room. I knew he would embarrass us East Africans.
He stealthily walked up to the stage wearing a goofy smile, dramatically surveying the crowd as if surprised at it’s size, and telling Kagiso who had introduced him as “this next motherfucker” that he isn’t a “motherfucker” (hehe) in that Ugandan accent that they use to call clothes “Clothez.” Salvado had that everyday-people face. Seemed like the guy you would ask to watch over your drink in a bar so you can dart into the men’s.
“I have never stood in a room with so many white people,” he opened the gambit, “I feel like Obama.” Kakaka! Crowd laughed and he was off to the races. Here is the thing with Salvado; he was not just hilarious, he was hysterical. Every joke was delivered with the right punch. Laughter drowned the room. Everything – tables, chairs – floated in this mirth. You laughed so hard and even before you could recover you actually feel another one building up under
your shoes, like a seismic wave.
His material was fresh, clever and delivered with a hidden smile. I laughed until I teared up. Even when he was making Ugandan jokes, he still managed to make everybody relate. From a certain point on the room succumbed and conspired to make him funnier. You could feel the room root for him, this chubby-ish, largely unknown man from Uganda.
At some point he made the cardinal mistake of telling a stolen joke. For a comedian, stealing a joke that is already online is like borrowing someone else’s boxers. This level of callous laziness for a man of his immense talent astonished me. Salvado, if you are reading this, that joke about Indians and them giving a discount on time isn’t yours, my brother. Don’t set that precedence.
He had some sex jokes too, and everybody loves a funny sex joke, but the difference is that he wasn’t too explicit. The thing with sex jokes is that you have to let the audience imagine the more gritty imagery, unless you are performing to a group of virgins.
When he got off the stage, to a standing ovation, I wondered as I wiped my tears away, if we were to put one of our own comedians up on a multicultural stage like that, would they be able to crack it?
I pictured the Mtumishi guys singing their hearts out, and an American chap turning to a French chap and asking, “By the way, did they ever make a sequel of The Gods Must be Crazy?”