JUST FOR LAUGHS Kenyan Stand-up Comedy
“You know, back in 2000 to around 2005, when the Kenyan music industry exploded?” asks Matayo Theophilus Ndungi, another comedian.
Do you know why women lean their heads on a man’s shoulder when taking photographs?” the young man on stage asks, pausing for effect and carefully observing the crowd, waiting for the right moment to strike. He finds it, continuing, “It has nothing to do with love. She’s just tired of carrying her heavy weave and is taking the opportunity to rest!” The audience roars with laughter, bodies rocking back and forth. Peter Wamwea, the comedian, better known as Consummator, is no exception, taking a moment to appreciate how well the crack landed. His slight smile is appreciative almost, relieved that he’s won the crowd over. And he should be – he’s performing for the live recording of Churchill Show in an auditorium at the Carnivore, one of the biggest stages for Kenyan stand-up.
He’s tall, and even with his jokes poking fun at Nairobi women, he has a relaxed demeanour, letting you know that he’s just having a good time, as should you – this is all in jest. “Women are always praying for miracles, but they forget they already have one big miracle. Carrying 2 kilos of a weave on your head every day is quite a miracle!” More laughter. It’s my first time at the stand-up show, and the auditorium is almost full to capacity. Judging from the enthusiastic clapping and booming laughter, it’s clear that Nairobians appreciate a good laugh.
“Kenyan stand-up comedy is fresh and natural. I think the comedians are really doing a good job,” Diana Mulandi, who is part of the audience, tells me right before John Kibe, yet another comedian, takes to the stage. He brings along a prop – his wandindi, a traditional string instrument – which he uses to produce an inflection of sounds that eerily come off like a human voice responding to a conversation, something close to ventriloquism. It’s an oddly interesting show, and one that’s inarguably a Kenyan original.
The entertainment industry here, as a whole, is on an upward trend, and comedy is one of the fastest growing platforms. The last few years have seen a boom in standup comedy in Kenya from a struggling new art form to a financially viable industry that is responsible for discovering new talent on an almost daily basis.
Defining Our Own Path
About 30 years ago, families would gather around in their living rooms, glued to the TV to watch shows like Vitimbi and Vioja Mahakamani for a dose of Kenyan humour. But as generations evolved and people became more cultured and exposed to the outside world, the type of comedy craved started changing. In the 80s and 90s, stand-up comedians like Chris Rock, Steve Harvey, Cedric the Entertainer and the late Bernie Mac were something new and refreshing to the scene, and Kenyans took a liking.
Churchill and Fred Omondi on stage at a taping of Churchill Show, one of the prime outlets for stand-up comedians in Kenya.
Today, the internet has made accessibility to the comedians much easier, Kevin Hart and Ellen DeGeneres becoming incredibly popular. It does appear, however, that the rare thing to get is good stand-up pertaining to Kenya, made by Kenyans.
“We are just at the beginning stage and we are still figuring out how to make everything work,” says Daniel Ndambuki, popularly known as Churchill – a name given to him by late Kenyan humourist Wahome Mutahi, in comparison to another man known for his wit, Winston Churchill – or Mwalimu
King’ang’i – his radio name on Classic FM – arguably Kenya’s number one funny man. “We are still discovering what kind of humour Kenyans appreciate.”
Most of the jokes cover a wide range of topics from the usual ethnic stereotypes, political shenanigans, relationship drama and social commentary to soccer. “We have come from the mimicry stage, started by Redykyulass, and now we are at a stage where most of the jokes come from observation. It’s all moving very fast now. The first goal was to create an appreciation for comedy, and we have achieved that. Now it is time for growth.”
And he’s making sure that growth happens. Not only does he keep crowds amused, he has worked to create opportunities for fellow stand-up artistes. Churchill Academy provides the biggest platform for new talent, with standup comics mushrooming all over the city, to say nothing of other Kenyan towns. They’re everywhere: TV, radio, clubs, theatres and at corporate events. Nearly every morning radioshow boasts a comic in the house – Churchill on Classic FM, Jalang’o on Radio Maisha, Chipukeezy on Kiss 100 and MC Jessy on Hot 96, to mention a few.
“You know, back in 2000 to around 2005, when the Kenyan music industry exploded?” asks Matayo Theophilus Ndungi, another comedian. “That is the same thing that is happening to Kenyan comedy at the moment. It is growing, and growing fast.” And it’s not just wishful thinking. Proving that Kenyan comedy is being recognised and has a growing audience, Njambi McGrath, a Kenyan-born comedian based in London, has managed to draw a following both locally and internationally.
Shortlisted for Best Female Newcomer at the Black Comedy Awards in 2013, McGrath shares her view of the industry currently, saying “I have been amused watching some brilliant Kenyan comics like Eric Omondi. From what I have seen, as Kenya becomes more prosperous, comedy seems to be at the forefront of this and is set to become even more popular.” McGrath does add, however, that just “like anywhere [else], there are some great comics and some who are still learning their craft, which is a journey any comic takes.”
The Rise of Stand-Up Comedy
Stand-up comedy is a relatively young form of art, the word itself only getting recognition from Webster’s Dictionary in 1966. Long before this, however, stand-up comedy, as an independent art form, first started in America in the late 1700s with ‘stump speeches’ in the minstrel shows of the time. The stump speeches were basically satiric monologues, delivered towards the end of a show, which poked fun at contemporary life and political figures. By the late 1950s, this form of art had developed to a point where the comic was no longer an all-around entertainer, but more specialised in stand-up comedy. The pioneers included Bill Cosby, Mort Sahl and Lord Buckley, among others.
Comedian Smart Joker plays it up during a set.
It’s safe to say that the pioneers of stand-up in Kenya were the Redykyulass crew, which comprised of Walter Mongare (Nyambane), John Kiarie (KJ) and Tony Njuguna, three young college students. The trio defied all odds to produce a politically charged, satirical show that not only got Kenyans laughing, but also challenged the country’s political leadership. This was during the time of former President
Daniel arap Moi’s dogmatic rule, yet the 20-something-yearold comedians boldly impersonated the head of state and his administration, giving Kenyans a rib-cracking show. What’s interesting is that even as the show got hundreds of Kenyans laughing, it also somehow humanised the ex-president and those around him.
Perhaps the best-loved sketch was where Moi, depicted by Walter Mongare as a stern old man, is carried shoulder-high by his aides through a cheering audience. Suddenly when he is put down, the ‘old man’ breaks into an unexpected lingala dance that left Kenyans doubled over in laughter. Redykyulass not only paved the way for other stand-up comics, but rejuvenated freedom of expression for all. If there is power in stand-up acts, then this is as good a way as any to define the effect derived from the art form.
From this stemmed popular shows such as Red Korna, which provided a transition from more sketch-based comedy to stand-up, showcasing new acts like Peter Kaimenyi (Kajairo), Maurice Otieno (Mdomo Baggy) and Churchill, the latter of whom has gone on to create East Africa’s biggest comedy show, Churchill Live (now Churchill Show), which anyone can, like myself, watch being recorded.
The setting is cheery and as Michael Omuka, known as Smart Joker, gets on stage, the audience begins to laugh even before he speaks. He’s dressed the part of a village clown in the city – reed loafers, red socks, denim pedal pushers and a baggy sweatshirt, to complement his routine.
“There are high schools and secondary schools in this country,” he starts out, delivering in an affected Luhya accent. “You know you were in a high school if your school had a motto like ‘Education is the key’. Yours was a secondary school if the only motto was the moto (fire) used for cooking.” Once again the hall erupts in laughter and Smart Joker takes some time to bask in the moment. He, along with comedians
Boola and the duo Mchungaji and Mtumishi, cannot say enough about what the live show presents, thanks to other comedians who have come before them.
“Were it not for Churchill, we would not be where we are today,” says Mchungaji. “Churchill has been very instrumental in opening the door for all of us,” Boola agrees. “Now comedy is really picking up. Avenues are opening up for us and Kenyans are appreciating comedy as an art form.”
The Kenyan Audience
I take some time to chat up my fellow audience members to see if they agree as well. Of course, what draws people to comedy is the opportunity to laugh and enjoy a good night out. Kiprotich Malel tells me “Comedy is clean fun. I enjoyed it the first two times I was here,” and that has apparently drawn him back a third time. Gladys Kente, however, thinks the standards of the show are still wanting. “I don’t think it is very good if you compare it to what is happening internationally, but I still appreciate it. It is definitely growing and more people are starting to like it.”
Stand-up is becoming a much more accepted form of entertainment in Kenya, drawing larger and larger audiences.
McGrath notes that the differences between comedy here and in the West are not wide ranging, stating, “I am not sure that comedy in Kenya is that different from comedy in the UK. If you write good, funny jokes, audiences love you and you will progress.” Nonetheless, “If you are not funny [the audience] takes no prisoners,” McGrath continues, referring to comedians anywhere in the world. “Stand-up comedy is one of the hardest forms of entertainment, because you are on a stage by yourself facing hundreds of people and are given feedback straight away, either by laughter or silence [and] sometimes heckling. It’s the same wherever you go.”
But if there is anything that would consistently throw comedians for a loop, it is the Kenyan audience. While standup comedy here is clearly a plum ripe for the picking, the audience can go either way, and if they don’t relate to you, things go downhill fast. That’s true anywhere, but Kenyan humour makes it particularly easy to fall into that trap. Here, it’s often overly simplistic jokes that will elicit the greatest laugh. When American comedian John Ramsay was featured on Churchill a couple years back, he discovered that he had to adjust his style because, as he puts on his blog, what is funny to an American is not so funny to a Kenyan.
“I wrote a joke about how a Kenyan peddler tried to sell me a wooden, carved elephant for 10,000 shillings,” he writes. “The punch line was American and along the lines of…If that’s how much a wooden elephant is worth, then poachers are targeting the wrong elephants.” The joke landed flat. However, when he told another joke about introducing his wife as a muuguzi (nurse) to one person and mbuzi (goat) to another, the crowd busted up.
While there are exceptions – Churchill and Eric Omondi being the notable ones – many Kenyans have found success by telling individual joke after individual joke, audience laughter providing the only transition, whereas international comedians will carefully craft a smoothly flowing set designed to fill their allotted time with continuous, connected jokes.
But according to Consummator, Kenyan audiences are quite hard to please, which is why comedians are working hard, each one trying to bring something unique. “From what I have seen online, I think Kenyan comedians are far better than their contemporaries in Africa.”
The Comedian’s Voice
Kenyan stand-up comedy was born of impersonation, but over the years the scene has evolved to accommodate new forms of humour. Political jesting was soon replaced with tribal stereotype jokes, a phase in which Kenyan comedy still remains. A lot of stand-up comedy, even on the international stage, is based on some sort of stereotype, whether it pertains to race, class, gender or something else. For some reason, people enjoy poking fun at what makes us different.
Dave Chappelle, possibly one of the most recognizable faces of Comedy Central for his Chappelle’s Show, proved that sometimes comedy has boundaries. The series’ first two seasons were marked by sketches highlighting the comedy in racial stereotypes, a fine line to walk. But when he felt producers were pushing him over that line on the third season, Chappelle notoriously walked away from a USD $50 million contract. Here, tribal jokes, which are presently widespread, have drawn that same controversy and criticism.
Kenyans sometimes complain that this kind of stereotyping, even in jokes, continues to perpetuate negativity within the community, while local comedians and their fans beg to differ.
“Kenyans are difficult to understand. They say they hate these tribal jokes, but they laugh at them most,” says Consummator. “Then, after laughing, they go on social media and start hating on them and the comedians. Comedy, just like other arts, is a reflection of the society.” Certainly, most comedians develop their jokes by carefully observing what’s going on around them. Smart Joker, whose brand of comedy involves playing the part of a naive villager in the city, says, “I always have an eye open for weird habits. When I see something interesting, I develop the idea and present it on stage.”
Beyond the issue of divisive topics, however, open-minded and tolerant audiences are perhaps the missing piece of the puzzle when it comes to developing Kenyan standup to international standards. Comedians rely heavily on audience feedback to gauge the success of their jokes; they acknowledge the stage as the place where they can best sharpen their skills, a trial by fire of sorts. But it being such a young art form in the country, stand-up comedy and the comics themselves are yet to gain full acceptance. So far, audiences seem to expect one thing, and – except in the rarest of cases – if they don’t get it they’re not going to support the performer. “Kenyans are very judgmental and they are quick to dismiss someone,” explains Consummator. “Of course it is now much easier to be successful in this field than before, but it is still hard.”
On the continent, the most identifiable countries when it comes to African stand-up comedians are Nigeria and South Africa. Similarly, a poll run to compare African comedians on the site gidilounge.com saw South Africa’s Trevor Noah emerge as number one, while Nigeria took up seven of the 20 spots. Nonetheless, tucked in the midst of the contenders was Kenya’s Eric Omondi, who came in at ninth place. A short comedian with spiky styled hair who’s another of Kenya’s remarkable talents, his show Untamed has gathered thousands of fans to the Carnivore grounds. He and Churchill are seen as the top dons of comedy in Kenya.
But rankings are not what concerns the pragmatist. Churchill is busy looking at the local industry as a whole, claiming, “It is too early to start labelling Kenyan standup, but one thing I can say is that it is quite conservative.” He’s convinced that it’s difficult for the audience to let a comedian get away with dirty jokes, a rule that’s somehow firmly set even as stand-up is figuring out where it’s headed.
“It is all still a work in progress. As the industry grows and expands, there is going to be a lot more segmentation and specialisation. And just like we have different FM radio stations targeting specific audiences, there will be comedy for everyone.”
Are Women Funny?
“My name in Njambi, I come from Kenya. And before you ask, no, I don’t run marathons,” McGrath begins her stand-up session. “Twenty-six miles,” slight pause for effect, “without being chased?” She finishes with a simple headshake, words unnecessary, as the crowd laughs in agreement. Though her start was a bit bumpy, McGrath not certain of the approach she was taking on – highlighting African issues using a touch of humour – she’s since proved that women are funny, no matter what part of the world they come from.
Here in Kenya, female comedians are just starting to enter the fray. Arguably, the leading lady of Kenyan standup is Caroline Wanjiku, who has risen to fame through her humorous persona, Teacher Wanjiku. Other ladies such as Zeddy and the Misquoted duo are also rising fast. One unfortunate similarity in comedy everywhere, however, is the disproportionally low number of women taking the stage.
This phenomenon is made even more curious by the fact that in other entertainment circles, such as music or film, women abound. McGrath finds it ironic that women are considered ‘not funny’, because women make some of the most prolific writers. “If women can write and women can make people laugh, that means it is just discrimination that deters women from comedy,” she notes. Yet it’s long been looked at as a man’s line of work. “Traditionally, stand-up was done in working men’s clubs, so women had no way of making it there, and those who did found themselves trapped in bloke-y jokes,” says McGrath. “Things have certainly changed and there are some very decent comedy clubs that are more inviting for women.”
In Kenya, the number of women in the field is diminutive. Zeddy, who is a devout Muslim and an up-and-coming comedian, says, “I think the reason that there are few women in stand-up comedy is that most women are easily discouraged,” Zeddy states. “There are many girls who come to audition for Churchill, but when they are not picked the first few times, they just give up.”
With comedians such as Wanda Sykes, Tina Fey and Sarah Silverman, among many others past and present, the argument that women aren’t funny seems to no longer hold any water. Closer to home, however, Consummator feels that the problem might lie with women themselves. “Women are their own worst enemies. Instead of supporting and encouraging each other, they pull each other down. Most of the negative comments about female comedians come from women.” Whatever the reason, Kenya’s would-be funny ladies are still battling it out with their male counterparts, carving their own spot in the growing, but undeniably male-dominated, popularity of stand-up in Kenya.
The entertainment industry is notorious for being a difficult place to earn a living, so I’m surprised to learn that many comics here actually make enough money to meet their financial needs. “I can’t complain. I am paying my bills and providing for myself from comedy,” says Matayo, adding that more than earning money, comedy allows for other opportunities such as hosting radio shows, which have helped him expand his career goals. Churchill and Omondi have certainly found their avenue to laughing all the way to the bank. With regular stand-up acts on and off air and international shows in the US and UK, they’re raking in good money, the latter revealing he’s worth an estimated KSH 30 million.
“Comedy doesn’t pay well, even in the UK, unless you are nearly at the top, in which case you make millions,” reveals McGrath. And because not everyone can be at the top, she states it is still “worth doing just for the love of it.” For a comic to make enough money and live well out of the profession, he or she has to gain knowledge of the commercial aspect of the work and be business savvy. What one crowd enjoys and laughs about today might not be the same thing that will tickle another crowd tomorrow.
“Talent without business sense is nothing. Some comics are not educated enough and don’t know how to negotiate business deals,” says Consummator. Granted, in Kenya – but for Churchill Show, which provides a platform for new talent to be spotted – the options are not many for those looking to venture into stand-up. Having said that, however, the small window of opportunity available is being put to work by those persistent few who are set on the career.
Every Tuesday, Laugh Industry, which is the mother company for the Churchill brand, holds auditions for comedians at the Carnivore. Those who make it through proceed to the Open Mic and later Churchill Raw stage on Thursday, and hopefully later make it to Churchill Show. It sounds like quite the process, but it is the closest thing to a comedy academy that the country has to offer. Stand-up comedy “can open other avenues for you,” McGrath tells me, referring to her own journey so far. “I am doing a show for the Edinburgh Festival, world’s biggest comedy festival, and also writing a book. These are avenues that I would never have explored if I wasn’t doing standup.”
Without doubt, Kenyan stand-up comedy has come a long way in a short time, but the challenges abound. There is still a huge stretch left before we can comfortably claim to be on par with international levels. But one thing is for sure, we all enjoy a good laugh and the comics who find a way of making that fact work for them will always be in business.