The Evolution of Kenyan Comedy: Why aren’t we Laughing?

A few years ago, I sat in a university auditorium during an inaugural TEDx event. One of the presentations was by Ayeyaa, the comedian who carries a signature briefcase and wears a newsboy’s cap.

I expected him to bring the same material he did on Churchill, often a repetition of a single punch line. As an art, that comedic delivery is actually hard to master, but his singsong routine pissed me off, for some reason. I zoned off, but then the unexpected happened. Not only was he articulate, captivating, and intricately cognizant of the theme, he was, most importantly, hilarious!

I was wowed, if not pleasantly surprised, and promptly asked someone who knows him why he has never tried to do a full show on his own.

Can he really do it?

Does it have it in him?

How would the Kenyan audience react to being forced to sit for an hour or an hour and a half of one person’s comedy?

Comedy does not seem to have evolved much since the death of Redykylass in the early years of the new millennium. The perfect trio of KJ, Nyambane and Tony stood out not just for how the different comedic styles meshed into one show, but the nongiveafuckery of the acts. The comedy group emerged in 1999, the dying years of the Moi Error when he was more interested in crafting his legacy than in jailing anyone who stood up to him.

Moi’s political power and hubris had been clipped by political trends and he could just have let them thrive. But he went a step further, laughing his heart out to mimics of himself and his government during public functions. It is likely that he genuinely found them funny but the fact that he didn’t throw them into the dungeons was enough a standard to herald a new age. In came Kajairo with his still-hilarious music parodies and Kenyan comedy seemed to have come of age.

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What they created was more than a brand, it became the only form of Kenyan comedy. Groups such as Publik Noisemakers and Intrukalass that tried to bring in a new form of comedy, or a new direction would suffer the incessant questions on whether they would be bringing a character mimicking Moi. Perhaps, after two decades of political oppression, this form of comedy was more than just comic relief, it was also a form of national cleansing. In this generation, other comedians such as George Mbuto and to some extent Nyengese were well-known among comedy enthusiasts for their spontaneity and off-the-cuff comedy.

There was also of course, Joseph ‘Chieph’ Maina of Publik Noisemakers. Chieph was famous for his stunts, which included using his comedy to save himself from prison when his group was inivited to the 22nd Bagamoyo International Festival in Tanzania in 2003. He had managed to enter in Tanzania without a passport but was denied entry back into Kenya on his way back. It took a policeman who had recently been transferred from Nairobi to save him, and a few jokes for the others to believe he was a comedian.

With vernacular stations came comedians such as Machang’i and Kihenjo. They were hilarious but their use of vernacular limited them to a specific audience, and even within that demographic, only those who could understand the context. Mimics appeared at weddings and other events dressed in the characteristic colonial chiefs uniform which things stuffed in to create a conspicuous mid-belly. The signature look was not complete without the outline of facial hair done with white chalk, and the hilarious, if not utterly stupid, dancing.

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After Moi came Kibaki, the accidental comedian who used everything, including insult comedy, to make his audiences roar with laughter once he cleared with the written speech. In his first term, his famous question to his driver “Sasa huyu pumbavu anaenda wapi?”

He also once called cattle rustlers “binadamu ya mavi ya kuku (people made of chicken shit).

It is the second one, replayed numerous times on news specials such as Bulls Eye that cracked up the country, including my father, a man who has lived through six decades. It was the first and only time I have ever seen him roar with laughter, half an hour after the show ended. Kibaki, for the price of one, was both the president and the national comic. This was good, but it was bad for an industry who’s trigger had always been an oppressive government.

Uhuru looks like a guy who enjoys a good time, one who would not mind watching stand-up comedy even if it was poking fun at him or his apparently Jubilant government. Why am I tying a form of entertainment with government and politics? Atrocities and oppression are, sad as it may be, good for art. The best example of this is none other but the first true Kenyan national comics, the hilarious duo of Kipanga Athumani and Omar Suleiman.

The two met during a performance at Nairobi Memorial Hall in 1946. Kipanga is perhaps more famous for his work among inmates during the State of Emergency in the 1950s. Colonial authorities recognized the potential of his funny stuff and promptly taped his shows. They then replayed them in rehabilitation camps for inmates both as entertainment and as part of the rehabilitation process.

In 1953, a Reuters dispatch labelled him Kenya’s first national comic. It was of course a very Eurocentric perspective because comedy was a constant feature across all the nations that eventually became Kenya.

Like the archetypal comedian, Kipanga caricatured the hottest issues of his day, especially the Mau Mau war. Under Peter Colmore’s meticulous management, Kipanga and fellow comedian Omari Suleiman alias Mzee Pembe conducted the first Kenyan national comedy tour. The only place they did not visit was the Northern Frontier, then technically not a part of Kenya.

Omar Suleiman (Mzee Pembe) [Image: Source Unknown]

Omar Suleiman (Mzee Pembe)

For Kipanga and Pembe, the comedic style had to be perfect to appeal to both their colonial patrons and their Kenyan audiences. They did this by caricaturing Mau Mau generals and settlers. Often, their most famous skits included impressions of?Kisetla Kiswahili.

Kipanga’s comedic star was by far the most successful. In the 60s and 70s, he worked with EABL as a sales promotion comedian, and with BAT and Nescafe in different productions. One might consider him the true father of Kenyan comedy. After independence came such shows as Cheka na Kipanga, Jamii ya Mzee Pembe, Kivunja Mbavu, kazi Bure, and then the ones that survive to this day such as Vitimbi and Vioja Mahakamani.

Other than Kipanga, the shows bred new stars such as Mama Njeri (Fatuma Saleh), Mzee Tamaa and Mama Tofi, and Baba Tremji Haji.

Kipanga died in 1982 and a road in Eastleigh was renamed in his honor. Mzee Pembe died in 2012 at the age of 93. The two set the stage for improvisational comedy, and never used scripts even for their work on radio. Their successors struggled to find a footing in genre and form, and to this day, the industry remains in a limbo of sorts.

One might point out that in 2013, Official Laughs ranked Kenyan comedian Eric Omondi #9 between I Go Dye (Nigeria) and Eddie Kadi (Congo) among Africa’s funniest comedians. The list was, characteristically, dominated by South Africa (7) and Nigeria (7). Ghana, Malawi, Kenya, Congo, Zambia and Uganda filled the gap with one comedian each. But did Kenya deserve to be on that list, and if yes, did Eric?

To most Kenyan audiences, Eric is a funny comedian, although his habit of recycling internet jokes is not impressive at all. There’s something to his delivery, and perhaps personality, that makes his jokes funnier than they should be. But did he deserve to be on the list occupied by African greats such as Trevor Noah, the deserving #1 Funniest comedian in Africa, and Basketmouth, Nigeria’s entry at #2? I think not.

[Image Source: www.vibeweekly.mobi

Eric’s biggest mistake was staying too long under Churchill. It stunted his brand and his professional person, and saved him from the masses who would have told him his comedy sucked and thus improved him. Comedy had only begun to pay really well in Kenya and the temptation of a constant salary likely attracted him and others such as Ayeyaa who would have done well over the long-term. But it wasn’t their fault, they walked into a nascent industry that was only learning to be cutthroat.

Where Trevor Noah has worked for a long time to get his comedy at the international level it is today, Kenyan comedians are more interested in fame and cash before carving a proper brand for themselves. There’s something to this, given that South Africa’s years under apartheid bred the right conditions for comedy and comedy clubs to thrive.

One way to know a form of entertainment is nascent is if it does not attract the attention of censorship bodies. Both the UK and the US have gone through these evolution, with the latter’s most famous comedic critic being the venerable George Carlin who was arrested after the iconic piece on the Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.

With that skit Carlin attacked how America was hypocritical about free speech, especially when it came to TV. He and others such as Lenny Bruce, by facing the barriers head on, broke them down and set the stage for the globally-consumed comedy churned by the American comedians of today.

The comedian is, at the very basic, a social observer and critic. Even the prevalence of accents and tribal jokes in our current genres is an indication of something deeper. Comedy and satire allow us to laugh at our deeper insecurities and problems, and perhaps our lack of a national identity is our biggest one. But there’s a national identity, one that we haven’t defined properly yet. One that has influenced our music, art, and funny enough, political ideology over the last two or three decades.

After the 2007/8 post election violence, the issue of national identity became a crisis again. It had been, after the fall of Moi, divisive and uniting in equal measure, and the freeing of a country from two and a half decades of tyranny. But that quickly faded as Kibaki’s style of government allowed society to find itself. But then that became something else. Eager not to repeat the mistakes of 2007, as if jokes had been the problem, the government asked comedians and comics to cut down on tribal stereotypes and caricatures.

The drive by Mzalendo Kibunjia’s hapless National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC) was directed at the Churchill Show as the leading comedy show.

What followed was that Kenyan comedy stopped being even mildly funny, it became the home of internet jokes recycled and retold in Kiswahili and/or sheng. MC Jesse was forced to make his previously unfunny tribal jokes slightly less stereotypical and a bit funnier.

To be fair, Churchill Show was a breath of fresh air from the start. It brought together so many bad comedians and wannabe comedians into one house that it is impossible to hate them all. Once in a while, a good joke occurs. Occurs, like happens on its own, almost as if it escapes the comedian who, unprepared for this seemingly good punch, seems to lack any knowledge about why you should not laugh from your own jokes. Even Churchill as a legacy of the stunning Redykyulass generation does not seem to have comedy that has evolved a day since 2003.

It hit us when he tried some bland jokes at the Big Brother Africa ceremony, and we realized we have no Trevor Noah to sell to the continent. But Churchill’s business model of creating opportunities for upcoming comedians worked perfectly, filling a gap for both audience and corporate eager to be associated with a marketable comedy brand. The comedy has not stopped being funny, it has never been funny. In this age of content, audiences are becoming more assertive about what they want, even when they are not sure exactly what they want.

Why, with the exception of Churchill Live/Show/Raw have all the other sketch comedy programs that succeeded Redykyulass all but died down from low ratings? Red Korna? Or even Top Comic, which was meant to jump start a new era of Kenyan comedy? Most importantly, we must try to understand why Churchill Show has survived.

Year in year out, every week, the arena is full to the brim. Even when the show is taped outside of Nairobi, all the seats are bought out and it is a major event. Most of that is because Churchill realised, perhaps accidentally but early enough, that he is more of a businessman than a comedian. And for comedy to thrive, it needs sponsors and cutthroat capitalists. It helps if those sponsors are not always television stations and production houses. In Churchill, Kenya got a new-age godfather of comedy, and one whose dominance of the business end of the industry is unmatched.

To understand this stage in the evolution in comedy in Kenya, lets look at the wider African context beyond that covered by the 2013 rankings. Congo has Eddie Kadi while Nigeria has Ikenna Azuike; Malawi, on the other hand, has Daliso Chaponda; Kenya has Njambi McGrath. You have probably not heard of Njambi because she is based in the UK, as are all four comedians mentioned in the preceding sentence.

Is it that African countries, with the exception of South Africa and to some extent Nigeria, are not conducive of the degree of freedom of expression necessary for comedy to thrive?

If you did most jokes allowed in a comedy club in London in one in Nairobi, very few would understand them and even fewer would understand the context. It is likely a hapless politician would mention you on the floor of Parliament and Kibunjia would be all up in your business.

This would not be the first time this has happened. In June 1958, JN Muimu, the African elected member of the LegCo for Kitui criticized Kipanga’s work, particularly the mimicry of accents. In reply, another member of the assembly, R.S Alexander said “I hope we will have more Kipanga’s to mimic and mock us all. In any other country, people like Kipanga are national heroes.”

His hope did not come true and with independence and subsequent governments, Kenyan comedy stagnated, with occasional flames of hilarious lines but nothing of an industry to speak of. But there’s a deep interest in international and American comedy within Kenyan audiences.

The problem is that we don’t have the right training grounds for comedians. As such, most move from joking among friends to trying to get featured onto Churchill Show. It’s an escalation so fast that it doesn’t train versatile, ambitious comedians. For the comedians of yore, the mid-1990s were the start of something new in the art scene. There was Comedy Nite at Carnivore, there were meet-ups and events at British Council and at Kenya National Theatre. These were the training grounds for the second generation of Kenyan comedians and the numerous ones who ended up on radio. They were places where they could try out their material, raw as it was, in crowds small enough to hear a pin drop when the punch line didn’t work.

Kenyan audiences are hungry for proper stand-up comedy, which is why any movie-shop in Nairobi will tell you any Trevor Noah/Kevin Hart special sells almost as fast as episodes of Game of Thrones. This hunger is not just for laugh lines, but for proper content, and proper Kenyan content that is different. Different in that, even if you have to do accents, make it different, own a brand. We do not know exactly what kind of comedy we want, but we know it is not what Kenyan comedians are doing right now.

[Image: Source unknown]

[Image: Source unknown]

Like the UK, the comedy in the US grew rapidly during World War II. Its promotion during the colonial era of native comedy was not accidental, it was pure propaganda. The Independence government did not pick anything from the system it succeeded and did not actively promote comedy as a form of entertainment. Since we are here now, we need to find a way to bring up a culture of comedy and comedic content, and to force comedians to actually appreciate the value of their art.

There are four major international festivals held in the US, Scotland, Canada, and Australia. Other than the festival itself, the events provide the perfect place for industry professionals to scout for new talent. The festival format is supported by a legacy of comedy clubs where comedians try out their art before fickle and needy audiences who will boo you off the stage and walk out if your first three minutes are not eliciting a proper laugh from them.

We need this in Kenya, and Africa. We need to find a way to nurture young comedians through their nascent jokes, and to point out that we do not appreciate hearing jokes we have read online or have heard from popular global comedians. Comedians should not just perform to industry professionals in backrooms and then get forced onto audiences; nay, they should be encouraged to send their work out here, using new media such as YouTube and Facebook to spread their work and get feedback.

One East African comedian who has perfected this is Uganda’s queen of comedy, Anne Kansiime. Her work is all over YouTube, and her website. She uploads new video clips every Tuesday and Friday, and most of them find their way to WhatsApp chats and email inboxes. What you don’t see, of course, are the creative and production teams behind the work. That is the hallmark of a good comedian, getting teams that understand your style and continually make you look good before audiences. Watch Trevor Noah’s latest special and this will make sense.

Anne Kansiime, Uganda's Queen of Comedy [Image from www.herzimbabwe.co.zw

Anne Kansiime, Uganda’s Queen of Comedy
[Image from www.herzimbabwe.co.zw

Unless other comedians use this model, and actively take advantage of the opportunities offered by new media to appeal to a wider audience, Kenyan comedy will remain a peripheral play in the entertainment industry despite its great potential. Perhaps, with proper nurturing and a confirmation of the freedom of expression, we might get our very own Eddie Murphy (who once called Moi the bone carrying head-of-state, not to his face, of course), Lenny Bruce, Chris Rock, Russell Peters and George Carlin.

Something must give, sometime. We need to laugh.

Correction 21st April 2016: An earlier version of this article carried a section that said American comedian W. Kamau Bell was a “Kenyan Export.” A keen reader noticed and pointed out that?Kamau is American but his parents gave him a Kenyan name. That section has been deleted.

Owaahh, 2014.

One Story is good,

Till Another is told.

  • LeighTeabing

    The bane of Kenyan comedy is that they rely too much on tribal accents and stereotypes, rather than intelligent word-play, pun and other themes. This reliance on tribal accents and other ethnic stereotypes is what stifles Kenyan comedy and will limit its growth, as less and less people still have tribal accents, and the stereotypes have ceased to represent who we are

  • Brian Mugo

    The late George Carlin remains my favorite comedian of all time. His jokes are just DARK. They are not the fainthearted. He ridiculed sex, death, religion, family, children, disabled people and other untouchable topics that would lead to a plethora of lawsuits here. We need our own trendsetting Carlin.

  • Victor Riitho

    Joni Nderito was also a remarkable comedian, first to do impressions of moi and the likes… http://www.standardmedia.co.ke/lifestyle/article/2000037748/the-industry-of-laughter

  • gnturibi

    Since then some Internet comedians like Jaymo ule msee have come up. Watching other stand up comedians I’ve noticed similarities with ours in terms of making jokes about race, gender relationships and accents. However a lot of our comedians have closed themselves in an act or character e.g a teacher, policeman or professor and can’t make a wide variety of jokes. Also a lot have to do family comedy and avoid raunchy or vulgar content.

  • Marto Mato

    We have Kipanga Way in Nakuru’s Rhonda Estate and I wonder whether there is a relation with Comedian Kipanga

  • Impressed by the content here. Especially that Kipanga and Colmore are not forgotten.

    • Such legends can never be forgotten Mwarv. This is part One of this piece on comedy, part 2 will come soon.

    • Hi Njambi, thanks for the correction. Do you mind posting the correct ones here? I found those ones on an article on The Guardian.

    • I will take you up on that offer. How much are the gate charges?