Kenyan comedy has gone through many cycles and phases. Although there’s still a popular opinion among comedy critics that Kenya’s comedy industry is still an infant, it has experienced decades of evolution. In the early days, you had to have some sort of talent, such as acting or singing, mixed with humour.
When national broadcaster Voice of Kenya (VOK) now Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) started shows such as Vioja Mahakamani
and Vitimbi in the 80s, natural actors including Benson Wanjau aka Mzee Ojwang, Sammy Muya alias Masanduku arap Simiti, Charles Kimani Kangara aka Masaku and Joseph Anyonga alias Othoron’gon’go (all departed) brought something different to our screens. Their humourous wit while giving entertainment was unrivalled. They were geniuses at what they did.
Arguably, these were some of the earliest personalities to grace the local acting and comedy industries. What they gave their enthusiastic fans was natural humour that was laced with real life experiences that a majority of their audience related to.
This generation of veteran comedians literally carried the industry on their shoulders for three decades, until new and much younger talent blossomed towards the turn of millennium.
In the year 2000, Redykyulass became one of the most popular TV comedy show in the country. The crew comprised of Walter Mong’are (Nyambane), John Kiarie (KJ) and Anthony Njuguna.
They brought into the scenes a new comedy flavour, different from what their predecessors in Vitimbi and Vioja offered. The trio played dress-up — complete with hairdo, make-up and voices — to mimic the characters they wanted to portray while satirising everyday political and social issues and events.
Unfortunately, the trio fizzled out and the individuals took different career paths, after serving comedy close to a decade. At this point, Kenyan comedy industry seemed a fading dream, but one Daniel Ndambuki popularly known as Churchill took the reins and stepped into the big shoes left behind by Redykyulass.
A decade later, Churchill has become the enigma and face of Kenyan comedy. His TV show, Churchill Show (formerly Churchill
Live), has graced the screens for years. In the course of ensuring the industry stayed alive, Churchill has nurtured many new age comic acts such as Eric Omondi, Chipukeezy, YY, Sleepy David, Mammito, Professor Hamo, Teacher Wanjiku, Sleepy David, David The Student, among many others. Years down the line, this new breed of comedians, under the tutelage of emblematic Churchill, has given life to Kenya’s standup comedy.
In this age and era, however, more and more comedians are venturing into the digital world of comedy, taking advantage of the huge penetration of Internet in the country. Digital in the sense that social media has become the go-to platform to showcase their craft. Here, they post anything and everything comical hoping (not a guarantee though) that the online community would lend an ear to their posts.
Through this, we have witnessed more comedians emerge on the scenes as digital content creators to offer entertainment away from the traditional platforms of TV and theatre. For instance, Terence Creative started off as a standup comedian who introduced short video clips on social media, but the strategy did not pick up pace as expected.
Years later, Terence is one of the most viewed comedians in Kenya on social media site Instagram, where he goes by the name Kamami. On that platform alone, he has more than 14,000 subscribers.
A lot of young and up-and-coming comedians are embracing such digital platforms to build a name for themselves in the comedy world. Fast-rising Kayole-based comedy sensation Kartelo Mgaza Mpole is a perfect example of online success.
He has shown utter ability to play with words relatable to his target audience in a language they can better understand, Sheng. Kartelo has been quoted saying he attended 800 auditions in his bid to break into the mainstream comedy. That was before he found the gem that is online, which catapulted him to instant fame.
Comedian Eric Omondi says that nowadays almost everyone owns a phone with Internet access, making digital content on the go become easier than before to access.
“I am always on the road and news pop up at any time. That way, I can create content fast,” he says, adding that he actively advises comedians to invest in digital content creation because it is cost-effective and could be done anytime and anywhere, as long one has a phone and Internet.
There are also plenty of benefits for digital content creators, with many of them using it as their main platform to build a profile. Comedian Oliver Otieno aka YY set up a spoof comedy satirical show where he imitates the Adventist community. Through social media, he has built up an enormous traction, coupled by his huge online fans. However, he doesn’t believe that traditional live stand-up comedy is obsolete just yet.
He tells Spice: “I think that the online comedy has been able to accommodate everyone, which is a good thing, although we cannot yet discredit TV as it validates an artiste.”
MCA Tricky, a popular comedian on Churchill Show has countless viral social media videos. He established himself as a stand-up comedian and ventured into the digital platform later. According to him, the online business has birthed a new era for comedy and should be welcomed by all means.
“Traditional media will always be there so to speak, but we (comedians) are open to new opportunities. Currently, digital content is selling better than TV and that’s why most comedians have somehow diverted their focus more towards it,” he says.
Comedian Mulamwah uses Instagram as his main platform to showcase his art. He has more than 100,000 followers and generally accumulates 10,000 viewers per post. He believes the respect for traditional comedy such as stand-up is declining.
“I once tried my luck at a famous stand-up comedy show, but I had to go through a long process just to get a slot. This challenged me to try doing things differently and that’s when the idea to try doing my comedy online came.
I have never regretted making the move,” Mulamwah says, adding that TV is limited; in that show makers look for specific colours and voices, which adds to the misery.
Seth Gor aka King of Vines says, “I do not know the last time I watched TV. We are all glued on our phones just to watch the craziest and funniest clips. As for TV, there is a long process for us comedians, but there is free and limitless opportunities on social media for our kind of content.”
He adds that in as much as the traditional media is struggling, some audience, especially in the rural areas, still prefer it compared to online platforms as they have limited access to the Internet.
From the interactions, the comedy industry in Kenya is still growing and with the many changes continuing to emerge, especially technological, the future looks promising as the evolution continues.