Making laughs for a living

The business of making laughs has been in Kenya for a long time. Local comedy has evolved from the days of Mzee Pembe and Mama Tofi, to the present-day Nyengese and Reddykyulass

Long before the Reddykyulass group came to the scene, Mzee Pembe, Tamaa bin Tamaa, Kipanga Athumani, Mama Tofi and their colleagues reigned large with hilarious shows that sent packed halls into raucous laughter.

In the years following independence and as late as the 1980s, these performing artistes were then the undisputed masters of stand-up comedy and took their social satire to most parts of the country.

The pioneering actors and actresses operated in a difficult environment that required a high degree of creativity for them to survive and succeed.

Most of this early crop of comedians had little interest in Shakespearean comedy, and their acts were basically about social interactions in the country, although some of them had subtle political messages.

Mzee Pembe and his group were among the first Black Africans to perform plays on television and to enjoy a wider national audience, although TV ownership was limited to an extremely small number of people in the 1960s.

Plays like Korti ya Kiberenge (Kiberenge's court), Jamii ya Mzee Pembe (Mzee Pembe's family), Mzee Domo (Old Mr. Domo), and Kivunja Mbavu (rib cracker), were the toast of local theatre, drawing a largely African audience due to relevance of the comedies to the local social environment.

But as good as the groups were, political satire was out of the question. The banning of one of Mzee Domo in 1967, due to fear that it could be interpreted to be poking fun at President Jomo Kenyatta, sent a strong message to other performers that political satire would not be entertained by the government.

Mzee Domo was discontinued from the airwaves on the Voice of Kenya (VOK), the only TV station in the country then.

In the absence of any formal training in acting, the artistes relied on their natural skills and their ability to recreate the Kenyan social scene as sharpened by years of interaction with a cross-section of Kenyans.

I remember watching one episode of Jamii Ya Mzee Pembe in Embu during my childhood in the 1970s, and leaving the hall with a pain in my side after an hour of rib-cracking humour, effortlessly delivered by an unusual ensemble of men and women.

To most of the earlier groups, humour was a way of life, and it came so natural. There was little money to be made from acting then, and their main motivation was tickling people with their satirical look at society.

Whereas the Mzee Pembe and Tamaa bin Tamaa group ruled the 1960s and 1970s, the 1980s belonged to Mzee Ojwang and his highly entertaining group that comprised, among others, Othorong'ongo Danger, Mama Kayai, Amka Twende, Masanduku and Maliwaza.

Television, by then, had become a more common item in households and social halls across the country, and humorous shows like Vioja Mahakamani and Vitimbi were the most watched programmes on the national television channel, KBC.

Children and adults gathered in social centres across the country to watch the group's hilarious courtroom dramas and other comical depictions of social Kenya.

Mzee Ojwang, the family patriarch, played the role of a typical traditional African male — harsh, ruthless, unforgiving and disciplinarian, sometimes excessively so, using his shrill voice and small, flexible frame to great effect, and always leaving the audience in stitches.

The Vitimbi and Vioja Mahakamani groups were propelled to national fame, thanks to wider TV reach that gave them unrivalled audience across the country, but nonetheless brought them little financial benefits.

According to Mathayo Keya, famously known as Makhoha, and one of the new faces of Vioja Mahakamani, the pay is still low, but he can at least feed his family and take his children to school. "Money doesn't flow in much, but we manage somehow," he says.

The Vitimbi and Vioja Mahakamani shows of the 1980s and early 1990s were a must watch for most Kenyans, with their humour about family life being discussed in homes and offices for days after the episode. The use of Kiswahili in the shows further widened their appeal. They are still popular to date, often getting invited to national day celebrations and other public functions.

At the same time, other genres of comedy also gained popularity in the theatres, with groups like Phoenix Players performing a lot of Western comedies that appealed to a certain class of Kenyans.

But the local comedy scene fully matured in the 1990s, enjoying a much wider freedom and audience, with its appeal moving from TV and theatre halls to the streets and entertainment spots.

Groups like Kachumbari, Reddykyulass and Nyengese, and individuals like Joni Nderitu took zany humour to a completely new level, one that was characterised by absurd satire and hitherto unimaginable mimicry of local politicians, including then President Daniel arap Moi.

Street comedian David Njunguna Kiarie (Nyengese) was in a class of his own. Wearing female dresses, and often posing as a pregnant woman, he would fire absurd humour to cheer lunch hour crowds on Nairobi streets.

Then Reddykyulass emerged as masters of political comedy. The group, comprised of Walter Mongare (Nyambane), Tony Njunguna and John Kiarie (KJ) took political humour to a completely different level of comical absurdity.

They instantly became a household name with their satirical mimicry of politicians like Joseph Kamotho, Raila Odinga and Moi, sending TV audiences and crowds at entertainment joints wild with laughter.

All of a sudden, the hitherto feared president became a common fixture in local comedy scenes, with the Reddykyulass trio entertaining people with highly synchronised lingala jigs. The incredulous sight of the "president" dancing so well to Lingala tunes, complete with his famous "rungu" ( baton) in hand, was always a winner with audiences.

"Political satire was a complete no go area before then. There was no way any one could think of playing President Moi. It was simply unimaginable," says comedian Daniel Abednego.

Surprisingly, observes Abednego, those political satires made Moi even more popular and gave him a softer and more humorous image. "I think at some point he even enjoyed the shows," he says.

Abednego belonged to the In-tru-kalass comedy group that featured on Nation TV for several months. He says the opening up of political space gave comedians and other actors more room to exploit their talent without thinking of repercussions.

But again, he says, sustaining comedy is pretty hard in this part of the world because most comedians rely on their own resources to write scripts, produce shows and act as well, unlike in the West, where they are heavily backed by production companies.

However, political satire changed the face of Kenyan comedy and invigorated the industry, attracting more people to theatre halls and other venues and improving the fortunes of artistes. All of a sudden, socio-political comedy had became a classical act.

The success of groups like Reddykulass in the first couple of years of their existence also drew more young men and women into stand-up comedy, with new groups sprouting in parts of the country and earning a living from acting.

The proliferation of TV and radio stations in late 1990s and 2000, presented more opportunities in radio and TV for comedians.

The emerging stations gave stand up comedians and other actors an opportunity to earn a decent living, says Abednego, currently employed as a presenter on Classic 105.

Political satirists like Reddykyulass, also became so popular that local video shops recorded their shows and sold the cassettes.

From the days of Mzee Pembe, performing under a tightly controlled political and social system, to Reddykyulass, operating in a much more open society, Kenyan comedy has indeed come full cycle.