The Profit-making Template in Kenyan Comedy

This article shines a spotlight on the Kenyan comedy industry and explores the complexities between creative freedom and the conditions that often come with sources of external funding.

…legitimacy can only be ideological. It is ‘night school,’ as Ousmane Sembene memorably put it, or – toquote Oumarou Ganda – it is ‘a book which is, par excellence, read by everyone.’ A good film will be a useful film, but does a useful film necessarily make a good film? (Barlet 2000: 43)

Under the title “The Duty to Show” Barlet’s (2000) essay throws its readers into the thick of a debate surrounding the monetary ‘unproftabilities’ of the endeavor of film making. The argument that gains the greatest of currencies is that the creation of art in Africa is an expensive, almost worthless venture, since there is not much buying power in its citizenry. Entrepreneurs who go into film, television, or theatre productions often seek funding from external sources in order to break even. The funding, as discussed extensively in Odhiambo’s (2008) text Theatre for Development in Kenya, habitually comes with strings attached. The end results are works of art whose sophistry, aesthetic appeal, and general taste is severely compromised by the anxious need to appease the funding organizations.

Where artists are ‘unfortunate’ not to get funds from sponsors for their artistic projects,they scrounge for monetary, human and other resources from their friends, relatives and volunteers but more often than not, return home empty handed, haunted by the massive losses incurred in their projects. How then can such artists justify their work?How can the ones funded claim to be ‘doing well’ while they are steeped in moments of utter disappointment when their artistry is sacrificed for the often shortsighted needs of their sponsors? To come to terms with their daily struggles, Barlet (2000)argues, both these sets of artists shape a view of themselves as prophets, teachers and philosophers. Their art ceases merely to be seen as art but more as tools of emancipation, through conscientization, teaching, preaching, and advocating for moral uprightness. But does this kind of the legitimization of art and its place in society make sense? Why can’t art merely be for its own sake? When art loses its utilitarian tag in Africa will it become worthless?

In the case of what can be termed the Kenyan comedy industry, a multitude of ambivalent issues arise out of the relationship between wielders, investors, or potential “makers” of the money on the one hand and the creative workers that piece together the comedy as an artwork on the other. When viewed as a commodity that can be packaged for profit-making, comedy is tethered within a tried and tested circumference and is not allowed any room for fresh injections of ideas or experimentation. Similarly, when organizations or companies utilize comedy as are source in their outreach practices within “theatre for community development,”for example, they are only interested in what works for their purposes and detest or discourage the employ of new approaches. David Kerr (1996) in his book titled African Popular Theatre illustrates on numerous occasions the formulaic and seemingly unchanging nature of works within the realm of comedy. Patronage, argues Odhiambo(2008), deals a big blow to the artistic freedom that is essential in the recreation of works towards new modes or fresher material. This lack of growth of comedy as an artwork in turn eventually impacts on the potential profits that it can return to the investors who see it as a commodity for sale.

Vioja Mahakamani becomes an important programme in our inspection of the interesting relationships between forces of commerce and those of art in the trade that is Kenyan comedy. The programme’s episodes parody typical Kenyan court sessions.The literal meaning of the Kiswahili title “Vioja Mahakamani” is “drama in court.”The story lines are dominated by characters that are struggling to ft within an urban setting that is constantly shifting and therefore challenging and difficult to understand.These characters in their quest to circumvent the hustles of a complex and unforgiving urban setting resort sometimes to “rural” habits that are more familiar to them. While trying to better their contemporary urban dwellers who are seen as competitive and better placed to acquire the rewards of understanding the urban space, some of the characters employ trickery. But the law, through the programme’s court proceedings becomes the restorer of the order destroyed by these characters’ devious ways. Some of the errors that these characters are tried for include: “kucheza karata” (unlicensed gambling), stealing by pretence, assault, urinating in public, unlicensed sale of animal products such as meat and milk, the storage and sale of petrol within residential areas,even noise pollution among others.

Having been on air for three decades, Vioja Mahakamani has developed a bag of tricks whose contents have created a pattern for Kenyan comedy. This Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) programme has thrived on the basis of three distinct “internal”elements:

a) A deliberate pitting of confused and ignorant characters against the confident and knowledgeable others.

b) A deliberate use of characters that have identifiable Kiswahili accents based on the various Kenyan ethnicities.

c) Visual exaggeration in the design of characters’ dress, make up as well as in the actors’ facial expressions, gestures and movement.

Granted, these elements play within certain stereotypic schemes or views on perceived habits, practices, thought patterns, or interests of various groups of people based on“tribe,” class, age or profession. The elements are meant to appeal directly to an audience and are couched within a language that is directly accessible. The deliberately amusing names of characters whether through pronunciation or literal meanings, for example, excite audiences toward the oncoming comical servings which often play along formulated stereotypes: Ondiek Nyuka Kwota Olobaa Man Gidi, Tamaa binTamaa Tii Tii, Ojwang’ Mang’ang’a Sibuor, or Masanduku Arap Simiti (literally; boxes,son of cement).

These internal elements of Vioja Mahakamani have formed a template which is now employed by almost all the new entrants into the Kenyan comedy scene, be they live, screened or audio performances. FM radio stations have, for instance, borrowed the idea of the buffoon-like character whose ignorance or exaggerated reaction to events become comical presentations to audiences. “Breakfast shows” by these radio stations have adopted the Vioja Mahakamani approach in which the accused, in the court cases, often fumble in their ignorance of the law and whose confusion in the light of the accusations leveled against them by the prosecutor become the programme’s toast. In the FM stations, the ignorant and confused character exaggerates his situation but is directed into more or less of his comical antics by a presenter who is serious,knowledgeable and who works as a go-between that links the buffoon to the listeners.

Popular latter day television comedy programmes such as Inspector Mwala, and Papa Shirandula follow a similar pattern to Vioja Mahakamani. Inspector Mwala parodies the daily occurrences at a police station in which the inspector, who is the main character, is confronted by challenges such as physical height and the attendant attitudes associated with it. It pokes fun at the system of policing in a direct way, again with the employ of ethnic spiced accents as a source of the humor. Exaggeration, over the top plots and characterization are the main features in Inspector Mwala, a trend which has also been applied in Papa Shirandula. As audiences, we are boxed into forming attitudes about characters from the Kiswahili accents that are exaggerated to suggest their ethnic origin. A landlord in Papa Shirandula for instance employs a heavy Kikuyu accent and her demands for rent are quite elaborated and play within the stereotyped view of the Kikuyu as a lover of money. The main character, Papa Shirandula, is a watchman and seems comfortable in his role which again seems to play within the stereotyped idea that Luhya accented people are “watchmen or cooks” (famously repeated by are known Kenyan politician in the late 1990s.)

Is it possible to have comedy performed without the tried and tested “internal”elements described here? Mheshimiwa, a comedy aired on Kenya Television Network(KTN) has veered slightly off the Vioja Mahakamani path although it maintains certain elements. Churchill (2009), which has a good reception on Nation Television (NTV)has created a path of its own albeit with shades of ethnic spiced accents coming into play. The main interest here is to suggest that while comedies following in the mould of Vioja Mahakamani’s “internal” elements are seemingly successful, in terms of getting funding within the larger education-entertainment enterprise, or in terms of getting massive audiences when on live performance tours, they nevertheless are limiting in terms of potential. Producers, or investors within comedy are afraid of trying new modes of performance styles that while not immediately rewarding may open new frontiers that may turn the industry into a larger, more serious and eventually profit worthy enterprise. The argument here is that the industry will profit more if producers allow themselves to be risk takers and therefore experiment with new material or styles of acting. This will turn the Kenyan comedy industry into a more versatile venture that eventually will employ more people, earn greater profits as well as extend the boundaries of reception into discovering new audiences.

The Profit-making Template in Kenyan Comedy

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