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The tragic side of Kenyan comedy of errors



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I do not know if I am the only one who cries instead of laughing whenever I watch a Kenyan comedy. I know of those who believe that local comedy has come of age.

With the splendour and glamour that came with the 2018 Kalasha Awards, some pundits have already started talking of a renaissance in Kenyan film and theatre industry that will see us claim our place in the world of theatre and film.

Indeed, this nation has not exploited the potential in the creative industries, but to say that we have broken the barriers that hinder our growth in this field is to overstate things. We are at a nascent stage at best.

There are many youngsters who want to make a living in the creative industries. Were it not for the fact that we do not value the arts, we would be richer than we are.

We have not harnessed the potential in the industry as has been done elsewhere. Let us take the case of the USA.

The creative industries contribute over $800 billion to the economy annually. It even surpasses the contribution of agriculture. It is possible to make creative industries surpass what we make from coffee, flowers and tea put together.

It is worth noting that for some time in Kenya, we have had renewed interest in theatre arts in our universities and now virtually each one of them is struggling to start a theatre and film studies department. I have a testimony on this.

At a tender age of nine, my own son vowed that he would go to university to study acting. He is now a theatre arts and film studies student at Kenyatta University.

But I digress. Let me leave the broad examination of the potential of the industry for another day. I wish to focus on only one genre: Comedy that is aired on our TV and radio stations.

I think if the purpose of comedy is to elicit laughter, then our kind of comedies only elicit agonising laughter. To a large extent they are crude and rudimentary in all respects. This is something that we need to rectify urgently.

Our comedy is an art that relies on nothing more than ethnic stereotyping. At its best, it panders to our idiosyncrasy with no effort to satirise them.

I have sampled virtually all of them starting, of course, with Daniel Ndambuki’s Churchill Show, which has provided the template used by all the others.

In my view, our clowns and tramps are neither humorous nor entertaining to civilised minds.

They, at best, appear on stage as pathetic creatures driven, not by ideology and knowledge, but their own ignorance of the purpose of their art and existence.

I have a feeling that if we outlaw ethnic stereotyping, then Kenyan comedy would come tumbling down like the house of cards that it is.

We can very easily describe the structural schemata of the crude humour that our artists endeavour to present.

Let us first look at the category of those who operate on the radio platform, especially in the mornings. You must have noticed that every radio station is struggling to have one.

This group relies on our inability to express ourselves competently in Kiswahili or English because of our mother tongue influence.

The clowns are made to act like idiots in the true sense of the word by being incoherent, unreasonable and overtly ridiculous.

There is yet another category that exploits matters sexual which often degenerates into obscenities.

The television comedians follow the same script, but because of the advantage of using the audio and visual medium, they try to bring the ethnic stereotypes on stage by profiling members of various communities as being greedy, thieves, proud and so on.

They also dip into the dietary culture of various ethnicities and attempt to ridicule them in a manner that is highly insensitive.

If I may ask, what is so humorous about saying that some of us eat ugali, mokimo, githeri, chicken or fish?

It appears that the producers of the shows seem not to know the uniting power of comedy.

They seem to have no idea of our historical realities and have never reflected seriously on their responsibilities, especially when dealing with the question of language and identity.

To them, we should rather speak English the way the British do. They blame victims of imperialism and ignore the serious issues of our time.

Ultimately, we are being treated to drama that is shameful and shallow and which can only appeal to the uneducated and unsophisticated mind.

This “morbid comedy” does not ridicule the individuals’ excesses in society, but mocks our integrity and our existence as a nation of nations.

Why do our comedians make me cry instead of laugh? The humour is irrational and intellectually empty.

I suspect this is because they rarely do their homework. This is visible from their display of minimal understanding of ramifications of sophisticated humour.

A fractured country like Kenya needs humour that enlivens and stimulates us to reflect on our lives.

I should dare say that what is funny about our comical efforts on TV or radio is that there is nothing funny about it.

If our humour has to be useful, then it has to confront our problematic history of injustices and our appetite for thieving rather than intensify and foreground ethnic stereotypes and prejudices.

It should help redefine our relationships as a people rather than widen the rifts between different peoples.

To situate our humour in the ignorant world of those whose lives are controlled by myths about other peoples and use it to intensify their fears is to be irresponsible.

Where is the aesthetic experience when you laugh, not at the person who believes that members of a given community are thieves, but instead foreground this fallacy as true?

I think our humour ought to be ideological. We should see it as a change agent rather than art for its own sake which does not satirise evil, but rather exalts it.

We probably need to organise a gathering of stakeholders in academia, radio and television stations among others to debate the science of comedy.

The excuse of giving the public what it wants negates our agenda-setting responsibilities.

Kabaji is a professor of literary communication and the Deputy Vice-Chancellor in charge of Planning, Research and Innovation at Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology. E-mail [email protected]