Is Ugandan comedy heading in the right direction?

Reaping. Many comedians are beginning to benefit from the art by creating content for Pay TV. PHOTO /COURTESY

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Process by process:  Comedy in Uganda is among the fast growing sectors on the entertainment scene. It has been a gradual process to get to where it is now. Isaac Ssejjombwe explores the comedy industry over the last 10 years to where it is today.

Ten years ago, stand-up comedy was only limited to just a few platforms. There was mic check at Theatre Labonita, Pablo Live and probably Brain Wash of Omukebete, Smart Ayokyayokya, Ken Van Muk, Dickens Perv and Ronnie McVex.

Of course, other platforms such as Theatre Factory (later Fun Factory), Amarula Family and Kandolindoli were practicing skit comedy at various venues around town. Thereafter, other platforms such as The Punchliners sprung up with an entire generation of new comedians. Then Comedy Files at Theatre Labonita opened up and comedy shows became a weekly fixture.

Comedy also rose from just one comedian to comedians performing as duos, so much that today there are a number of duos plying the trade, including Madrat and Chiko, Da Talkers, Maulana and Reign and Maitz Family, among others. 

Also comedy currently is a better recognised art form and comedians are going out of their way to release one man shows and more curated shows such as Africa Laughs, The Ghetto Girl show, The Comedy Black Friday, Arise Woman Comedy Jam, among others.

According to Timothy Nyanzi, a comedian, comedy mentor and trainer, comedians today are respectable individuals in society.

“Comedy is now a career option and it is no longer looked at as an art form for failures. Comedians have made a face for themselves and are hosting events, weddings, radio shows etc. We have comedians representing across borders,” he says.

The art. According to Luswata, a good comedian needs to do a lot of reading, research, have mental commitment and need to be really intelligent. PHOTO /COURTESY

Formation of an association

Five years ago, the Ugandan comedy sector took a decision to start The Uganda Comedians Association (TUCA) that would bring together all comedians under one umbrella.

This was after they were tainted by disorganisation and lack of unity after the death of prominent comedian, King Kong.

Many of the country’s top comedians did not show up at the burial of the fallen comedian and the bashing, especially on social media got two comedians thinking. Patrick ‘Salvado’ Idringi and Hannington Bugingo initiated TUCA.

“After discussing with Salvado about the idea of having a comedians’ association, we reached out to several other comedians who gladly welcomed the idea. A series of meetings were held at Silver Springs Hotel in Bugolobi. The outcome of those meetings was a meeting with legal brains, Silver Kyagulanyi, who further advised on the way forward,” Bugingo says.

Later, the association was registered and launched in Kampala with the committee comprising Emma Napoleon as interim spokesperson, Hannington Bugingo as the interim president, Salvado as the vice president, Abbey Mukiibi as the patron, and Patricko Mujuuka as vice patron. Other members in the association include Kenneth ‘Pablo’ Kimuli, Omukebete, Anne Kansiime, Okello Okello, Richard Tuwangye, Cathy Bagaya, Emma Kakai, Daniel Kalela, Herbert Ssegujja, Alex Muhangi, and Senga Sebbanga among others.

During the launch, Salvado revealed that comedians would be required to pay an annual fee of Shs100,000 to subscribe to the association and in turn TUCA would strive to secure health insurance for all its members and help first time travellers in the comedy business process all travel documents with ease so that they have a smooth time spreading their wings abroad.

Most importantly, one of the biggest issues they wanted to tackle was vulgarity in the business.

Enter television opportunities

Over the past decade, there have been numerous opportunities for Ugandan comedians, including providing a platform for local comedians to showcase their talent, entertain audiences, and gain recognition and financial benefits from their craft and talents.

As early as 2009, renowned comedians Kenneth Kimuli and Idringi, kick-started their careers through M-Net’s Stand-Up Uganda and Comedy Club live. And now Salvado hosts his own annual international comedy show called Africa Laughs, also scheduled to take place in the UK in June, in addition to The Salvado Show that is now in its second season.

Additionally, Fun Factory and Anne Kansiime have benefited from having their shows licensed and commissioned to Pearl Magic and Pearl Magic Prime resulting in economic empowerment for them and their production teams.

Some of the comedy shows currently airing on Pearl Magic Platforms in Uganda in the form of comedy and dramedy include: POPI, Gamyuse, ZIZU, Mizigo Express, Don’t mess with Kansiime, The Salvado Show, The Kojja, Mawube, The Honourables, Akanyoola Bikya and Senkyu Boss.

Rinaldi Jamugisa, the PR and communications manager Multichoice, said they acquire content in two ways; commissioning - where they pay for the full production (end-to-end) and licensing - where they pay for already produced content to air on their platforms for an agreed period with the producer.

These platforms have not only provided financial gains to the comedians and those working on the show sets but have also contributed to building and amplifying the comedians’ profiles. As a result, they have become highly sought-after personalities within the Ugandan and international communities.

However, Nyanzi feels there is more to be done as he feels TV has not necessarily embraced comedy.

“We still do not have satire and late night TV shows. Comedians are in very few commercials. And we do not have comedy sitcoms and TV shows. All these are spaces comedians can feed off to increase their reach and mileage,” he says.

Sponsorship deals

With the growth of every sector, there is an attraction from corporate companies and the comedy industry has been at centre stage in the last couple of years, getting sponsorship deals.

Hillary Baguma, the brand manager mainstream spirits at Uganda Breweries Limited, said because Ugandans are naturally jovial and humorous people, they are leveraging comedy as a vehicle through which they can bring Ugandans together under the spirit of laughter and togetherness.

“This support is also driven by our long and demonstrable history of support towards the country’s creative industry and the recognition of the fact that this sector is one of the most vibrant on the continent – contributing to the economy mainly through the provision of employment for a sizeable number of creatives including comedians. We thus took this as an opportunity to provide a platform for talented Ugandan comedians to showcase and demonstrate their skills for the country and the world to see to help nurture their career growth,” Baguma says.

Has comedy lost identity?

Despite the positive growth in the last 10 years, Phillip Luswata, a playwright, actor, director and lecturer in theatre and film who has been in comedy for 20 years believes people have lost an understanding of what comedy is.

“Comedy is a very intelligent craft because it is not easy to get how people think, how people view life today and turn it on its head. What makes people laugh is seeing something they know so well turned on its head and for you to be able to deliver that, you need to do a lot of reading, research, have mental commitment and need to be really intelligent,” he said.

The founder of Theatre Factory that gave birth to Fun Factory added that what people have gotten used to ‘is dealing with things that actually embarrass people’.

“That instead of the audience getting an enlightened laugh, they are having an embarrassed laugh,” he says.

Call for government intervention

After the launch of TUCA, comedians wrote to President Museveni requesting him to look into some of their issues involving finance, the tax on gadgets and assistance in the theft of copyrights. They also requested for a stimulus package for creative industries.

The President is said to have directed the permanent secretary, Minister of Gender, Labour, and Social Development to be the contact person in dealing with all the issues raised in the memorandum. He also directed the Minister of Finance, Planning, and Economic Development to study the document and report to cabinet.

No action has been taken since, with Nyanzi saying the government has failed to embrace comedy fully.

“Performance spaces and venues are few and very limited. And we still do not have national arts festivals to spotlight the numerous talents that we have in the country today. Also there is no entertainment ministry to vouch and push for policies that can further the craft,” he says.

What the future holds

Nyanzi says in comedy, the smaller shows make the big shows and that comedians need to embrace new material and open mic nights because that is the only way they will keep the quality of comedy up.

He also advises that comedy needs to expand from just Kampala to other parts of the country and that a comedian needs to be able to do a one man show and tour it all over the country.