If laughter is the best medicine, are we getting an overdose?

Left is Daniel Omara. Patrons in a club enjoy a dose of comedy. Photos by Edgar R. Batte and Ismail Kezaala

Take a walk around Kampala city on any night and you can be assured of catching a comedy night in town on any day of the week. All the major theatres in town have a weekly dose of comedy and the bars will not be left out. It is definitely one way to hook a big crowd.

It is also big business.
Currently, about seven popular outfits carry themselves as comedy groups. A few individual comedians are also plying their trade around. In fact, sometimes, it feels like too many outfits have suddenly mushroomed and are trying to make a quick buck as long as the idea of comedy for entertainment is appreciated and deemed as trendy by many audiences. While it feels like this form of entertainment has only just sprouted, it started way back in the 70s.

“Comedians of the 1970s like Christopher Mukiibi and Jakana Nsereko pioneered comedy with short comedy skits. They were never given their due attention yet they were very good,” Kato Lubwama, himself a comedian says.
“Aroma Sezibwa was a one-man act and did comedy in the 1970s and 1980s. He was expressive and really good but unfortunately it was a few people who paid attention to him,” Abbey Mukiibi an actor and comedian recollects.
Comedy in Uganda only began to get attention in the 1990s.

“Amarula Family was the first comedy group in Uganda and I was the founder,” Paddy Bitama states.
He and Allan Amooti alias Amooti Omubaranguzi started out as a singing duo in 1994 going by the stage names Menton Paddy and Boogie Woogie but Bitama notes that even as budding artistes they were more popular for their funny antics on stage than the singing they did, which was largely mimicry.

“So one day I and Amooti went visiting at a friend’s place and watched Mr Bean do his funny skits. I liked what I saw and began convincing Amooti that we do the same. He had reservations, arguing that comedy was expensive but I told him we could still do it on a low scale and within our means,” Bitama recounts.

Amarula Family, the stand-up comedy outfit, was born three years later, in 1997, by these two friends. Eddie Kigere joined them two years later and in 2000 Nicholas Mpeirwe alias Messe also joined the group. Just like the comedians at Akandolindoli Comedy Night, when Amarula Family set out to do comedy they were targeting the Luganda speaking crowd. “We were looking at a Luganda speaking audience and the basis of our comedy was social life, politics and relationships,” Bitama shares. Today they perform at T1 sports bar very Wednesday, California bar on Thursdays and Hot Spice in Rubaga on Fridays.
Through the years, they have made an effort to make a case for comedy. “Every year we host an annual Amarula show dubbed Akabadi which we fuse with music,” Messe adds.

This basis helped new groups form.
Theatre Factory was the next main outfit to follow in July 2003 when Phillip Luswata, who was then a teaching assistant at the Music Dance and Drama department in Makerere University, started acting with his students at Club TLC on George Street. The group was quite a success. Perhaps inevitably, a breakaway soon followed in the name of Fun Factory in January 2010 and they too have also enjoyed some popularity.

But the mushrooming of the numerous outfits we have now, started in 2009 when Dstv held a stand-up competition for potential comedians which Pablo (Kenneth Kimuli), an established comedian, won. “After the competition, through the mobilisation of Patrick Idringi who was first runner-up, Alex Muhangi, Daniel Omara and myself came together and hatched The Crackers who only after a few weeks started performing at Effendys - Centenary Park on Wednesdays,” Emmanuel Ssebakigye says.
They have since moved to Theatre La Bonita after the numbers grew and they failed to resolve administrative issues with Effendy’s owner.

The popular outfits currently performing in different parts of the city are Theatre Factory that performs at National Theatre (main auditorium) every Thursday, Fun Factory that performs at Hotel Africana (poolside) every Thursday, Mic Check that perform at Theatre La Bonita every Wednesday and Akandolindoli at Red Night Pub (Bat Valley Theatre) every Tuesday.
There are also been individuals who have either broken up from groups or started on their own to hold performances at functions. Pablo, who used to perform at Effendys bar but now performs at corporate gigs, is one of them. Herbert Mendo Segujja, the comedian who mimics President Museveni, is also another popular act.

Vulgarity dominates
The sprouting of various outfits means the audiences have a lot to choose from. It also means though, that there are too many cooks in the kitchen. Andrew Whalley, a seasoned playwright and media trainer from Zimbabwe, who comes to the country every now and then, thinks comedy in Uganda has lost its aroma.

“It gets boring. You will not go for four straight comedy shows and not listen to the same ethnic and obscene jokes,” he says, telling of the usual menu at almost every comedy night in town. What he is says is quite true. You might not impress your moralistic friend or partner if you take them to some of the comedy nights in town. Most of our comedians think that dirty jokes are the way to go, after all “the crowd keeps laughing at the jokes”, a few argue.

“It is escapism. Some comedians will prepare something serious but when jokes don’t work out, their fall back position is to become vulgar which is embarrassing,” comedian and actor, Luswata says. Mukiibi, the brainchild behind Akandolindoli comedy sessions at Red Nite Pub at Bat Valley Theatre, agrees.

“Some people have stooped too low. Many of the comedians would like to copy American comedy. We have a different set of values and comedy per se is not about being vulgar. You can have clean comedy. I am not as natural as Kato Lubwama but I am creative,” he argues.

But Deborah Kisakye, a fan of comedy nights who watches all outfits argues that the crowd loves the dirty jokes and given the fact that they take place at night, it is clear the crowd that attends them is adult. “Plus, these comedians mirror society, otherwise tabloids would have long run out of business since they offer more or less the same product in the sense of obscenity,” she states.

Fun Factory’s Richard Tuwangye explains that the setting has everything to do with what kind of jokes you’ll hear.
“If it is done in the bar and people are drunk they won’t mind the vulgarity,” he argues. He is quick to admit that there are times when comedians experience ‘burnout’; they run out of jokes.

Lubwama thinks that comedians are not engaging their creative faculties hard enough. “They lack creative power, the more reason they ought to build structures to allow creative teams to help them out,” he says. Another problem is the repetition.

If you are a regular at the weekly comedy offerings, you will agree jokes are often told and retold. Pablo admits to repeating jokes to different crowds. “I know a joke told twice is never funny so we need to take time and challenge ourselves to do more research. For the record, I will only repeat my jokes to different crowds. I repeated many at A night of 1,000 laughs, in Nairobi,” he confesses.

However, Bitama finds no fault with jokes being repeated. “It’s true we repeat our jokes. Who told the audience that jokes shouldn’t be repeated? There’s someone new in the audience every week so we have every reason to retell the jokes. Does Bobi Wine unveil a new song every time he goes on stage?” he asks. Many of the comedians agree their trade feeds off from what is happening in society. “I need to look at what’s happening around me, read the newspapers, research on the internet and see what happens in my life, all constitute material for my skits,” Fun Factory’s Hannington Bugingo says of the source of their jokes.

Money making trade
Perhaps the comedians are getting comfortable given the big turn-up at their weekly fetes. The truth is they are raking in good money. The Crackers attract an average 750-people crowd where revellers part with Shs5,000 and Shs10,000 for VIP seating. “Approximately 750 people show us love by coming to laugh every Wednesday,” Ssebakigye says. This could earn them between Shs4-5m on Wednesday night at Theatre La Bonita.

Bugingo says their last crowd consisted of approximately 600 people where each paid Shs10,000 to watch. This earned them Shs6m. You will pay the same charges to be part of the crowd at Akandolindoli every Tuesday where Mukiibi says they attract up to 1,000 people when Red Night Pub is packed to capacity. This would earn them Shs10m. Theatre Factory’s administrative director Julius Lugaaya was uncomfortable revealing figures of how many people actually pay apart from the complementary tickets they give to their fans.

Pablo has cut out another niche to earn off his talent. “We ceased running a weekly comedy night. We were warned that our comedy was political and interfering with security so I chose to take my comedy to the people. So we work with corporate companies where we work with the Human Resource managers and entertain employees,” he explains.
He charges Shs3m for these shows for now before he goes back on air with the second edition of the Pablo Live show in November.

But even with money coming in, Luswata says that comedians cannot afford to sit on their laurels because they still have a lot of work to do to keep earning. “Our audience is becoming more and more critical. We need to build structures and stop planning for the immediate. Very many groups will rehearse for a show earlier that week but we need to move beyond that,” Luswata advises.

Mukiibi preaches the same message: “Audiences cannot afford to experiment with their money. Comedy is about fun and humour and we should give that to the people.” Lubwama criticises comedians for being self-limiting. “Comedy is not all about skits and stand-up. We can create silent comedy like Mr Bean’s. This formats works wonders. Put me on stage with Kwezi Kaganda any day and you’ll know how much comedy hasn’t been exposed,” he argues.

He adds that situational comedy has not been exploited well enough because comedians are rushing to put up a weekly show.
That said, the business has indeed grown and spawned many groups. “13 years on I have created jobs and trained comedians and I am now thinking of the Uganda Comedy Awards later on this year,” Bitama states.

Whether this type of entertainment shall continue to hold its allure and hook the crowds depends on the comedians themselves. If they seek to re-invent the wheel constantly and work hard at putting out good performances, they should be able to maintain their grip on the people. If they do not, they stand to lose out.