Every human life makes for an incredible story. The human spirit is a bottomless goldmine of stories about resilience, bravery, dreams and life. It goes without saying that all human stories are equal, but a handful of stories are more equal than others. Joseph Opio’s story is one such story.
The story is such an anomaly that it forces you to rethink everything you know. And here’s why: here is a man that was born in the same country as you, brought up in the same socio-historic mess as you, speaks with the same rough accent as you because he went to the same sort of schools as you. But while you remain in the wilderness of averageness, he is in the promised land, on top of the world smiling down on you.
Joseph Opio is a Ugandan comedian, based in Manhattan, New York City, and writes for The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. When you consider that his rise to the top is not as a result of his arts degree from an Ivy League university (because there’s none), you get lost in wonderment. When you find out that up until five years ago Opio had never been outside Uganda, you realize this is no ordinary story.
Today, the comedian, only in his mid 30s earns anywhere between $40,000 to $100,000 a week. This (according to the internet) is the starting rate for newcomers like him on shows like that. And with the Emmy nomination this year, coupled with the fact that he recently made five years on the show, Opio’s weekly paycheck could be many times higher than the amount mentioned above.
Opio the journalist
Opio started out writing for The New Vision’s sports pages in the year 2000. He was in Senior four vacation at the time, transitioning from Namilyango College to Makerere College School.
“I started writing for The New Vision at 17, during my S.4 vacation. Drunk on teenage confidence, I just rocked up at The New Vision offices and smugly declared that I could write better than anyone at the Sports Desk. Ah, the brazen impertinence of youth! Fortunately, the then Sports Editor, Louis Jadwong, didn’t immediately call security on me. He decided to call my bluff instead. Luckily for both of us, I wasn’t all hat and no cattle. Turns out, I could actually string two English words together, after all,” Opio says.
Opio’s articles soon proved something of a delicacy because of his deep understanding of both language and sports. That and a healthy dose of humor in his articles earned him a ravenous following in the sports fraternity.
You would think juggling A Level studies and writing for a newspaper would dent his performance in the final exam but you’d be wrong. At the end of his senior six in 2002, Opio emerged one of the top five A-Level students in the country. He joined Makerere University to read for a law degree. He would continue juggling this with even more responsibilities at the newspaper where he was now sub editor.
Fast Forward to 2012, Opio pioneered LOL, a weekly satirical half-hour programme on Urban TV. He singlehandedly wrote, hosted, directed, edited and produced it. The seeds of this show had been first sown in young Opio’s mind some ten years earlier.
“In 2002, I watched a pirated DVD of The Original Kings of Comedy featuring Steve Harvey, Bernie Mac, D.L. Hughley and Cedric the Entertainer.
Opio was so inspired by the craft that he decided, in that moment, he’d pursue a career in comedy.
In 2003, in his pursuit of the dream he started watching The Daily Show with the then host Jon Stewart. “It was love at first sight,” he says. It would inspire him to start his own version of The Daily Show in future. He once referred to LOL as the “shameless and poorer Third World cousin to the more celebrated Jon Stewart version.”
In 2011, just one year before he created LOL, Opio decided to test it out his funny stuff on stage. It didn’t go well. It was so bad that he was booed off the stage at a Theatre Factory show at National Theatre.
But Opio says the material he performed was funny to him, and that is what mattered. “I have never really done comedy for other people,” he says in one of his interviews. “I always perform material that is funny to me.”
That event was a turning point for Opio. In a progressive kind of way. He created the said television show because while he was rejected on stage, he just wanted to share stuff he thought was funny.
In 2013, Opio left for South Africa. “I flew to SA in 2013 to spread my comedic wings. I started working on their weekly satire show, Late Nite News with Loyiso Gola days after I landed,” he says.
Within a month of his arrival, Opio won an important stand-up comedy competition in Johannesburg. And just like that, the stars aligned.
An achievement like that would have been more than satisfactory to regular people. But Opio is anything but. He had his eye on the comedy capital of the world. New York City.
So instead of basking in the quick success he was enjoying in Joburg, Opio came back to Uganda single-minded. He borrowed lots of money and left for the USA in September 2014.
Meeting Trevor Noah
Opio would start performing stand-up comedy in New York City as soon as he arrived. While he performed by night, he wrote screenplays and TV pilots by day. He had come to America to be on top of the world, and he spared nothing in pursuit of that.
Then one night, his stars aligned again. After a night of performance at The Comedy Cellar in New York, Opio would meet the now world-renown Trevor Noah. As it turned out, the South African star had heard of Opio before.
“We bonded over our mutual passion for comedy, did some work together and regularly kept in touch. When Trevor was hired as the new host of The Daily Show, he invited me to come onboard,” he told the OkayAfrica magazine.
As is expected, Opio was the first African to be hired by The Daily Show. Such is the magnitude of Opio’s feat. It is stuff for history books. His mere presence on the show means he’s one of the best and brightest minds on the global comedy circuit.
“There are writers with law degrees from Yale and Harvard as well as master’s degrees from Columbia. But Makerere isn’t so shabby, is it?” Opio says in his own special way.
He adds, “My colleagues think it’s pretty wild that I can write jokes that resonate with American audiences despite never having set foot in the U.S. until 2014. It’s like if you came across a Mzungu tourist who can recite local proverbs and poems in fluent Luganda: that would be so rock ‘n roll. But comedy is a universal language. Your passport doesn’t impress other comedians as much as your ability to create a high volume of top-quality jokes on demand.”
Jokes about Uganda
It goes without saying that Opio’s presence on the show is responsible for the countless times Uganda has featured on the comedy show. Grasshopper jokes, election jokes, jokes about American tourists getting kidnapped in Uganda, and many more.
“I’m most proud of the ‘Trump: America’s first African president’ segment we broadcast in our very debut week,” Opio says in one of his older interviews. “It brought a global touch to a quintessentially American subject, allowing Trevor to swiftly showcase to the audience that unique outsider’s perspective that he brings to The Daily Show.”
Sadly, for Uganda’s comedy scene, no one seems to be following in the footsteps of this Emmy nominated star. It appears that his meteoric rise to the top of the world seems to have inspired no other comedian in the country. Which is a curious case indeed.
“As things stand, Ugandan comedy isn’t professional enough because there’s no money in it and there’s no money in Ugandan comedy because it isn’t professional enough,” he told OkayAfrica.
He adds, “Instead of targeting the global audience with universal material, Ugandan comics appear more contented performing only the kind of comedy that appeals strictly to consumers back at home, Ugandans in the diaspora or other Africans, at best.”
Opio was born and bred in Kampala. He spent all my formative years in Kansanga where he had the typical Ugandan childhood.
“Like most people who end up in comedy, I had tons of restless energy as a kid. I was naughty in school and all my teachers probably still suffer from PTSD. The one aspect of my upbringing that’s proved a career asset is having bullet-proof confidence. The difference between self-confidence and self-delusion is time. But if you truly believe in your talent, you never struggle with the kind of stage fright that can make one freeze when it’s time to shoot one’s shot,” Opio says.