Why misery loves comedy

Agnes Akite

What you need to know:

  • Comedy has often been used as a coping mechanism mainly by those who have suffered social-economic persecution as they subconsciously believe it would elevate them above the origins of the despair their misery wrought.

For more than 20 years, a generation to be exact, the war in northern Uganda claimed countless lives. It is estimated that the rebel group known as the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) abducted as many as 66,000 youth, turning them into killing machines. As many as 80 percent of the LRA rebels were aged 20 and below. 

At the peak of the conflict, spread out over 80 percent of the north and northeast of Uganda, two million Ugandans were displaced and lived in sprawling squalid camps akin to the appalling living conditions found in the transit camps of Apartheid South Africa. Tens of thousands of defenceless civilians were butchered in an orgy of pogroms as cultural traditions in the north were violated and vitiated. 

Daniel Omara

Dark origins
However, in spite of this, or possibly because of this, humour was born. 

“Humour comes from a dark place,” says comedian Daniel Omara. This dark place once served as ground zero for the LRA’s depredations when the war spread to Omara’s home area, Lango. 

To survive, many northerners used humour as a coping mechanism. Comedy, they subconsciously believed, would elevate them above the origins of the despair their misery wrought. 

Comedy has often been used in this manner in America, especially by America’s most elite comedians.

In America, comedy is dominated by two races that have been historically persecuted. By this reckoning, we are talking about the Jews and African Americans. Both groups formed associations to front their performative interests as the world seemingly did the opposite. 

The Jews worked in the Borscht Belt or used this style of comedy. Such Jewish comedians include Rodney Dangerfield, Don Rickles and Woody Allen, all of whom went on to become cultural icons courtesy of how their comedy reinvented comedy.  

The black comedians, on the other hand, plied their trade in what was called the Chitlin’ Circuit; a “collection of all-black venues, clubs, [and] theatres.”  These venues caught proverbial fire during the Harlem Renaissance in 1934, the Apollo Theater becoming the first among equals of these venues as comedians such as Richard Pryor, Moms Mabley, and Redd Foxx et al cut their comedic teeth there. 

It is believed these two races (of comedians) developed their brand of humour from pain arising from socio-political and economic oppression. Blacks in particular suffered from slavery, institutionalised racism in the shape of segregation and all manner of epithets hurled at them as a racial group. 

Jews have duelled with anti-Semitism in America and the world over. The German dictator Adolf Hitler killed six million Jews out of 14 million worldwide. And during the American Civil War, Gen Ulysses S. Grant issued General Order No. 11 (1862) to expel Jews from tracts of land in Tennessee, Kentucky and Mississippi. Humour, one might observe, is what helped the Jews and Blacks cope with this suffering.

What the experts say
Don Andre, one of Uganda’s fastest-rising standup comedians, has compared comedy to therapy. He says it heals the comedian as much as it meliorates the audience’s longing for laughter. 

To American comedian Jerry Seinfeld, a Jew, making people laugh conjures “a moment of weightlessness, where all worries and thoughts vanish, even if just for a few seconds.”

Cotilda Inapo 

Cotilda Inapo tells Monitor that nothing is as motivating as “the joy of being on stage and seeing people bursting into laughter in the audience.” 

Jewish comedian Marc Maron, host of the hugely popular WTF comedy podcast, uses his show as a vessel through which fellow comedians reveal their struggles. 

“The worst thing about living in this world, in general, is that things get overwhelming, and things cause a tremendous amount of despair and anxiety. With two or three lines, a comic can disarm that and just f--king slay despair and depression,” he says. 

Funny business
Beyond the creative process of turning pain to profit, comedians from the north and northeast have changed the professional landscape of comedy.

Cotilda, leading four other comedians, wrote for comedienne Anne Kansiime and helped transform Kansiime’s fledgling career from something that was perpetually on the surface, to something much deeper. 

Okello Okello curated “Comedy Black Friday”, Omara “Another Comedy Night”, Patrick Salvado “Just Comedy”, Agnes Akite brought us “The Queens of Comedy” and Don Andre has his popular Funny Bunny Comedy Club.   Funny now means money and the comedians from northern Uganda are a guild devoted to making this money while using humour to overcome historical grievances. 

North is best?
In Uganda, it is inarguable that the north and northeast were largely reduced to hellholes by war. So is it surprising that this region spawned arguably the best comedians in the country? 

Don Andre

One night at Another Comedy Club, which used to be held at the open rooftop of Golden Tulip Hotel, standup comedian Timothy Nyanzi pointed out, during his set, that he was the only non-northerner on stage. Indeed, Daniel Omara, Don Andre, Hilary Okello, Okello Okello, Jacques, Agnes Akite, Emah Napoleon and several other jokesters from the north and northeast stood grinning on stage during the curtain call. 

Hilary Okello

It seems more than just a coincidence that such comedians with such comic gifts are all from the same region. Again, the roster of every major comedy event is predominantly jazzed up by comedians from northern Uganda. It appears that the alienation of the north, especially after the fall of the Lutwa government, made sure their misery served as a source of comic inspiration. 

In 1986, the north was demonised as a place of natural-born killers as northerners were misunderstood by Ugandan society. They were collectively labelled “Acholi” regardless of where they came from. 

After being mistreated and persecuted by the new political dispensation, they retreated into their own orbit. But then war imposed even worse privations on them and some northerners, in order to survive, compensated by making people laugh. Their humour was honest, self-deprecating and raw. A lot of it was observational as it trafficked in the absurdities of a society that had turned its back on them.