Sometime in 2011, an aunt sent me an audio message on Whatsapp. It was the singsong voice and accent of a middle aged woman from the South East admonishing the youth to avoid being what she termed ‘a waste’- except that she pronounced it ‘weist’, or something like that, with a thick heavily-inflected tone infused with Igbo ‘ethnic interference.’ The recording had just the right dose of playfulness and wit to make me reply to her text with ‘LMAO.’
That skit had a whole nation, who recognised the character caricature of the heckling, inadvertently funny Igbo madam, in fits. The irony is that this Igbo madam would be feared by her henpecked charges, unable to laugh at her antics. Yet, in parody, she was hilarious, and I could belly laugh without worrying about the reprimand that would follow. As send up, it was effective and timeless- an instant classic. It was also short, a quickfire burst of hilarity, which I could consume between piles of work.
The singsong voice belonged to Chigurl, AKA Chioma Omeruah, one of the many voices in comedy that has been fostered by the rise of social media. She has since grown into a multi-talented sensation, appearing as a stand-up comedian, in music videos, as a compere and YouTube doyenne with a huge following. Her work has gone viral in a way that seems to be peculiar to the comedy genre: Short sharp skits have taken over Nigerian smartphones so that sharing video and audio of these instant hits has become a national pastime. Many comedy careers have taken off on Instagram, Facebook, and especially Twitter where the rapidity of conversation means that a skit can be absorbed and deconstructed by thousands of people in a matter of minutes. Twitter has become the natural home of online skits and one-line quips. In truth, everyone is funny at some point, and the platform allows for users to microblog a throwaway thought whenever it arises, without the pressure of building it into a narrative or a production that might keep the audience entertained for several minutes or hours at a time. In short, Twitter provides the opportunity for this humour to surface every now and again as opposed to the sustained funny that a stand-up comedy show requires. A 140-character tweet does not call for any more than a cursory glance. For Nigerians- ever ready with sharp tongues and saucy wit- this innovation is gold.
Of course, the phenomenon is not exclusive to the Nigerian digital landscape. The American-based international media site, Mashable, ran an article as far back as June of 2010 with the headline ‘The Rise of Comedy on Twitter’. Staff writer Matt Silverman observed even back then, just four years after Twitter’s 2006 launch, that the most popular tweets were the one-liners and quips that come to life on the app’s 140-character tweet limit. His notion that ‘tweeters love the funny’ is echoed across several social media stages with the funniest posts racking up the most views and ‘likes’ from users. This global trend is blamed on the sociology of the shrinking collective attention span, but has fueled the shift of video content to the smaller screens of smartphones, augmented by ubiquitous Wi-Fi service, allowing people to consume these skits on the go, while in the car, at the gym, on a walk or, crucially, at work. Skits can be created for a wide audience without the heavy costs associated with filming a comedy production, or without the difficulty of seeking employment from a comedy club. All a budding comedian needs to worry about is the price paid to Internet Service Providers and Mobile Network Operators for the data to upload videos or to send an MMS.
On the mobile app, Vine, for instance, users create thirty-second videos where they can capture unplanned slapstick moments- a stumble and a heavy fall in bad weather, a fumble at the dinner table, a tumble in the street. Watched in real time, this might make for an anecdote or a private laugh at a later time. A Vine rewards rewatching, allowing laugh out loud moments one might ordinarily be unable to recollect to friends to be replayed in full, recreating the serendipity that would have otherwise been lost. Vines from all over the world have made small time celebrities of many Internet voices.
These days, everyone with a smartphone makes these skits, capturing humorous events in quick takes and sharing them with friends in a matter of seconds. It is handy that these platforms can be cross-referenced- a tweet links into a vine or an Instagram post is referred to on Twitter. Most of these apps support video- the most adaptable media for comedy. In consequence, a second wave of Nigerian comedians has emerged in the second decade of the millennium from the handful of Internet savvy personalities who are able to manipulate video. The major successes have also been able to cut across multiple platforms and audiences to showcase and market their work. It is, of course, ironic, that this breakthrough has occurred in spite of critically slow Internet speeds, lagging infrastructure and a lack of technological sophistication.
Take Folarin Falana, known by his stage name Falz the Bahd Guy, first heard on YouTube circa 2009, later making his breakthrough with the well-received ‘Wazup Guy’ in 2011. Falz sat for and passed the bar at the Nigerian Law School, then began to pursue a career in showbiz. His first album was a moderate success and seemed to point the way to a career that would eventually taper off in the ultra-competitive Nigerian music industry. That is, of course, until he was able to weld his unique style to the cult celebrity status that social media comedy has bestowed on its Nigerian exponents. Falz raps in an exaggerated Yoruba accent, with a belated h-factor, in a manner that suggests that he might have persistent trouble with English vowels. Taking advantage of the free publicity that social media affords, he began to upload videos on Instagram to promote his songs. One particular video, released in advance of Valentine’s Day last year, skirted around the theme of his song ‘Ello Bae’. The rapper boasts impressive academic credentials, yet his social media persona came off as a confident buffoon clueless about his mistakes. The effect was astounding. Responses to his invitation to mimic his shambling diction were overwhelming and he quickly rose to the top of Google search lists in Nigeria. As one of the most recognizable voices in entertainment, Falz now has to maneouvre between offers to act as Master of Ceremonies at events and, of late, to star in Nollywood productions. With his star on the rise, Falz embodies the modern Nigerian comedian, a nimble and versatile performer comfortable slipping from genre to genre, all the while connecting directly with his fans on social media.
Other members of the second wave, including K10, another barrister-turned-rapper, argue that it is the general hardship in Nigerian life that draws such a huge following to comedy. “Nigerians love anything that can distract us from our daily hustle”, he says, noting that his first video was posted at random, possibly after a hard day at his nine-to-five. K10’s passport bears his given name Koye Kekere-Ekun, but on social media, he prefers his moniker @koye10. The same is true of the entire second wave including the high-drama and explosive wit of Chief Obi, Akanm the Boy and Aphrican Ape (respectively @chief_obi, @iamkanmi and @aphricanape06). They share a mastery of the online skit, able to draw in thousands of viewers to their exaggerated observations in a matter of hours, with performances brimming with a peculiar brand of Nigerian humour. These three, like Falz and Chigurl are able to work their funny magic across the spectrum of social media apps to maximize their appeal to ever-growing audiences and parlay their popularity into burgeoning careers in live entertainment.
When I ask him whether he would have broken into comedy without social media, K10 is probably speaking for each player in the new generation of comedians when he fires back the wry retort, “For where?” And this is part of the thrill of the second wave. The first wave, if you like, headed up by veterans like Ali Baba and Basketmouth, followed by others like man of the moment Bovi, thrived from their command of pidgin English and their ease within the stand-up comedy circuit that emerged alongside the gbedu scene around the beginning of the new millennium. Theirs was the reign of the mic, in the tradition of Western stand-up where laughmakers trot out anecdotes and punchlines one after the other for a seated audience trying to get away from the daily grind. In fact, Basketmouth and co operated almost exclusively in the bastard tongue, steeped in the delicious humour of the streets with a tinge of the poverty, dysfunction and craze that lurks at its underbelly. Their crowds, most of them brought up away from the particular madness infused in the jokes, raved at the otherworldliness of their tales, even as they reveled in the refreshing and unashamed use of a unique Nigerian lexicon.
Standing apart from these pioneers, K10 and his band of merry social media men do not play on the same Robin Hood gimmick of their forerunners who always seemed to be teasing their ajebutter fans for not having waded through the same pools of deprivation that they, the upstarts, had suffered. Instead, they dwell in the gentler techniques of satire and mockery. K10 has put up videos complaining about the stresses caused by the tormenting heat of Lagos and the evil side effects of bad breath, all hazards of his own daily life. He does not need to prop up his jokes with outlandish scenarios or poverty tropes, the point being that life in Nigeria is hard in itself- at every level there are victims. Be it the trampled-upon in the lower reaches where a viciously corrupt state squashes the under-privileged with its bulging potbelly, or the middle class, questing for luxury where there is only frustration, there are daily injustices which can throw off the ordinary person looking for peace of mind.
Another social media adept whose online routines have thrust her into the spotlight is Yagazie Emezi, who came to the fore through her willful and honest posts on YouTube. She doesn’t herself identify as a comedian, although her vlogs leave you with the sense that some unrepresented oppressor (the insensitive, the misogynist, they who would wish to repress self-expression) is being told to #GTFOH. And a #GTFOH which is well timed will always bring on a laugh. Yagazie’s funny is the serendipitous kind I talked about earlier, becoming funnier on every replay. She seems to embody the new social media funny and watching her Instagram videos, you crack up at short notice as she mimes to a song playing in the background and then cracks up at herself.
When Zeba Blay of the Huffington Post interviewed her in March of this year, the accent was on her storytelling, which is the ‘raw truth’ that she is attracted to. However, a glance at the neat way she twists layers of social commentary and comic observation into cartoon sketches on Instagram will do more than make you smile. In her use of the innovative possibilities of social media she demonstrates the elements that have brought the second wave their garlands, the emphasis being on the cult of personality so that the more familiar you are with their work- the better you are able to recognize the stories they are telling- the funnier they become.
So it is not surprising that the greatest achievement of these personalities is that they have managed to bring a more nuanced perspective to the understanding of Nigerianness. Where their forebears thrived off a narrative that separated Nigeria into a simple two-toned picture of the haves and the have-nots to make the one laugh at the other, these social media voices present unique Nigerian stories, which together tell a universal truth. Nigerians are agitated: taking out their anger on their children and other Nigerians, intentionally or otherwise; aggressive in the pursuit of their goals; but always aware of their limitations and the limitations of this society. When they connect on social media, this generation of Nigerians, who have found a new groove online are able to talk about anything and laugh about everything, sparing no topic the caustic end of the tongue. From pregnancy and sugar daddies to Beyoncé and Bernie Sanders, Nigerians weigh in on each issue with fireworks humour. Then innovators like K10 swoop in, select the stories to which they best relate and churn out their very individual take on the issues. You cannot help but LOL.