My International Television Debut

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As I said previously, I spent a good bit of time figuring out what Kenyans found funny and realizing it wasn’t me. You can read more about that in previous posts.

So I had to put together a new set and, just as importantly, find a new style. For example, I wrote a joke about how a Kenyan peddler tried to sell me a wooden, carved elephant for 10,000 shillings (USD 120). The punch line was American and along the lines of… “If that’s how much a wooden elephant is worth, then poachers are targeting the wrong elephants.” I thought it was okay, but not surprisingly, it didn’t land and the jokes I liked the least were the ones that worked the best.

I learned of Churchill (and his show Churchill Live) before I came to Kenya. When I got to Kenya, I realized what a huge show it was. Everyone in my office watches it and thinks it’s hilarious. He’s a megastar here and the comics he features on his show are recognizable because of the show. The audience for the show is 10,000,000 strong. Somewhere around 5,000,000 in Kenya and 5,000,000 in surrounding countries and around the world for Diaspora. It really is the Kenyan version of the Tonight Show – but the Johnny Carson version before late-night viewership was splintered.

The audition process is much different. The show has open auditions in Nairobi. Any given Monday about 60 comics show up and about 8 are chosen to perform for the audience. From there, 2 comics will get airtime. From what I understand, it’s generally the same comics that make air, with an occasional new face thrown in.

The audition went well and the producers laughed sincerely… I think. They gave me the go-ahead to perform for the live audience. If I had to guess I’d say the set was pretty funny (although I still have no idea) and the fact that I was white added novelty that made it more interesting than it would have been.  My skin color put me in the “diverse comic” category.

On the day of filming, I had to show up at 2PM for pre-show business. We worked on my set, tweaking it and clarifying it, but largely it would remain the same. I had plenty of time to practice…

In Nairobi, most venues are open air – the weather is awesome and there’s no A/C.  So, to keep everyone comfortable there’s generally a roof only, tent-like structure for concerts, etc.  But I did not get on stage until close to 10. The weather was nice, but not that nice. By the time I got on stage, my hair and face were sweaty and greasy and I was largely uncomfortable. I really hope I didn’t complain because…

While I was waiting backstage, I hung out a bit with the musical guest, Emmanuel Jal. Jal is from [now I should say, the newly-free] South Sudan. He was a child soldier, having fought in two civil wars by the time he was 13. You can find more about him through his music and TED talk, but it is an intense, intense life he’s led. They did not do him justice in his introduction because they focused solely on the fact that he just completed a music video featuring Alicia Keys (it also has Jimmie Carter, George Clooney, Kofi Annan and others) and neglected to adequately explain his movement, history or his performance at Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday. He gave a griping performance that I pretty much think comes from being so fully alive (“I got a reason to be on this Earth / because I know more than most what a life is worth”).

Afterwards though, he was self-conscious about his performance, which kind of baffled me – not only because it was awesome, but because of the life he’s lived and what he’s accomplished – like, who cares about one show?  But another lesson learned – artists, no matter what trauma they’ve escaped, still want people to appreciate their art.  Especially Jal because his music is his message and hope.  I didn’t know then what I know about him now.  When I found out more, I just kind of panicked in the way you panic when you realize you just met someone that’s so awesome: “I hope I didn’t say something that made me look like I thought I was cool. And I hope I didn’t complain about anything.”

The show was about 5 hours long (even though only about 45 minutes go to air). After 8 comics, a film crew and cast, a member of parliament, 2 musical guests, 7 house band numbers, in-house videos, and jokes and crowd interviews from the host, I stepped on stage. I actually came immediately after the member of parliament sang Elvis’ “Can’t Help Falling in Love” upwards of 3 times. In America, coming on stage after those 4 hours would really hurt your chances of success, but the crowd was completely alert and ready for whatever.

I wasn’t nervous at all. Nerves come from worrying about possible outcomes. I had no idea what to expect. And I didn’t have thoughts of, “I hope this gets the laugh it should” because I had no definitive knowledge of what exactly would be funny. Plus, bombing would create it’s own story – so much so that I wasn’t sure if I wanted to succeed or not.  I had already written the joke: “I’m the only comedian to bomb big in America and Kenya.  I guess that makes me the Al Qaeda of comedy.”

If you judge the set based on the content, then you’ll likely find it lame.  It’s the spectacle that’s interesting.  And, quite honestly, despite the fact that I don’t personally think it’s funny, it’s probably the set I’m most proud of.   I enjoy thinking about how crazy it is that it happened at all.  Here in Africa, I got to be a part of some awesome things in way I did not anticipate.  Most of the things had to do with seeing innocent men walk out of prison.  But performing a weird, part-Swahili comedy set for 10,000,00 Africans is on the list, too.   In any event, here’s the tape:

 

After this, there was another comedian, more music and then, of course, a party. The set actually aired on television. I asked another comedian if I should prepare to be recognized on the streets. And he assured me that I didn’t need to worry because “All while people look alike.” And he was right, out of the 1,000,000 or more Nairobians that saw the show, only the waitresses at the restaurant I go to for lunch recognized me.

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10 Responses

  1. Rafa says:

    First of all, asante sana for the subtitles. :-) And second, were you going for an African accent when you spoke English, or have you really lost your Texan accent after only a year in Kenya? :-)

  2. Hampton Yount says:

    I saw your story listed on the Comic’s Comic. I was very, very impressed with your set and what it must have taken to do it. Reading more of your backstory, I am all the more impressed. I just wanted to let you know I found it all very inspiring.

  3. Goddy says:

    Dude, honestly that was a waste of people time! Kenyans are very Educated people as you might have found out… and more so the one’s with time for comedy… It is offending when you try to talk to them slower than usual with an assumption that they won’t hear you if you talk faster… That can work in the villages , however not with educated people…. Sad

    • John Ramsey says:

      I’m aware of the high intelligence levels of Kenyans. I did not talk slowly because I’m worried about their English skills; I’m worried about their ability to understand a Texas accent. I wanted to make sure every single word I said was understood. The only way to do that is to talk very slowly. If you don’t believe that, then I invite you to watch me try to order a pizza. Or just follow me for a day. I worked on this set with Kenyan comedians and the producers of Churchill; this was the pace that was decided upon by all — specifically because no one could understand me when I sped up. I’ve received dozens of messages, compliments, etc. from Kenyans — this is the first complaint.

      Also — and in all honesty — I find your distinction between those who are educated and those in the village to be more offensive than my talking slowly. And I don’t want to assume your identity — but in your over-concern that a white person not wrongfully perceive Kenyans, you have wrongfully perceived this white person. That is, in making sure I don’t stereotype Kenyans, I feel you have stereotyped me as an American.

  4. Han says:

    I also found your blog through the comic’s comic. I really enjoyed your set, I’ve been interested in comedy for quite and while and fascinated how comedy is perceived differently from the world cultures. I enjoyed reading your blog and your insight on making a cultural diverse comedic set. You should pitch a show like No Reservations with Anthony Bourdain but instead of food, it will be with jokes. Go around the world telling jokes and learning new jokes from different cultures. Looking forward to your future blog posts.

  5. Martha Kelly says:

    So awesome to see this John! You are all kinds of talented! I admire all that you’re doing over there and love reading your blog.

    Fond regards,

    Martha

    P.S. I loved your expression while you waited for the intro music to finish. And even though it wasn’t in your set, I loved your wooden elephant joke.

  6. Bekah says:

    John- this cracked me up. I kinda miss having so many friends when i go shopping. So glad to see you achieve an awesome goal over in Kenya. We miss you guys!