Comics here, by and large, don’t know the name “Jerry Seinfied” (but maybe it sounds familiar). You can imagine, then, that greats like Brian Regan and Mitch Hedberg don’t ring any bell at all. Most have heard of Chris Rock and Steve Harvey, some of Russell Peters. But, in essence, they describe these comics as funny… for Americans (even if 1 of them is Canadian).
Trying to perform in a country where no one has heard of my favorite comedians has made me appreciate how much our comedy history informs our comedy now. It’s hardly worth saying, really – but I’ve noticed it anew and more dramatically. It’s not that you get your style from other comedians – you get your entire notion of comedy. Comedy in America followed such a different trajectory than comedy in Kenya that the gulf between the two seems really wide now.
Standup is a new art form here; Kenyans are just now breaking ground in late night comedy shows; and their comedy (generally speaking) is more slapstick and blatant than ours. But it would oversimplify the matter greatly to say that comedy here is more primitive. I want to get that out of the way. And It’s worth noting that it’s not that I get Kenyan jokes and don’t like them (like primitive humor) – I just don’t get most of them at all.
And that signals to me that comedy is something much more malleable and entrenched than I can really understand. Maybe a culture’s sense of humor is similar to its sense of style. Designing clothes involves art and innovation – but it is also grounded in cultural practicalities. Someone on the equator might think the Mongolian fur wardrobe makes no sense: not until they understand the weather in Mongolia do they “get” it. It’s the same with comedy – except, its driving forces are not as tangible and easily noticeable as the weather. It’s a complicated and mysterious cocktail that directs a culture’s humor – it is wars, legends, religions, plagues, history and landmarks. It’s an endless number of things. It all started thousands of years ago. It constantly evolves.
Of course, one thing that pushes it along is other cultures, especially Western ones. But the process is not quick and easy… and, in those places most steeped in tradition, the influence is unnoticeable. Even in modernized parts of the Kenya, the influence has its limits. If I put on a show here and advertise it as an American show, the Kenyans who came would probably enjoy it. But success becomes much more difficult in a comedy club full of unsuspecting Kenyans. Because people often go to comedy shows specifically to relate to their culture and revel in it.
The same dynamic happens in America on a smaller scale. When I opened for Freddy Soto, the crowds were largely Hispanic and they gave me a great response. However – I was once booked for Latino Comedy Night in San Antonio (without being told it was a theme), and it still goes down as the absolute worst gig I’ve ever had. Culture dictates comedy and then, in return, comedy helps us identify with our culture. Food (I’ve really come to realize) also helps us connect to our culture. And if I showed up to an American style restaurant here that served Kenyan food, I’d be very disappointed and totally uninterested – especially when I am looking for something familiar. I’m also constantly disappointed in American food here – it may technically be a hamburger, but it’s done in Kenyan style. Similarly, I came to realize I couldn’t just joke about Kenyan things, I had to joke about them in a Kenyan way.
And that was one of the most interesting and intellectually challenging things I have done in a long time. Sometimes I wrote jokes with only a vague notion that they were funny – and certainly they were not funny to me. It was more like pattern recognition than joke writing. But one of the most rewarding things about succeeding (and I believe I did) was that just as much as my “American” jokes clearly made me an outsider – my ability to tell Kenyan jokes (with a heavy American flare, albeit) earned me some acceptance. And so there is at least one principal of comedy that transcends cultural boundaries and its precisely what makes cross-cultural humor so difficult: a comic has to relate to the audience.
Next time, I’ll share with you the end result of my efforts. But for now (and to make this slightly less self-important), I’ll provide a different example of a joke bombing due to cultural barriers.