On a brightly lit night in one of Dar’s affluent neighbourhoods, people are seen piling up into the back room of a bar. This isn’t your usual night out where beer and music are the order of the day. In fact, the only commonality in this breezy night is the steady flow of alcohol, but what is about to unravel is an unabated supply of laughter and punchlines – it is comedy night.
As I steady myself on a front-row bar stool, my eyes wander into the smoky room. The bar is scarcely-filled, but the vibrancy that exuberates in this tight-spaced chamber is enough to keep the energy up. Ask any comedy fanatic and they’ll tell you the good thing about comedy night is the absence of limitations on what to expect.
But as we’re about to be taken on a wild night of laughter on end, I couldn’t help but imagine what it’s like to be atop the stage with thousands of eyes and ears directed at you intently waiting for your next move.
Performing in front of a live audience isn’t as easy and seamless as these entertainers make it out to be. I bet it is probably one of the hardest things to do. Picture standing in front of eager onlookers whose sole purpose for convening to the arena is to see you wow them in one way or another. Certainly, this has to get your nerves on edge.
For stand-up comedians, life on stage, crafting catch phrases to get the crowd going is something that breathes life into their routine.
For a style that is only now catching the attention of revelers in Dar es Salaam, stand-up comedy as a comic style has existed since time immemorial. From the early days of Western influences pioneered by George Carlin, to the memorable moments of the late Richard Pryor, and then came the latter-day exploits of Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle and Kevin Hart, this creative form of exciting the audience with wits and charm has for a long time beguiled folks to flock in doves to comedy shows.
In the recent past, Tanzania’s comedy fraternity has seen a peak in interest in live comedy shows. As an art form, with its roots embedded in various traditions of popular entertainment, live comedy is now considered a trending pastime in urban areas.
The interest witnessed from the Bongo audience isn’t something to ponder upon. In fact, the local Tanzanian crowd give attribution of stand-up comedy to the early influences of a cross-section of artistes who veered into comedy from other entertainment beats such as music. Its nascent rise thus served as an inspiration to a new generation of comedians in the country.
I remember as a child I’d roll on the floor, laughing like I was on the brink of madness all thanks to King Majuto’s onscreen craziness. Such were scenes that kept my days bright and high. Even in my adulthood I still got the chance to watch him play more diverse, equally comical roles. The beauty here was that now the platform had blossomed tenfold and we had different players on the field. But these were the days of watching comedy on television. We hadn’t really been availed to the privilege of watching these comedy masters doing a live act.
Soon things changed and just in a blink of an eye Dar had become home to some of the best stand-up comedy shows in East Africa.
Thanks can be given to the early influencers, the likes of Evans Bukuku with his Punch Line platform. In an interview with The Beat in 2019, Bukuku said standup comedy is a freedom of expression which allows the comedian to directly interact with the audience. He must know what he is talking about, seeing as he has over 10 years in the game under his belt.
Working the room and dispensing high-fives is a scene that is common at comedy nights. The audience howls. Every comedian has a unique style which makes the crowd gravitate towards him. Some have a combination of choirboy charm and calculated offensiveness, it is these small traits that win them something of a cult following; that and the fact that they often try their hand at some political material – might seem borderline, but all the same worth the risk even as they are aware of the potential pitfalls of taking a swipe at politics in Tanzania.
As stand-up comedy continues to see a steady rise in Tanzania, most of these comedians have an eye on reaching a bigger audience. At the moment we have platforms such as Cheka Tu, Punch Line, Funny Fellas, among others, that are trying to pave the way for raw talents to reach greater heights. if this growing interest from the urbanites is anything to go by, then the future certainly looks bright for Tanzanian standup comedians.