Funnyman Daliso Chaponda is a man at ease in the world. A Malawian native currently based in the UK, Daliso has taken his talents across the seven seas (ok, maybe four or five to be more accurate) to amuse and delight diverse audiences. Ayiba’s Akinyi Ochieng spoke to him about life, liberty, and the pursuit of laughter. “Daliso’s DVD, ‘Barely Legal, Live in Zimbabwe’ is now available from his website.
When did you first realize you were funny and how did you decide to pursue comedy as a full-time career?
I was always funny, but it was not something I thought anyone could live off of. When I debated in my high school debate team, my arguments used humor. When I wrote poetry, it was funny. Everywhere I could squeeze in a joke, I did. However, I never thought it could be a career. I wanted to be a novelist. Being a comedian was a sharp left turn. In Canada, I did all manner of open mics – poetry, rap, story telling. When I went to a comedy open mic, I did not invest any more in it than when I went to any other open mic. However the reaction was unique. I quickly realized that while I was a rubbish poet, almost terrible rapper, and mediocre, but promising fiction writer, in comedy I seemed to have a knack.
What do you think is the purpose of comedy?
I think comedy is a light in the darkness. Comedy, above all, is to make people laugh. And that’s enough. Yes, there is some political comedy that seeks to provoke, and other comedy which seeks to educate. But all those are secondary purposes. Purpose one is to make people laugh, which is why a person slipping on a banana peel is as valid comedy as Jonathan Swift’s ‘Modest Proposal.’
How would you describe the majority of your subject matter? Where do you get the inspiration for your jokes?
I think I am a relationship comic. But in ‘relationship’ I mean more than just romance. I write about father and son relationships, race relationships, state and citizen relationships, and lovers’ relationships. I am interested in the friction between people and the insane ways we make each other behave. I am inspired by everything. The newspaper articles I read, the conversations I have, but mostly intense emotions. When I write jokes I think over the last few days and think of what angered me most, delighted me most, scared me most. Big emotion is the best starting point.
How do you test your material?
I used to use ‘new material’ shows, where an audience paying very little for tickets watch comedians trying jokes. Unfortunately, the realities of making a living as a comedian has meant I can rarely take a night off for a new material gig. Nowadays, I mainly cram my new jokes between tried and tested jokes on every night. I perform on average four to five nights a week and I force myself to try two new jokes a show.
The best audience you’ve had?
Best? It’s a tie between the first time I appeared in Australia, and the first time I did a one hour show in Malawi. The Australian show was a milestone because it was the first time I was flown to another country by a promoter and paid well (I finally felt like a professional). The Malawi show was significant because it was a big ‘shut up’ to all the people in Malawi who saw me as some deranged oddball in trying to pursue the arts and referred to me as doing ‘Creative Poverty.’
And the worst?
Worst? Opening for a Wizkid concert when the audience had been waiting for him to go on stage for two hours and seen lots of musical opening acts. Then came me, a comedian, not dancing, not singing, just talking. I crashed and burned. I doubt I got one laugh, and if I did it was surely a sympathy laugh.
How do you feel about comparisons between you and Eddie Murphy?
It’s flattering because he’s the best, but it’s untrue qualitatively. He did lots of impressions in his standup comedy—I can’t do an impression to save my life, he did character vignettes, I rarely do…etc. However, comparisons, whether accurate or not come from a lovely place. People laugh at you and think, when did I last laugh this much? Eddie! He’s like Eddie.
How do you think the industry is evolving for African comedians?
Within Africa, the industry is growing rapidly. I have been part of some huge shows such as ‘Stand Up Africa’ and ‘Nite of 1000 Laughs’ which draw thousands of people. Some great new talents have emerged. Salvado from Uganda is unacceptably hilarious. He clearly made some deal with the devil. South Africa’s Trevor Noah has a genius brain wasted on comedy. He could have been curing cancer but instead he’s making us other comedians look untalented. The list goes on. Globally, there is some presence of African voices but often our talents are ghettoized: ‘African Comedy Night’ or ‘Nubian Funnies,’ etc. It’s good to have the platform but African comedians should be able to be part of any bill. I aggressively try and book myself primarily into shows where I am not seen as an ‘African comedian’ but as any old comedian. The biggest problem, though, is when it comes to TV exposure. African acts rarely get airtime outside Africa, and when they do, it’s very clear what the producers want. I and other African comedians have done long spots for TV shows where we discuss relationships, family, Africa, and many other subjects. Inevitably, they edit out all the jokes except the bits about Africa, HIV, poverty, etc. We need to reach a point where there are African comedians on the global stage talking about marriage or talking about scuba diving.
Does the show change depending on where you perform?
Only a little. I always write some local material about the city I’m visiting (e.g. I am in Malaysia now and I’ve written material about the fatwa against Valentine’s Day) but that’s only 20% of my set. Most of my jokes are universal. I talk about family, love, race, and everyone can relate.
Now to address to the rumor mill… did you really almost get arrested in Malawi?
No, but I did get contacted by the Malawi censorship board and a few incendiary articles about my comedy were written in the papers. My father was in the Malawi government at the time and he got in trouble for not being able to control me. In retrospect, it’s hard to know how much danger I was ever actually in because there was a lot of overreacting everywhere (the Malawian way). My family went into crisis mode when we probably should have laughed it off. But who knows, treating it seriously got me out unscathed.
What joke sparked such a response from the government?
The joke was about the changed Malawi flag.
What projects do you have on the horizon for 2015?
My DVD ‘Barely Legal: Live in Zimbabwe,’ which I recorded at the 2014 HIFA festival in Zimbabwe, will be released in February. An anthology of fiction I’ve published over the last ten years will be released. I’ll be doing a tour called the ‘Laughter Smuggler’ tour which will take a new one man show (currently being written) across the UK, then through Malawi, Kenya, South Africa, and many more. I will do a one man show called ‘Love Sucks’ on February 12th in the Leicester Comedy Festival as a humorous protest against Valentine’s Day. More is in the works.
Watch Daliso’s routines here