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Daliso Chaponda: “What got me into laughter was Roald Dahl and Oscar Wilde”

Daliso Chaponda In 2015 an unknown comedian named Daliso Chaponda performed to a small crowd at one of Vivacity Key Theatre’s Comedy Nights. In March 2018 he’s back – but under very different circumstances. Earlier this year he wowed judges on Britain’s Got Talent – ultimately making his way through to the final – and by June had landed his own show on Radio 4. Toby Venables talks to him about BGT, being an African in the UK and why Brits should cherish what they have...

Britain’s Got Talent was obviously a huge breakthrough for you, but you’d been doing comedy for some time before that…
I actually started doing open mics in the year 2000. I only did two in my first year but I really got the bug and from 2002 was actively trying to do it. Then from 2005 it became my job; I quit all other ways of being able to sustain myself. I did that in a misguided fashion, in that I did it before I probably should have. Usually the thing you do is you keep doing your day job until you’re making enough to quit. I quit early because I was staying with my brother and I was sort of living like a student in my mid-twenties – but eventually it started rolling.

So you say you quit the day job – what was that?
I studied computer programming but because I had just left university I had a really rubbish internship, so it was easy to quit. I think if I had actually got a good job, it might have been harder to stop!

How did that first performance come about?
When I first did it I didn’t want to be a comedian. Actually I don’t even define myself as a comedian. I define myself as a writer – and some of the stuff I write is funny. I write plays, I write fiction, I write all sorts. My joy is writing; performing comedy just evolved. I went to some of those writers’ open mics where people read very deep poetry, but I always used to write something funny. That was just my choice, but I also felt I needed to lampoon how seriously everyone else was taking themselves. Somebody saw me at one of those and said: ‘Hey, you should read that at a comedy club’. And I just said: ‘Another open mic! Why not? Another place for me to get my voice heard’. I went and did it – but I didn’t do stand-up the way everyone else was doing stand-up. They were telling jokes; I read a funny poem in a funny rap. But it worked really well and I was amazed at just talking and getting laughs. Up to that point I’d not actually seen stand-up. I’d seen Eddie Murphy’s ‘War’ but I did not know it was an art in itself – I thought: ‘Oh this is a famous actor doing a one man play that’s funny’. There was nothing like that in Malawi or Kenya or all the places where I was growing up. People often ask what comedy influenced me, and the actual truth is the kind of comedy which got me into laughter was stuff like Roald Dahl and Oscar Wilde. So, I’d always loved humour but I’d never actually seen a man on stage telling jokes.

Your humour is very upbeat and positive even when dealing with dark subjects. Does that make you stand out, do you think?
I know a lot of people’s comedic voice is ‘The world sucks, my life sucks, my wife, I hate my job’, and that’s never been where I find my humour. I tend to celebrate life even when I’m enraged at something. And I take delight in making fun of the idiots!

You’re positive in spite of the fact that Africa has much more to complain about, politically and socially, than the UK…
There are things going wrong left, right and centre! But in a weird way, even though I grew up everywhere else – because we were refugees and we were travelling all over the place – that’s the most Malawian thing about me. You laugh about your pain. Because you know, if everyone’s struggling, no one’s got time to listen to someone moaning about it! So everyone just makes fun of how bad life is. I think I took that on. I was trying to figure out what my genre is. I do a few one-liners, I do a few stories, I do a few little bits that are real, I do a little bit of observation, but the common thread is that I’m usually making fun of pain.

A lot of your humour seems to come out of looking at the UK from an African perspective – like the joke in Britain’s Got Talent about the financial crisis: ‘You call this a crisis? Where is UNICEF? Where is Bono..?’
That was one of the earliest jokes I wrote when I got to the UK. I came just after the crash and people were talking about it all the time. The premise was just my true opinion; I did not understand why people were finding this bad because everywhere I spoke, people were more privileged than most people in Malawi. I added punchlines: Save the UK benefit concerts, throwing fish and chips out the window of planes…

Some of the humour comes out of observations about race and racism, but growing up in countries where most people are black must give you quite a different perspective from someone who grew up in the UK.
Yes, I’ve lived in countries where everybody is black – but you’ve also got a certain kind of racism there where it’s linked to selfloathing. A post-colonial thing. My mother is a doctor and there was a time when she was working at a hospital in Malawi and there was also a Swedish doctor, and all the Malawians would make a long queue for the Swedish doctor and my mother would just be waiting! They’ve got the same training, and she’d got more experience with tropical diseases, but they were like ‘Oh no no, the Swedish doctor must be better…’

Your routines in Malawi have got you into some trouble there. Are you able to go back?
I can, I just have to be more careful. I’m a star there! I get very big audiences. It doesn’t translate to financial rewards because the currency is so worthless, but at the same time it’s good for the ego because when I do shows, there are like 2,000 people! But I make more doing a show in England with 100 people. Essentially I still do it just because it’s my home country and it’s where my family is. But my first show gave me a false sense of reality – I crossed the line left, right and centre and everybody loved it. The second show I crossed the line left, right and centre and there was a reporter who reported it and then the censorship board got angry, the government got angry and that was when I was like: ‘Oh, OK, my first one I was under the radar, whereas now people are paying attention…’ Essentially I learnt the rules, which most artists know in countries where there’s not total freedom of speech. You can talk about everything, you just have to do codes. I still talk about the subject I want, but it’s all metaphor and parable and that sort of thing, where the crowd can figure out what you’re talking about but you have deniability. And it’s up and down in Malawi. I mean, like right now I think I could say more because of Britain’s Got Talent.

Have you sparked a kind of comedy revolution in Malawi?
After I did Britain’s Got Talent I saw in the newspaper in Malawi that local theatres were doing a search for the next Malawian comedy star, so loads of people are trying it!

Do you see it as sort of a mission to get us in the UK to wake up to how lucky we are here?
That is one of the things. I mean it’s little things, like I hear people complaining about the NHS and I’m like, ‘Yes, you have to queue – but it’s free!’ People will focus on the fact that you have to sit there for six hours – but it’s free, and if you’re actually close to death, you would be in immediately. I’ve lived in countries where there is no real healthcare or you’ve got to be really sick to go in at all. But I’m not trying to criticise anybody, I’m trying to say, ‘Look what you’ve got!’ but also, ‘Don’t throw it away!’ Some of the things I most love about the UK are being cut. There’s a routine I do – which I’ll be doing in my tour – about the cutting of the disability benefits. It’s one of things which I found most amazing about England when I moved here. Someone once said: ‘You can tell how good a society is by how they treat the poorest and the weakest’. So, I am celebrating, but hidden underneath it is also a kind of worry at the changes.

The judges on Britain’s Got Talent praised your lack of political correctness. Was that a surprise?
I think I know what they meant. I think what they meant is, I talk about subjects people are afraid to talk about. But the words ‘political correctness’ are now becoming very imprecise, because that is not really what it means. To me, political incorrectness is talking about someone in a bullying way, where you’re insulting that group, and that’s the opposite of what I do. But part of the reason why the show is called ‘What the African Said’ is that it’s about that – what’s politically incorrect, what’s politically correct, what’s the line. Because we’re all very obsessed with it right now. You’ve got actual people saying racist stuff, and when people object, those like Donald Trump and Nigel Farage use the cover of ‘Well hey, it’s just PC gone mad. You can’t say what you want!’ But it is not really comparable to Frankie Boyle making a joke when you actually mean it… That sort of political correctness is very much what my show is exploring.

What was it like stepping out on that Britain’s Got Talent stage for the first time?
Interestingly, the first time I was just having fun. I was not stressed at all because the way I saw it, I had nothing to lose. If it went badly, I had a funny story. I know I’m funny and I was like, OK, if I have a bad gig, I will just make a joke about it – I will tell everyone, ‘Did you see how terrible I was on Britain’s Got Talent?’ That’s why I was smiling so much. I was delighted that I was part of this thing that I’ve watched. And then the second round there was actual pressure on, because now I was like, oh I can actually do well… I made the mistake of reading the papers which were saying this Malawian man was oddson favourite. So in my final performance, my head was full of that stuff! I think this is the interesting thing about competitions – in the first round it’s like a talent competition, in the final round it becomes about dealing with stress.

Also you had great feedback from the panel. I don’t just mean at the end, but like whilst you were talking – with Amanda Holden literally throwing her arms in the air when she liked the jokes!
Oh that was wonderful! The number one thing I enjoy about being a comedian is watching how people react to the jokes. And that’s also why I got drawn to it. When you write a play or a short story, the most you find out is that a month later someone emails you with, ‘Oh I liked it…’ With comedy you see every moment.

Your new show at the Vivacity Key Theatre is sold out already – what can the lucky ones with tickets expect from it?
What people saw on Britain’s Got Talent was almost like my flirting, it’s just a little bit of what I do. I do a lot of big stories, I also do a lot of crazy stories… It’s going to be a lot of fun!

Daliso Chaponda – What the African Said… 10 March 2018 Vivacity Key Theatre

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