John Naifa Muyenzi, aka Babu, has made three years as a standup comedian.
At just 18, he is the country’s youngest professional joker. Yet he has been in the game for a little longer than his average fan would ever imagine.
“I have been doing some comedy since I was a little boy in school, but I would do it under the radar. In school, I would go in front of the class whenever there was no teacher and crack some jokes. Sometimes I would mimic the teachers, which occasionally put me in trouble. I would make funny skits and sketches on the blackboard, and people would laugh.”
At the CLA Church in Nyarutarama, where he was part of the drama troupe, Babu soon found himself teaming up with young men of like mind to express their comic sides. “The drama group was basically about dancing and acting. There were very few actors compared to dancers, and we would only rehearse when there was a big play coming up.” Worse still, he and his two artistic friends, Andrew and George harbored the conviction that comedy, not drama was their true calling. “Whenever the rest were rehearsing their plays, we would team up and come up with something to make them laugh.”
However, he credits a one George Shimanyula, the then Artistic Director at the CLA church for encouraging them to take their comic antics to the next level. “He (George) was one of the people that enjoyed our skits most, which is why he encouraged us to look at the bigger picture. To encourage us even further, he observed that comedy was a virgin market in Kigali as there were not many professional comedians to count on.
A meeting between Shimanyula and Arthur Nkusi of the Comedy Knights is what set everything in motion.
“When they met,” explains Babu, “a conversation developed instantly. When Shimanyula shared his idea with Arthur, he (Arthur) revealed that he had started a similar project called Comedy Knights, although many of the pioneers had quit along the way. The next time, Jerome, (the manager of Comedy Knights), Celestine, my big brother, and I met with the two and we talked it over again, and soon, things started to happen.
Babu still remembers his very first stage performance, at the Ishyo Arts Center in Kacyiru: “We got only about 20 people coming to the show, and that includes our family members and friends who we had invited. It was my first professional show, and on stage, the spotlight was on me. Instead of an audience, I was just seeing darkness ahead of me, which made me not to go shy. I was just a little nervous.”
For that first show, the entire group did just one skit, titled The Belt. Babu notes that “it was more of acting than Stand Up comedy. The skit was about two men taking a pee in the urinals, who then start an argument about who is more endowed.”
“We did only that skit, and it was very good. The people in the audience were very few, but they laughed so much, and for us this meant a lot in terms of motivation. It showed us that we could do it, which gave us more morale and energy to continue.”
With poor crowd attendance came some obvious complications: “We did not make enough money, so we had to split it amongst ourselves there and then. I remember walking away with Rwf 1,000, but it felt good knowing the concert had gone well. As a person experiencing the comedy stage for the very first time, I now felt part of the team.”
Coming a few weeks later, the second show attracted about 40 people, double the number for the first, finally persuading the group to stage their shows every last Friday of the month.
A break through
Babu describes the third show as a “breakthrough”. “All of a sudden, we got about 120 people attending our show. The hall was packed to the brim, and everyone was laughing. From that day on, everything started happening.”
After this successful show, he received Rwf 20,000 as transport refund, a far cry from the first occasion, when he had been forced to walk home with a paltry Rwf 1,000. Still, Babu insists that it was less to do with the money, and more to do with the brand.
“Finally, we were now getting some kind of buzz, with more people learning about these new comedians in town.”
In a family of seven siblings (four boys and three girls), it is Babu and his elder brother Celestin that have taken to comedy. “We started acting and comedy together,” Babu says of his elder brother. “He actually started it all, and I simply followed in his footsteps. He started off as a rapper, but got drawn to comedy later and switched.
Babu draws inspiration for his comic skits from everyday situations. “I get my jokes from ordinary people. It could be a maid or Taxi moto man saying something funny, and I make it a point to note it down and build on it in my free time. You see, in the world, everything has three dimensions to it. There is the normal side, the bad side, and the funny side. It is up to the comedian to think creatively and identify the funny side to things.”
For inspiration, he looks to such international comedy acts as; Chris Rock, Martin Lawrence, the Nigerian Basket Mouth, and Kenyan Eric Omondi. “Locally, I like Michael and Arthur and Herve Kimenyi. I like Arthur’s energy when he is on stage, and for Herve, I consider him an icon because he has done it all …comedy, theater, music, dance …”
Has fame and a little money changed the way he does things? Babu laughs out loud, and says: “It’s still the same old me. I still take the normal Twegerane taxi to and from town. Once in a while, I meet someone who will recognise me, but that’s just once in a while and that’s no reason for me to hide away.”
Babu has been pursuing Tourism at St Patrick in Kicukiro. “I want to be serious with the comedy but still undertake my studies as a plan B.
Does his family approve of his craft? “I thank God that my family has been very supportive all the way. My dad actually makes it a point to come to our shows whenever he can. My mum is always encouraging me, and one of my brothers is into the same thing. They all love what I do.”
On being the youngest comedian in the land he says: “It feels great. It means that I don’t have much competition, but it’s a problem in itself as some people are bound to undermine you on account of age.”
His final word is to other aspiring comedians looking for their big break: “Now is the time. There is a bunch of promising comedians who came, tried their thing, and then disappeared. They should come back, because I think the industry is more friendly now. The pay is not yet up there, but there is a lot of potential.