John Ramsey has enjoyed success as a comedian in America, among his credits having reached the late, great HBO U.S. Comedy Arts festival in Aspen and performing on Comedy Central’s Live at Gotham.
But for the past year, Ramsey has served as a volunteer in Kenya. Not so funny, right? That didn’t stop him from trying, though. You can read about his experiences adapting his sense of humor for what Africans find funny on his personal blog — and in many instances, he found out “Why My Jokes Don’t Work in Kenya.” And yet. Ramsey did adapt to his surroundings, learned enough Swahili, and earned himself a gig on Kenya’s, and East Africa’s, most popular “late-night” show (which happens to be 7:30 p.m. Thursdays), Churchill Live. Hosted by “Churchill” Dan Ndambuki, the show reaches 10 million viewers across an area of 40 million where many people still don’t own a TV.
Sit back and enjoy this clip, which has a different pacing than American TV, and afterward, Ramsey tells me the backstory.
Ramsey tells me:
I’m over here volunteering as a legal fellow for an organization called the International Justice Mission (www.ijm.org). Although the organization is most well known for its fight against human trafficking, in Kenya, we do two different kinds of work. We represent young children who have been raped — and help ensure the Court system works for them. And we represent men and women who are in prison for crimes they didn’t commit. My biggest project here was overseeing the appeal of an 80-year old man who had been sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit — and we got him out… Since I was there for such serious business, it never really came up that I was comic much.
I planned to do a comedy show before I ever got here. But I had a different idea of what it would be — I thought I’d put on a show and do some old jokes and some jokes about Kenya. But the logistics became very difficult. And, more importantly, I came to learn more about how different the sense of humor was. Not only did my jokes not work, my style of comedy did not work. I could have put on a show for expats, but decided to do something with Kenyans — I thought I’d host a show of Kenyan comedians. When I started contacting comedians, I learned about Churchill Live.
I can’t say I learned Swahili completely, but I studied in anticipation of coming and kept at it while I was here. I can communicate pretty decently if we don’t get into politics or something. Most Kenyans in Nairobi are tri-lingual to some degree (mother tongue, Swahili, English), but Swahili is kind of their “informal” language… by that I mean, they use it when they are relaxing. And, so much of the comedy is Swahili, especially the punchlines. I definitely wanted to use Swahili in my set, but scaled back the amount because I have to really concentrate to speak it and I didn’t want to bite off more than I could chew.
At any rate, through the comedians I was talking to about the show, I learned more about Churchill Live! — so I decided I wanted to audition. I worked with one comedian in particular on my jokes — I wrote them all, but he told me what was funny and what was not. We actually went through an entire hour of my material from America, and only two jokes got even an acknowledgment that he got them. One is about wanting to be an astronaut, but my teacher telling me the sky is the limit (a joke I would never showcase in America because of a similar joke of Myq (Kaplan)’s) and one about swallowing spiders that he said would work if I related it to the Chinese. In the end, I was able to kind of guess what might work, but I never really got the hang of it. We worked on it for a while. Once I had 5 minutes, I decided to audition.
It was a pretty informal process… they liked that I had been on American television. And, they also liked my stuff. But, ultimately, it was probably about 50 percent that my material worked and 50 percent that I was an American comic. As you can see from the beginning of the clip, they really elaborated on my role in American comedy. I think they wanted me on the show, one way or the other — it was only whether or not they were going to make fun of me or act like I was legit. In the end, they acted like I was legit.
The Kenyan sense of humor is more blatant than ours. And I was told time and again that Kenyans wanted to be told why something was funny — which was totally new. Then, in addition, my accent is apparently very difficult to understand, which meant I had to speak insanely slowly — something which was also new. In the end, it resulted in a very slow, deliberate obvious set where I repeated myself to make sure I was understood.
The show itself was for about 800 Kenyans. The only white folks were there to see me. On the televised version, my wife is on screen as much as I am. When I mentioned her in my set, they panned straight to her … “Like, well, that white woman must be his wife.” It was also SO LONG. It was about 5 hours, even though they only air 45 minutes. And, I spent a lot of that time backstage with the musical guest, a former Sudanese child soldier turned international hip-hop star. That, honestly, was the highlight of the night.
The reaction was very positive. They really loved it. But even though one in four Nairobians saw the show, no one recognized me on the streets. In fact, it had been a concern of mine (I already stick out more than I’d like here), but I was told not to worry because all white people look alike and no one would recognize me. And they were right — only the Kenyans that already knew me said anything. Not even a look of recognition other than that.