Exclusive: Justine Wanda Speaks on The State of Stand-Up Comedy In Kenya & Her Recent Achievements

In the ever-evolving landscape of Kenyan comedy, opinions on what defines a true stand-up comedian have recently stirred up a lively conversation. Veteran rapper Jua Cali ignited this discourse when he voiced his thoughts on comedian Njugush’s latest performance. According to Jua Cali, Njugush’s comedic style might be more aligned with skit-making than the traditional stand-up comedy format. The comments from Jua Cali swiftly caught the public’s attention, prompting a wider debate on the nuances of comedy.

Amidst this dialogue, a prominent figure emerges – Justine Wanda, a luminary in the realm of Kenyan comedy. With a portfolio that includes stand-up performances in Nairobi’s vibrant comedy scene, participation in various comedy events, and even hosting her own show titled “Fake Woke with Justine,” Wanda has firmly etched her presence in the comedy circuit. Her accomplishments extend beyond the stage, as she has also ventured into film production, creating a short film titled “Influenced.” Notably, Justine Wanda’s reach transcends national borders; her talents have taken her to the Johannesburg International Comedy Festival, where she proudly represented Kenya’s comedic prowess. As an influential voice in the industry, Justine Wanda’s insights on the ongoing debate bring a fresh perspective to the evolving comedy landscape.

Recently, there was a public spat between Jua Cali and Njugush, which garnered attention. What are your thoughts on how the public reacted to their exchange? Do you believe such controversies can have an impact on the comedy industry as a whole?

Juacali vs Njugush was a case of criticism meeting an already explosive timeline. Njugush is an incredible comedian and satirist and I’ve watched/enjoyed his work for a long time! He has perfected certain facets of comedy and it’s good that he’s venturing into stand up! That doesn’t mean that he can’t have bad shows. Bombing is an experience every standup comedian is familiar with. I think it’s absolutely okay to take certain Ls because learning from them makes you a better comedian. The issue with online outrage and people piling on is that the conversation that pertains to comedy is lost sometimes! Kenyans are familiar with good comedy, they watch it all the time. These controversies may help in a way to recognise what Kenyans want but it should go beyond the outrage. Kenyans need to start sharing stand up comedy that they enjoy too because that shows what they appreciate and what needs to be lauded

As a prominent stand-up comedian in Kenya, what would you say are the major challenges that the comedy industry, particularly stand-up, faces in the country?

I wouldn’t say I’m prominent but I’ll take the acknowledgment haha! One of the biggest challenges is growing the club culture. Comedians need rooms to practice their material/take it on tour. Given the size of the scene and the rotating audiences, there is a dismissal of what makes good stand-up comedy because people see you sometimes repeating material. However, a joke has a growth cycle and it needs to be workshopped until it’s the funniest it can be. 

The second is getting people to come out to shows. Many people who complain there aren’t any good stand-up comedians who can do an hour of comedy don’t seek out any comedians apart from those they know. While that’s purely dependent on what people enjoy, you can’t be dismissive of an entire industry without at least going out to support the people in it

Third, comedians need funding too. If you call them for a show, pay them for their time. Saying “…but it’s just 15 minutes ” when to get a good 15 or an hour of comedy took years of personal and comedy industry investment to actually get there and perfect that is really hurtful and sets the comedian back.

Could you elaborate on some of the obstacles that emerging comedians often encounter when trying to establish themselves in the Kenyan comedy scene?

There are so many but a big one is just getting more stages to perform. Our space is small and we would absolutely love to grow but we’re also limited by capital which would help with marketing our shows and all the great things that come with comedy! The rotational nature of our rooms sometimes tires out the audience and we don’t know what to do sometimes because asking someone to write a new joke every week is a demanding task but leaves no room for joke growth!

Sometimes when I post a joke, someone will be like, “Sasa mnaringia nani na hizi jokes za wazungu!” And to that I say [redacted] this is just my job!

In your experience, what are some of the factors that contribute to the success of a stand-up comedian in Kenya? Are there any specific skills or qualities that are highly valued in the industry?

Write. Write. Edit. Write. You have to write as much as you can. The perfect punchline could be your 7th thought but it helps if you’re always writing 

Get on stage as much as you can. Going up (you either kill or bomb) but it’s always a lesson on how to become better

Don’t be afraid to fail. The nights you bomb can really put things into perspective right after you lose your mind and question every decision that ever led you to that point. The days you kill (do well) no one can tell you anything but always remember you’re just as good as your last performance so don’t stay in the clouds for too long

Support from people who love your work. That share button for posters, reels you’ve put out helps. Word of mouth is really a strong contender to getting more people to attend shows.

On the flip side, what are some areas that you believe require improvement within the comedy industry in Kenya? Are there any aspects that you feel are currently lacking or not receiving enough attention?

Just build more clubs/spaces for comedians to perform and when it’s advertised and you can make time, just go out to the shows. Live comedy shows are the best and more people should come through to watch us

Kenya has a vibrant comedy scene, particularly in Nairobi. Can you highlight some of the positive developments or wins that you’ve witnessed in recent years in the Kenyan comedy industry?

Our stand-up scene has also had Roast House and Comedy Riot on Showmax so that’s a positive sign that comedy in Kenya can go beyond borders 

There is a lot of appreciation for sketch comedy especially online. Esther Kazungu, Wololo TV, Crazy Kennar, Njugush have top tier support for their work and this makes me especially excited for this scene

A lot more people are leaning to comedy to steer the conversations too whether through memes or skits, they’re all so great and I love to see more people coming out in full support

Stand-up comedy often tackles social and cultural issues. How do you navigate the fine line between comedy and potentially offensive or controversial content in your performances?

You can’t think about the offensive or controversial nature of things all the time when you’re writing a joke. The goal is to be funny. The awareness of what you want your punchline to look like is what steers the joke towards or away from the controversy. Personally, I like when a joke’s premise is completely disagreeable but I can find a way to work it back to the punchline and have people completely forgetting the wild nature of their acceptance of it because they already laughed

There are comedians who love shock or controversy or to be offensive but if it’s not funny then why would you do it? Also, comedy is very subjective! Most comedy ages badly and we’re trying to live in the moment writing the best possible joke.

Could you share some insights into your creative process as a comedy writer? How do you come up with new material and ensure that it resonates with your audience?

You should love what you do. I love making people laugh but I also ask myself, “Would I laugh at this?” If something is funny to me, I write it down and share it.

I write from my personal experience and as selfish as this is, the more personal the story the better it does. As a comedy writer, I’m very observant and I consume a lot of information to help with various analogies and associations!

Hosting your own show, “Fake Woke with Justine,” seems like an exciting venture. What motivated you to create this show, and what themes or topics do you aim to explore through it?

I love working on FWWJ. It’s magical, chaotic, and heartbreaking. I created this show because I wanted to be able to share what’s happening in the news cycle in a way that doesn’t overwhelm the audience. Am I doing it? Yeah! Do I have to read a ton of sad stuff to find one story to share? Yes, and I may also need psychological support too. Will I write jokes that resonate every time? Well, stay tuned to find out

I explore a variety of issues on the show and my aim is to make people aware and laugh through my social, cultural, economic, and political commentary! It’s a wild ride considering I’ve done topics ranging from Period Poverty and Pedestrian Struggles to The Problem With PlayKE Music. 

I wanted a space that wasn’t particularly limited in what I could talk about. From sports to politics to the current economic situation, finding room for laughter in all this chaos is truly the heart and soul of the show and probably what’s keeping people sane. However, being able to steer important conversations to the corners of the internet that might not actually be aware/engage with this is also fun.

In addition to stand-up comedy, you have also delved into other creative projects, such as writing and producing a short film called “Influenced.” How has your experience in comedy influenced your approach to other artistic endeavors?

Comedy is so vast in itself and as a comedian, I just want to be able to create and leave as much laughter in the world in whatever form. 

Co-writing and producing Influenced helped me with this. I’ve always wanted to write a romcom, did not have a budget for a feature film but with friends willing to create with you, you find a way. 

Working in comedy has allowed me to understand what resonates with people and how I can use that to create more work. 

How do you personally handle criticism or negative feedback about your performances? What strategies do you employ to stay motivated and continue to grow as a comedian?

Again, being a comedian is mostly about allowing yourself to fail. Usually with people watching and judging you over expensive wine and a meal. But that’s the fun of it. A joke can fall flat so you question yourself how to make it better or throw it away altogether. When you look into the audience and there isn’t one person laughing, as a stand-up comedian that’s the worst thing that can possibly happen. Unless you fall down and you feel even worse. 

You have to be able to determine what criticism is useful and what is pure hate. Especially online. I’ve been lucky to work in an industry where comedians are brutally honest with you so this helps me improve 

Additionally, you have to believe in yourself. You’re funny! If you made someone laugh, you can do it again. You just have to have a strong premise, great punchlines and absolutely amazing timing and delivery. And if you don’t, you can learn. And if you can’t learn, well… maybe this isn’t for you 

Looking ahead, what are your aspirations and goals for the future of your comedy career? Are there any particular milestones or projects that you are eager to pursue?

I would loooooove to go on tour (on someone else’s dime). A fully sponsored stand-up tour where I just show up to be funny and get paid. Then wrap that tour with a comedy special on Netflix or Comedy Central

I’d like to write for a prominent satire show. Dear John Oliver, I’m a Last Week Tonight Stan. I know it’s unhealthy to love a show about systemic disasters but I’m already doing it with Fake Woke so please hire me. I also heard Hasan Minhaj may become the new host of The Daily Show so I’ll need heaven to move so I can write on that show. If not, I’d give anything to write for The Problem With Jon Stewart. That said I would give anything to host/write for my own satire show (already doing it) and get paid for it – this part needs to follow suit!

I’d like to write movies, sitcoms, all fun comedy stuff. Hoping these dreams come true 

Justine wanda’s short film -Influenced, is available on Youtube.