I grew up in a small town. One of the predominant soundtracks to my life as a child was the sound of our neighbour’s radio playing loudly on Sunday mornings. It was on that radio that I first heard Nico Mbarga’s “Sweet Mother,” Fela Kuti’s “Lady,” and the popular Nigerian sketch comedies of “Gringory” and “Chief Zebrudaya.”
I was very small back then and I didn’t always exactly understand the nuances in the sketches, that made the adults around me laugh so heartily. All I remember was that the character Gringory was the caricatured impersonation of a not-so-smart servant who was always at fault and always answered his master with many variations of ‘Oga’ when he was called.
And also, on that same radio, I learned the song “Majunga give ma money” which late Jean Miche Kankan sang in one of his sketch comedies. I don’t remember where and when I first saw an image of Jean Miche Kankan, but I remember as kids, we would rub soot on our faces, wrap clothes and put them under our shirts, tuck in our trousers into our stockings and play-act J.M Kankan in the yards of our houses, right after which we would sing and dance to Zangalewa.
The influence of Jean Miche Kankan on the comedy scene of Cameroon didn’t just reflect on the lives of us little kids playing behind my aunty’s house. His influence is worthy of documentaries, a biopic, certainly, and university theses. To say that Kankan single-handedly ruled the comedy scene of Cameroon in the mid to late 80s and early the 90s is an understatement. The man was a comedy god.
I will not dare say there were no other brilliant or well-known comedians at the time. I have not done adequate research to make that type of assertion. I can even name a standup comedian like late Jimmy Biyoong who was a brilliant, brilliant, man, comedian, and actor.
I was lucky to be at the screening of the movie “Quartier Mozart” in 2012 after which the director, Jean-Pierre Bekolo told the crowd in the cinema how much of an intelligent and cultured man Jimmy Biyong was. I know for a fact that Jimmy Biyong spoke at least 5 local languages. For those of you who have watched the movie above, Jimmy Biyong played the role of the ill-fated police commissioner “Chien Mechant.”
But none of these other men or women, unfortunately, had the kind of cultural impact that Jean-Miche Kankan had at the time, and even today. The evidence is that many of you are probably hearing about Jimmy Biyong or someone like Essindi Mindja for the first time. Thank the heavens that YouTube is here to save you.
But let’s not get derailed. The central issue of today’s subject remains. Did Kankan’s comedy style and pop culture influence stunt the growth of the standup comedy genre as a whole? Let’s examine that.
You see, Jean Miche Kankan was what is called a “sketch comedian.” This simply means his comedy was built around short sketches/plays in which he played a character – in his case, the recurrent character of Miche Kankan, a self-deprecating, not-smart-looking individual with a pitiful vocal intonation, who was usually the subject of woes that he either suffered from or wittily out-manoeuvered.
It helped him tremendously that the woes that he included in the sketches were issues that happened on the daily in Cameroon society; bribery and corruption, theft and insecurity, conjugal infertility, bureaucratic red-tape, abuse of authority, divorce and relationships, and a cornucopia of other subjects that show us that Cameroon, really, has not advanced much as a society 35 years later in terms of social interactions and governance in particular.
Aside from being just well-written and brilliant social commentary pieces, it really helped that the communication landscape at the time allowed for the growth of Kankan’s comedy. There was just CRTV. There were no private radio or TV stations at the time, and so his work could thrive with almost no competition in his niche. It was also the era of radio plays and people tuned in massively to listen. I’m reminded of people at the time who walked around with small, transistor radios glued to their ears.
So popular was the Kankan method, impact, and influence that many young, aspiring comedians hopped in on the trade and tried to be like their idol. But very few of them thought to think outside of what Kankan was already doing. Not only did they go into the same sketch comedy genre, but they also literally copied the Jean Miche Kankan character’s look. I’m talking about hats, painted faces and hair, long stockings, and colourful clothes – a look that has survived to this day.
And so in the early 90s, we saw the rise of comedians like Keguegue Internationale and Bobo et Mange Tout that copied Kankan’s looks. Many of you might not be old enough to remember any of them. This is where you thank the heavens for YouTube, again.
In the mid to late 90s, other comedians like Tchop-Tchop…. Yes, THE Tchop-Tchop, took up the same mantle and did sketch comedy with a semi-Kankan look and mannerisms. I am sure many of you at least remember Tchop-Tchop, and the likes of Casserole, Big Mami and Safaria. They also did studio albums and sold these in cassettes by the boat-load. This was the era of the liberalising of the media in Cameroon and the private radio stations that were beginning to spring up in Douala played these all the time. Sketch comedy cassettes were sold all over town and I’m sure some of your parents had them.
In the very late 90s and early 2000s, notably on Canal2, we were introduced to a new breed of comedians; Moussa Jean Kalangan, Fingon Tralala, Selavie New Way, Tagne Kondom, and many radio personalities like Massa Yacob and Hoga that were part sketch comedy acts, part side-kick humorous personalities on radio shows. This new generation of comedians did not wear the grotesque costumes, rub soot on their faces or necessarily play the ‘caricaturised’ characters that Kankan did, but they also favoured the sketch comedy genre over standup.
And throughout this period, the standup genre suffered. In fact, it was almost nonexistent, as far as I can tell.
And I hate to bring up this example, but in neighbouring Nigeria, the genre had been thriving steadily with pioneers like Ali Baba, and by 2005, I Go Dye, Basketmouth and their Night of A Thousand Laugh VCDs began to hit the streets of Anglophone Cameroon. I daresay many anglophone Cameroonians were introduced to this genre by those VCDs. I was in UB in 2009 when during a night in Amphi 250, a young guy hopped on stage, asked for a mic, and started cracking jokes while the organisers were still putting things together. I wonder where he is today.
So, what happened? Why was it that by 2007/2008 when Basketmouth was already a household name in Nigeria and in Anglophone Cameroon, the genre was still struggling to crawl here?
This is where my hypothesis of the Kankan effect takes its stance. I tend to think that the cultural impact of the man and his work has been so strong that Cameroonian comedians never really saw themselves beyond the sketch comedy lane. And it wasn’t that there weren’t standup comedians at the time. Jimmy Biyong and Essindi Mindja were still alive at the time. And apart from the comedy roles they both played in “Quartier Mozart,” these men were, de facto, standup comedians.
I tend to think that as far as the comedians that emerged in the 2000s are concerned, those that tried their hand at standup comedy were very limited in their range. In effect, much of what they did was disguised sketch comedy. Valery Ndongo, today, is a pure example of that. I am also reminded here of the guy whose main act was/ is to imitate the voice of Paul Biya. That was his “standup” routine. For many of the sketch comedians who tried their hand at standup, usually, their routines were extensions of their sketches; a mere repetition of washed-up jokes. Also, a lot of stand-up acts went for cheap, and sometimes insulting and insensitive slapstick humour that did not always stay with the audience.
Many of them did not have the patience, it would seem, or the time that it would take to develop real, culture-defining, and timeless routines that speak to an audience over time. When you look even at those who copied Kankan, they forgot to see that Kankan’s sketches were actually based on strong cultural signposts and had a relatable and compelling essence to them. There were concrete and real issues that were addressed in Kankan’s sketches, under the blanket of humour.
Many of the acts failed to see that comedians are supposed to be observers and students of culture, and of the zeitgeist of the era they live in and lived through, and that how they can singularly address and play this out in their routines with their own flair, style, delivery, and cadence, defines who amongst them becomes an icon what content of theirs becomes an iconic piece.
One cannot blame them entirely though. It certainly did not help that they were no, and still are no spaces made available for these people to thrive in. I cannot, in 2020, name even ONE comedy club in Cameroon. Just one. Our government killed culture by not opening enough theater halls and recreation centers, by not adequately supporting private initiatives, and by not promoting the arts as they should have.
But as Jovi said in his song ‘Monshung’: “What choice do we have when we live in a country that has more bars than pharmacies?”
And even the media channels that showed these comedy acts and sketches began to suffer terribly in the hands of competition from foreign TV channels. People weren’t watching CRTV or Canal2 that much anymore. Telenovelas like Mari Mar, Terra Nostra, and L’Avocat du Diable just carried us all along with our senses, like wata-rain.
It is a miracle that “Les Deballeurs” and Edoudoua Non-Glace shows thrived on Canal2 amidst that period. A real miracle.
Meanwhile, during this period in Nigeria, thanks to comedian entrepreneurs like AY, the standup scene became a multi-billion naira business. Major brands have backed the scene and new comedians are coming up every day and are thriving; some of them like Basketmouth and Bovi have become big superstars and multimillionaires.
Lately, the standup comedy scene in Cameroon has been seeing some resurgence. I have been to weddings where the ceremony is interrupted and a standup comedian comes to tell jokes. I really do not like my dancing interrupted, but hey, what can I do? Many comedians are beginning to come up on the scene and are beginning to learn the ropes of the business. They have a long and tough road ahead, but we are beginning to see brands back them up. A major telecom company has become one of the major actors, pretty much like how telecoms are actors in the comedy scene in Nigeria.
But grace doesn’t always come without a side of difficulty sometimes and now “Instagram comedians” who are doing a somewhat different type of sketch comedy are now pushing these traditional acts to reinvent themselves and show a different dimension of their talent on social media as well. No one, if not very few, has been able to build a platform and a brand outside of social media strong enough to warrant them not using the platform to promote themselves. Many who are little known outside social media are not using social media well and have to use it strategically so as not to dilute the genre that they want to excel in.
It’s a very delicate situation. We are essentially asking people who are learning how to crawl, to also tap dance.
A grim reminder that perhaps the resurgence of standup comedy that we are beginning to see in Cameroon is already being killed at birth. No thanks to Jean Miche Kankan’s impact and influence… perhaps.
-Wandji Wilfred. .