How Women In Comedy Are Navigating Nigeria’s Androcentric Industry
"A woman can be in a male-dominated industry and still stand out.”
"A woman can be in a male-dominated industry and still stand out.”
Across numerous eras and genres, comedy has been a fundamental part of popular culture, appearing in different mediums of entertainment including television, radio, film, music, books, theatre, and more. This art form, which dates back to medieval times, has undergone several changes and modulations but its major objective remains the same: eliciting laughter in audiences to, even if briefly, forget everyday circumstances. In today’s digitalised world, comedy has taken on new, unique forms while retaining its core values, and women—fighting against tough societal and economic challenges—have played a major role in this shift.
In Nigeria, our collective relationship with comedy as a profession harkens back to the late nineties, with names such as Moses “Baba Sala” Olaiya, Ayo “Papalolo” Ogunsina, Tajudeen “Jacob” Gbadamosi, Kayode “Aderupoko” Olaiya, Chika “Chief Zebrudaya” Okpala, James “Gringory” Iwoha, Sunday “Papi Luwe” Omobolanle, in constant circulation. The works of those performers were rooted in theatre and television, which were striving fields in the early forties and fifties. Baba Sala, who performed with his Alawada Group, is regarded as a pioneer in modern Nigerian comedy. While the trio of Papalolo, Jacob and Aderupoko scored success with their plays that aired on TV stations in the southwestern part of the country. Chief Zebrudaya and Gringory were the stars in the hit TV series ‘The New Masquerade’ that ran from the 80s to the mid-1990s. In that space, the most notable female comic actor was ‘The New Masquerade’s’ Lizzy Evoeme, who played the role of Ovularia.
The fusion of theatre, TV and comedy was the building block for what later became Nollywood–the country’s premiere film industry. It also took until the 1990’s, the same amount of time it did for Nollywood, for the comedy industry to blossom and diversify itself. One such advancement came in the form of stand-up comedy. Following the path created by acts such as John Chukwu (JC), Mohammed Danjuma, Tony St Iyke, Jude “Away Away” Onakpoma, Atunyota “Ali Baba” Alleluya Akpobome became a household name. The comedian is regarded as the one who revolutionised stand-up comedy in Nigeria, making it a profitable and respectable career path.
As the comedy grew and broadened its horizons, Nigerian film producer-cum-comedy-entrepreneur Opa Williams delivered a watershed moment with the growth of the genre with his comedy show “Night of a Thousand Laughs,” which birthed ascendant names such as Okey Bakassi, Julius Agwu, Basketmouth, I Go Dye, Gandoki, AY, Gordons and Bovi, among others. Entertainment producer Bunmi Davies also made an impact with his comedy show, “Stand Up Nigeria,” deepening the pool of local comic talents. At the time, it was glaring that the industry was male-dominated, as there were only a handful of women who received their deserved recognition.
One of those women is Mandy “Mandy” Uzonitsha who is considered a pioneer among female stand-up comedians in Nigeria. She performed on the same stage as her male counterparts, earning their respect as well as the admiration of her audiences. In 2017, Mandy celebrated 25 years in the industry and hosted an all-female comedy show. Her success carved the path for Damilola “Princess” Adekoya, Bose “Lepacious Bose” Ogunboye and Helen Paul. Like Mandy, Princess, Lepacious Bose and Helen Paul found creative ways to gain relevance in the industry. Princess’s jokes are mostly about her experiences as a Nigerian woman, Lepacious Bose uses her comedy to call attention to the beauty and gloriousness of plus-size women, and Helen Paul’s signature child-like vocal delivery is a winning formula.
These female comedians have also found success outside of stand-up comedy. They have ventured into TV, music and film and notched up endorsement deals. Princess was part of the cast of Kayode Peters & Tope Alake’s film ‘Crazy Grannies’ (2021); Lepacious Bose won Best Comedic Act category in the 2014 film ‘Being Mrs Elliot’; and Helen Paul, who is a TV and radio presenter, starred in numerous film and TV productions and pursued a music career.
Despite the wins, the journey to success wasn’t an easy feat for those women as they faced unfair challenges that riddled their path with more obstacles, compared to their male counterparts. In an interview with The Punch, Mandy cited instances where “most of the juicy jobs usually go to our male counterparts, even the jobs that are tailor-made for females.” It is a credit to the resilience of Mandy and other female comedians that they stuck to their talent and eventually found success, thereby making the path easier for the next generation of women to follow.
The early 2010s gave rise to the boom of the internet and social media in Nigeria, benefiting creative industries including film and music. The comedy industry was not left out from this. The ubiquity of smartphones meant that more Nigerians had access to content from around the world and could also curate content for audiences outside the country. This led to platforms such as YouTube, Thriller, Vine and WhatsApp becoming arenas for creatives to showcase their talents and gather a massive following.
While this phenomenon saw the influx of large numbers of male creatives, it also ensured that women too gained access without any restrictions to contend with. Through short comedy sketches popularly known as skits, women with comic talents have found ways to garner attention such as Anita “Real Warri Pikin” Asuoha, who is a stand-up comedian, on-air personality and actor. In her skits, Real Warri Pikin assumes different roles and humorous spins on ordinary Nigerian lifestyles. She mostly utilises Pidgin English (of the Warri brand) to create her content and embeds it into the sociocultural texture of Nigerian society. Over the years, Real Warri Pikin, who is also a mother, has managed to strike a balance between her career and motherhood.
“It’s been very bitter-sweet. It’s been difficult,” Real Warri Pikin tells the NATIVE about building a career in the Nigerian entertainment industry. “The foundation was not easy, especially coupled with the fact that I was married with little kids. I’m also a woman in the industry, dealing with those backward narratives. You know how e dey be. It’s been really difficult but I was very intentional and bent on changing the narrative. A woman can be in a male-dominated industry and still stand out.”
Chioma “Chigul” Omeruah is another performer whose signature act is her Igbo accent that proudly celebrates her roots in the southeastern part of the country. Like Real Warri Pikin Chigul has featured in TV and film productions, and like Real Warri Pikin, she has been open about mental health challenges. In an interview for Accelerate TV’s “The Cover” segment, she spoke about the discrimination she has faced because of her plus-size frame and how she has managed to keep her focus on her career. Her YouTube show “Her Matters” features conversations with respected individuals on the topics of youth, family and sexuality.
Similarly, Maryam “Taaooma” Apaokagi-Greene rose to stardom in 2019 after uploading a skit on Instagram about an agitated mother hurrying to take her daughter, who overslept, to school. Along the way, the daughter mentions that she forgot her school bag at home. “Did you carry food?” the mother asks and when the daughter says yes, the mother rains slaps on her. That skit went viral and formed the basis of Taaooma’s work: the (sometimes dysfunctional) relationship between parents and their children, when it comes to traditional forms of discipline and family life in general. Taaooma has since leveraged her breakthrough, directing for the cinematography firm The Greenade Company, founding her food company Chop Tao and pursuing a music career.
Indeed, no conversation about comedy in Nigeria will be complete without the mention of “Maraji” Oloruntobi, who is another illustrious name in Nigeria’s comedy scene. In her comic skits, Maraji plays multiple roles, from troublemaking students in a classroom to the behaviours of mothers concerning their daughters’ intimate lives. In one skit, she showed the different reactions that parents would express when watching TV and a kissing scene appeared. After giving birth to her child in 2022, Maraji has used her social media pages to document her journey with pregnancy and motherhood and keep her audience entertained with new material that celebrates her growth and maturity.
The crux of comedy is collaborations and in Nigeria, female comedians are also keen on collaboration to widen their arsenal and endear them to new audiences. Oluwabukunmi Oyebisi “Kie Kie” Adeaga-Ilori is a skit maker, event and TV host, actor, a brand influencer and fashion enthusiast. Her character Kie Kie is a cantankerous, semi-literate yet funny personality with an opinion on everything and everyone. Some of her collaborators include Mr Macaroni, Broda Shagi, Lasisi Elenu and Officer Woos. Taaooma, too, has worked with names such as Twyse, Mr Macaroni and MC Lively. The collaborations have yielded benefits for both male and female comedians as they access one another’s fanbase and increase their reach.
Outside the country, there are female comics (of Nigerian descent) who have made incredible impacts. Born in the United States, Chinasa Anukam started her stand-up comedy career in the United Kingdom and she is also an actor, presenter and content creator. Anukam has a YouTube web series called “Is The Seat Taken?” where she has unscripted conversations with public figures. Last year, she toured Lagos and Abuja for her stand-up comedy show “By The Grace of God and Black Man Blood.” Other names outside these parts include Regina Obedapo “Gina Yashere” Iyashere and Drea Okeke. Gina Yashere is a British comedian, actress and writer who has performed in the UK and America and co-created the American sitcom ‘Bob Hearts Abishola’ while Drea Okeke uses TikTok to entertain and promote Black creators on the platform.
Like their counterparts in Nigeria, Gina Yashere and Drea Okeke have faced challenges navigating a male-dominated industry. Yashere told The Guardian that years of commitment to her craft and being the only female engineer at Canary Wharf have helped her surmount the obstacles hindering women from reaching the peak of their careers, saying that those have “built up my layers of resilience going through all those things.” On her part, Okeke admitted that although “her path hasn’t been as tough as other female comedians,” she has struggled with being taken seriously outside the comedy space. “In the hierarchy of social media, the beauty and lifestyle creators definitely do get the higher budgets,” she told In The Know. “Comedians do get paid, …but the ‘stuck in a box’ problem is real.”
While these issues remain, female comedians, both in Nigeria and in the diaspora, have been resilient in their bid to garner the attention of audiences and compete with their male colleagues. They have leveraged social media’s ability to reach large numbers of people, whether in Nigeria or outside the shores of the country. “One of the advantages of me also having an online presence is reach,” Real Warri Pikin says. “Since I already have an online audience and presence, before they call me, they’ve [the audience] started cheering. So the online videos help them have an idea what to expect. They know that I’m funny. That has helped me in my standup.”
The future looks promising for Nigeria’s female comedians. Over the years, there has been more influx of names whose impacts have been felt, from child star Emmanuella “Emmanuella” Samuel to Kemi “Mummy Wa” Ikuseedun to Ope “SwitOpe” Keshinro. It remains only a matter of time before they attain the respect they rightfully deserve as creators and artists.
Featured image credits/NATIVE