A Sociolinguistic Study of Social-Political Activism and Non-Violent Resistance in Stand-Up Comedy Performances in Nigeria.

AuthorRaheem, Saheed
PositionCritical essay


Stand-up comedy as a sub-set of humor discourse has been researched widely by scholars from various disciplines such as philosophy, psychology, sociology, anthropology and linguistics as a result of the multidimensional nature of the concepts, their connection to and impact on other areas of human endeavors. This interest in humor by people from different disciplines might not be unconnected with the wide coverage of humor and the possibility of its applicability to different subjects and contexts. After all, humor is "anything that is or may be perceived as funny, amusing and laughable" Attardo (2011:135). Language scholars' interest in humor research may not be unconnected to the place of language in the production of humor. This is because language is the vehicle through which humor is conveyed in any human culture. Language is therefore crucial to the production of humor and this has resulted in the various linguistic theories and approaches that have been applied to the study of humor (Attardo, 1994).

In every human society, humor is context-specific. It essentially strives on the functional benefits of entertainment. However, beyond the analysis of the linguistic and discourse features of humor and stand-up comedy, there are other social and political perspectives of humor and stand-up comedy in Nigeria. These include several socio-political protests and agitations inherent in these performances. Thus, beyond just studying the structures and features of these comedy performances, the present study attempts a sociolinguistic study of stand-up comedy performances with a view to examining the linguistic and discourse features for the purpose of civic agitation. The paper attempts to unveil the different socio-political undercurrents in these performances and foreground their values as weapons for exuding subtle protests and non-violent agitations. The paper aims at examine the socio-political relevance and discourse value of these performances in the clamour for social reengineering, especially with respect to reordering perceived disorderliness in the conduct of the affairs of Nigeria as a nation. The paper shall identify and discuss instances of the deployment of linguistic and discourse resources in pointing out social and political vices in stand-up comedy performances in order to achieve social balance.

Humor and the Evolution of Stand-up Comedy in Nigeria

Stand-up comedy is a phenomenal recreation of human experiences on stage in a way that is humorous. It is, in the view of Filani (2015:42), "a genre of popular culture which thrives on the production of humorous utterances". This comic genre features performers regarded as stand-up comedians "who plant themselves in front of their listeners with their microphones and start telling a succession of funny stories, one-liner or short jokes, and anecdotes, which are often called bits, in order to make their audience laugh" (Schwarz, 2010). The above views underline the primary goal of stand-up comedy which is the creation of humor to entertain a listening audience. Although there are diverse opinions on the origins of stand-up comedy in Nigeria, it is however not indubitable that it is an art form that has become recognisable across different strata and among the generality of the Nigerian society, maintaining its reputation not only as a platform for entertainment but also as a means of expressing opinions, making commentaries, and providing a platform to voice sentiments and bias on lingering issues in the nation, and sometimes the world at large. Stand-up comedy, through humorous means, has thus become an alternative space for socio-political activism and non-violent resistance in the Nigerian society. Rodrigues (2013) corroborates the foregoing when she opines that stand-up comedy is a socially accepted form of aggression.

Humor or its performance is not alien to Nigeria. It has always been an important aspect of Nigerian cultural production. In indigenous Nigerian contexts, the presence of jesters and clowns in courts to entertain the Kings and members of the royal family suggests a pre-cursor of the humor tradition. Often times, these jesters live within the courts and are always on hand to entertain and amuse people and add color to important events and ceremonies in the courts. However, what appears to be the closest to modern day stand-up comedy as we have it today in Nigeria is the different comic relief segments in films and theatrical performances in the 1960s, 1970 and in the 1980s.

Some notable Nigerian comedians whose names became synonymous with humor during this era include Moses Olaiya (Baba Sala), Sunday Omobolanle (Aluwe), Ayo Ogunsina (Papalolo), Tajudeen Gbadamosi (Jacob), Kayode Olaiya (Aderupoko), and Gbenga Adeboye (Funwontan). Another significant and closely related form of performance to which one can also trace the evolution and development of stand-up comedy in Nigeria is the "Master of Ceremony" (MC) concept popular in the organisation of events and social functions in Nigeria till date. Many of these artistes are trained and they get paid to anchor social functions, programmes and ceremonies. They provide comic interjections or interludes of jokes and talks that amuse and make guests or their audience laugh. One landmark and historic year in the evolution and development of stand-up comedy in Nigeria is the year 1995, when Opa Williams, a comedy merchant came up with the idea of having comedians perform on the same stage before a live audience in an organised manner. The show titled "Nite of a Thousand Laughs" was developed and soon became popular among Nigerians who could not make the live shows but now have the opportunity to see the performances of their favourite comedians in Video CDs produced after the shows in successive volumes. Thus, 1995 could be regarded as the beginning of the golden era of modern day stand-up comedy in Nigeria.

Stand-up comedy is a unique form of entertainment which engages the audience on sundry issues --religious, economic, political, social, etc. It redefines everyday issues and add comic touches to them. Stand-up comedy within the context of the Nigerian entertainment industry has become a serious business having evolved from a "state of nothing to an enviable state of something" (Ayakoroma, 2013:1). Even though the aim of these comedians is to amuse their audience with their performances, the ultimate goal and societal function of these performances is to make the political class, government or individuals at the centre of their performances to pause and think so as to turn a new leaf in the conduct of their affairs. Ayakoroma also hints at the tranquilizing import of stand-up comedy in Nigeria. According to him, "it is an effective form of anaesthesia to the pains, sorrows, fears and disappointments, frustrations, worries and uncertainties of the average Nigerian".

Studies on Humor/Stand-up Comedy in Nigeria

There are several studies on humor or comedy in general in Nigeria, from different perspectives and methodological orientations. However, stand-up comedy as a sub-genre has relatively scanty existing research. While studies focusing on humor have identified and explored the linguistic and discursive as well as the pragmatic strategies (Odebunmi and Ogunleye 2003, Adetunji 2013, Filani 2015), the same cannot be said with stand-up comedy as scholars have not fully explore the discourse values of these performances. Adetunji (2013) focuses on the interactional context of stand-up comedy and dwells on the co-presence and cooperation of comedians and audience in stand-up comedy performances. This cooperation between the audience and comedians according to the study is possible as a result of the shared knowledge between the two parties in the production and consumption of humor.

The study highlights the different pragmatic strategies deployed by Nigerian stand-up comedians in involving their audience as co-participants or co-creators of the interactional context of humor needed for the generation of humor. The study identifies linguistic coding, stereotyping, formulas, call-and-response, self-denigration and shared experiences as salient features of stand-up comedy in Nigeria.

In another study on stand-up comedy in Nigeria but with particular focus on Calabar-related jokes, Ekpang and Bassey (2014) examine an aspect of stand-up comedy in Nigeria, which centres on how comedy misrepresents certain linguistics metaphors, social and cultural concerns of the people satirically thereby eliciting audience reaction. The work reveals that the comic presentation of the Calabar man in Nigerian stand-up comedy routines is either misplaced or theatrical and does not have a true representation of the Calabar people. Furthermore, in a recent study on stand-up comedy, Filani (2016) analyses and focuses of the use of mimicry in stand-up comedy. The study identifies verbal and non-verbal mimicry as important tools in the hands of comedians and shows how they rely on the background knowledge and shared experiences of the audience in deploying mimicry in their performances. The study re-echoes Adetunji (2013), especially in relation to the question of shared knowledge and background information by the audience in the creation of humor. Another related study is Adegoju and Oyebode (2015) work on the patterns of humor on the Internet. Even though the study sourced its data from another domain of language use (the Internet), the approach is of particular interest to the present study. Specifically, the study explores internet memes deployed for online political campaigns in the 2015 presidential election in Nigeria. The study did not only explore but also situates their discourse values in electioneering campaigns within the Nigerian context, thereby foregrounding the functions of humour in raising several national concerns.

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