Curchill: I’m just getting started after 15 years in comedy

By: PHILIP MWANIKI

It took Daniel Ndambuki eight years to be an “overnight success”. It was eight years of hard work, with many outright rejections when he showed up for auditions. At the time, he was a “skinny, very black boy with a ‘box cut’ hairstyle”.

He did menial jobs, tried his hand at soccer, but everything pointed to television. He knew — and believed — he had it, but to the rest of the world, he was just another kid with a dream.

A diamond in the rough, riding high with his weekly high-rated comedy programme, The Churchill Show.

“It was after eight years that people started saying, “Kuna kamtu kanaitwa Churchill kamekuja juzi’ (There is this guy called Churchill who appeared just recently),” he recalls.

Before the show’s success, he was just an upcoming talent on Intru Kalas and later Redykyulas, the highly successful comedy show that made such an impact on the industry, everything rotated on its axis. Churchill was one of the opening acts, who got six minutes to do his bit every week.

He soon became a favourite of the show’s fans, and the Redykyulas group took him with them on their last tour of the United States. They had shown him the “promised land”, but he needed to get there himself.

DONE WITH COMEDY

“Tonny Njuguna had just landed a major gig with ScanAd, KJ with Ogilvy and Walter at Kiss FM,” he recalls. “They were done with comedy. I remember Tonny couldn’t even do his acts in peace because of all the calls and emails he received from the office,” he recalls.

So Churchill approached the trio’s producer, Bob Nyanja, with an idea of a TV show and Nyanja agreed to help him set it up.

“But that was the easy part. For two years we were trying to do the show and had to beg people to come and watch it at Alliance Francaise. After we shot it, it took us another six months trying to pitch it to TV stations, until media eventually decided to take a chance on us.”

The show became an instant hit.

It’s hard to believe that probably the biggest name in Kenyan comedy and the Intru Kalas team were was once booed off the stage as they desperately trying to land jokes but the people who showed up were not interested in them; they wanted to see Redsan, one of the biggest names in local music.

All that feels like three decades ago when you realise that people pay as much as Sh2,000 to have Churchill and his comedy troupe crack their ribs. There is probably no other act in Kenya that could waltz into any county and sell out a show. For his weekly show, he has continuously sold out the Carnivore restaurant and still remains a hot ticket.

On Saturday, the man behind the brand will do his first 90-minute solo show at the Kenyatta International Convention Centre. He has done it all, risen to the top of Kenyan comedy. Love or hate him, this man runs Kenyan comedy.

“I have been in the industry proper for 15 years, but people will not remember me when I was looking for auditions in 1996. So tomorrow will be a review of the decade and a half of my career, knowing that we are just starting,” he says.

JUST STARTING?

Just starting? The man has probably the biggest show on Kenyan television, is the voice thousands listen to on the way to work and also one of the most sought-after MCs by corporates. So how can he say that he is just getting started after what seems like a very successful stretch?

“What we have been doing was laying the foundation. We were learning on the job. We were preparing Kenyans for what is to come starting next year,” says Churchill. “What is to come is what Kenyans have been asking for a long time: Why we don’t have our own Trevor Noahs and other major brands that will hit in Uganda and, dare I say, Nigeria.”

He never imagined the success he is enjoying now. He never dreamt he would have fans in every part of the country but most of all, he never thought he would be the man to help grow local talent and take it to the next level.

Many probably didn’t realise when he decided to reduce his role on the show to just an MC. He shows up, introduces the show, makes the people be at ease and then, like a conveyor belt, brings out the talents he has helped nurture.

“It was a deliberate move. It was time to give these kids a chance. It’s not that I had run out of jokes,” he explains, knowing that he is addressing all those who think he was forced into the background by audiences that preferred the new kids on the block.

“Look, I am present during rehearsals, I advise them on how to deliver their punchlines. I could have decided to make them my writers and delivered all the jokes myself.”

Did he decide to get more comedians on the show to deliberately cut his time on TV and make all the money?

“Where do you people get these stories?” he asks. “I am helping grow the comedy industry and it started when I saw Eric Omondi at a Daystar University event and he became a success. Then we have all these kids who come to me looking for a chance and I can’t turn them away. I am very happy with what I am doing.”

But some of these very talents that he is helping nurture have also brought him anguish. He insists that he can handle criticism, positive or negative, but that is until you ask him the one thing that really grinds his gears when he reads about himself.

“There were some articles that claimed I don’t pay the artistes,” he says bitterly. “Nobody talked about the money they make when they appear on media, I am using my platform to get their names out so if we are to be honest, they should be paying me.”

The problem with some of these comedians, he says, is that they do not see the opportunity. “When you appear on a platform I have taken years to build, people are not showing up to watch you, but me, so when I stand there and introduce you and tell the audience you are really talented, I am endorsing you, I am making sure you will not spend 15 years trying to make it like I did.”

Another issue that gets him hot under the collar is the “Nite of a Thousand Laughs”, where Nigerian comedian Oppa Williams showed up and did two major shows.

“I respect them and what they do but I cannot land in Nigeria today and just pick who I want and do whatever I want. I have to use the right channels, deal with the gatekeepers, it is all about respect,” he says.

Does Sunday’s show scare him?

“Why would it scare me? This is what I have been doing for 15 years and there is enough material to pick from. I will be giving my fans the story of my journey and I will be showing you what is coming next,” he says.

He has been holed up at Tumaini Gardens in Isinya for the last week with a team of writers working on the script for his one-and-a half hour show, which he promises will be a blast.

“We are ready to go international now,” he says confidently.

Even with all the fame and wealth, the man remains humble, or at least has mastered the art of dodging questions.

Zuqka: Do you know just how big your brand is, or do you just not want to believe it?

Churchill: The minute you assume you are big is the minute you lose it.

Zuqka: You are the biggest entertainment brand in Kenya, right?

Churchill: I’m just trying.

Zuqka: Have you gone to any part of this country and people had absolutely no idea who you are?

Churchill: For that, I want to thank media. Its shows that they have a very wide reach.

It’s really a tactic that he has perfected over time, which he puts to good use if you dare ask him how much he is worth.

“I always see you guys and bloggers trying to figure out how much I am worth and all you do is put me at loggerheads with KRA because those figures are not correct. My mother told me there are things a man never reveals: his salary, ATM pin and passwords. I am just following her advice,” he offers.

Another thing he will not give you a straight answer to is if he is married and how many children he has.

“Look, my family is very big. It is made up of all my fans and I love them dearly so when it comes to kids, I am the father of the nation. But he has a good reason, or at least tries to make it sounds so.

“I am a very private person and I protect the people close to me very strongly because I don’t see the value of exposing them. They are my support system and I have to insulate them from all the heat that comes with my name. I will take all the heat so they don’t have to,” he says

While Churchill is basically a comedian, he has evolved into an astute businessman. His company, Laugh Industry, employs 100 people and holds many events across the country.

When he walks into a company like say, Nation Media Group or Safaricom, he no longer does that as himself but as Laugh Industry.

“I am no longer an individual, so when I walk into a corporate boardroom, I am showing them how my company and theirs can work together,” he says.

So how does he unwind? “I come to a place like this where there is peace and quiet, or I just take a matatu or a bus to Mombasa. I like mixing with my fellow Kenyans because that is where I get my material from,” he adds.

Any thought of retiring?

“You can never tell. You will just feel it but for now, I still have the energy and excitement to do big things. I will start signing up comedians to Laugh Industry starting next year and polishing them thoroughly and doing solo stand-up comedy tours every month. Then in December, we will be holding a comedy festival where we will bring in international acts. We are going to the next level,” he says.

SOURCE: DAILY NATION