Situational Comedies (Sitcoms) used to be built around small communities of unilateral characters embroiled in everyday situations, employing slapstick actions and reactions to evoke laughter from the audience (or laugh tracks). But over the years, there’s been an expansion to accommodate more nuanced characters, less cartoonish contexts and subtle social commentary that has seen the genre expand into something more than half an hour of laughing exercise.
This evolution isn’t as defined in the Nigerian context but it is there. A study of comic tentpoles over the years like Papa Ajasco, Fuji house of commotion, Face to Face, Jenifa’s Diary and The Johnsons illustrate the gradual nuancing of characters, situations and contexts that’s consistent with what gives these days.
To dive deeper into the state of sitcoms in Nigeria, Filmkaku interviewed Africa Ukoh, Anthony Kehinde Joseph, Debola Ogunshina and Taiwo Egunjobi for their views on what is and isn’t working for Nigerian sitcoms.
AFRICA UKOH (Co-writer, Green White Green and The Lost Okoroshi)
I think the foundational problem we have with not just sitcoms but comedy in general is the lack of a mechanical grasp of comedy. The conception that having a sense of humour is all that’s needed to make comedy work is misguided. Yes, it’s a trait that could provide an advantage at the basal level. But that only matters if it’s amenable to training and understanding that comedy has inner workings that must be learned.
ANTHONY KEHINDE JOSEPH (Writer, Merry Men and Bling Lagosians)
Sitcom storytelling in Nigeria has done fairly well. From the days of New Masquerade to Bassey and Company, to more recent fare like The Johnsons and Hustle, sitcoms have shown a long shelf amidst other episodic TV, here.
In terms of quality, as with everything else, they can be much better. For each Africa Magic sitcom, you have well over 260 episodes per year. Securing laughs per episode for that long with that many episodes will naturally take a toll on the shows as well as tax the writers. Interestingly, you hear more praise than complaints from fans of those shows, so, they’re getting something right.
TAIWO EGUNJOBI (Co writer, Gidi Blues; Writer, The Grudge)
Sitcoms require great characters that can react within great situations to dramatically humorous ends. This suggests that the central premise, story world and characters need to spark off conflict. Great comedy sprouts effortlessly from good conflict.
DEBOLA OGUNSHINA (Director, Awon Aladun De)
For one, I think, finally, we are going back to properly indigenizing our sitcoms. How long will this last? I don’t know. Over the years we have had a few sitcoms that have garnered huge followings: Jenifer’s Diary, The Johnsons, Awon Aladun De and so on. And yes, there’s Hustle too, to some extent. So I think I can say we’re doing some things right.
One of our biggest problems is Character Design. Most of our sitcoms are littered with bland characters thinking and reasoning the same way. This lack of distinction is bothersome and it’s near impossible to tell one character from the other. Looking at globally acclaimed shows like The Big Bang Theory and you can almost distinguish between a Sheldon Cooper rant from Penny’s or any other person’s. Bringing it back home, characters like Spiff in The Johnsons or John the Genius in Jenifer’s diary stand out because they are characters made memorable by distinctive traits.
Another thing to have in place is a team of comedy writers with varying grasps of how comedy works. A team in place offers synergy, not just in writing, but in the conceiving of ideas. We are all wired differently. Some writers are blessed with the ability to communicate ideas effectively while others aren’t. Having a team that understands how comedy works ensures that when there’s a struggle to articulate a comedic idea, the potential for comedy is identified not derided and it is then chiseled out expertly by all to some form of comedic perfection.
Characters should have different conversation markers, speech patterns and choice of words. Some should talk in short sentences, others with very complex words. Some characters should be distinguished with peculiar catchphrases. The beauty of catchphrases in sitcoms is in the timing and consistency of their utilization. When you have a character repeating certain lines regardless of the situation, it’s bound to come off as funny. Once again, I’m going to refer to Jenifer’s diary again. Off the top of my head, it’s one show that makes laudable attempts to be creative with its characters. There’s the titular character Jenifer and her awkward use of English, John the Genius, Sege, Kiki and so on. We shouldn’t be afraid to think outside of the box with characters and how they sound.
ANTHONY KEHINDE JOSEPH
Of course, there’s room for so much more. Sitcoms in the US and have covered the broad range of subjects, issues and professions: a Bar (Cheers), Culture Clash (Fresh Prince of Bel Air), Soldiers (MASH), Doctors (Green Wing), Politicians (Yes Minister), World War 2 (Allo’ Allo’), Geniuses (Big Bang Theory), Plus-sized experience (Mike and Molly), Aliens (3rd Rock from the Sun) and even Witches (Bewitched).
Nigerians love to laugh and Sitcom is a great channel to serve humour across the broad reaches of various tribes, culture and professions. We can do much more be expanding our scope beyond family-themed shows and hustling flat/house mates.
For obvious reasons, Nigerian sitcoms have always leaned towards the family sitcom subgenre, relying on the politics of a typical African family. But then, it takes very great writing to draw out laughs from this structure as the audience is bound to get used to seeing the same situations and characters repeatedly. It’s safe thematically but safe hardly produces great conflict.
Character peculiarities extend beyond speech. There’s so much that can be done with outfits, hairstyle, makeup, choice of food, smell and so on. In the Big bang Theory, Sheldon Cooper is always dressed in a simple superhero t-shirt, a long sleeve shirt to go underneath and a straight fit pants while Howard wears extremely tight, colourful pants with a western cowboy button up shirt over a turtleneck. These are the commonly ignored specificities that go a long way in creating full characters.
ANTHONY KEHINDE JOSEPH
First, we need to define where we are. I’d say we’ve improved in production values. Craft needs to be just as good and likely much better. So, the negative of where we are is a repetition of the same subjects (usually family-centric or a tribe of housemates). Comedy is a multi-level freeway. For as long as we drive only on one lane, we cannot truly be universal. Little wonder we love foreign sitcoms but are yet to export one to global success.
On the brighter part, Comedy is still one of the most successful and eminently in-demand genres here. On Social Media, Comedians have record followings and command 6 to 7 figure ad revenues.
Creating good sitcoms also extend beyond the writing. The acting and directing must match the efforts on the pages of the script. The slightest deficit in any of the departments is going to affect the final output. So, yes, a couple of jokes will fly, sputters of laughter will be gotten here and there, but the entire package won’t hit the scales it should. What should be memorable and lingering becomes very forgettable.
Sitcom actors must embrace improvisation. This is not a rule, just what I demand from my actors on sitcoms and has worked for me. I have my actors immerse themselves by discussing the characters extensively with them. Realizing the words on the script are not to be strictly adhered to, the actors have learnt to embrace the creative freedom. And this translates to the organic reactions to dialogues and situations on set rather than the mechanical responses adhering to screenplay can cause. This has helped me a lot in Awon Aladun De. Now, improvisation doesn’t mean indiscipline. It’s the job of the director to ensure that the organic responses (jokes, punch-lines or clapbacks) provided by actors work. You keep stabbing at them till you get it right.
ANTHONY KEHINDE JOSEPH
Sitcom writers must first master Comedy in all its hues and nuances. They must master types of humour and the structure of jokes.
They must study the masters from home and abroad, old and new. They must expose themselves to articles, novels, non-fiction, humorous memoirs, stand-up comedy and funny poetry. Read Steve Martins’ Born Standing Up, Tina Fey’s Bossy Pants, Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime, Julius Agu’s Jokes Apart and anything penned by Ben Elton and PG Wodehouse.
In Europe and in the US, it is near-impossible to find a comedy writer who didn’t sharpen his or her talent in a Comedy Improv Club. It would be great for Comedy writers to get together and form some. In Steve Martins’ and Tina Fey’s books, they extensively discuss the improv clubs that groomed them and the daily exercises that sharpened them.
Jenifa’s diary, arguably the most popular sitcom in recent times, bucks this trend of family themed situations and opts for the “fish out of water” approach, making for an inexhaustible conflict engine. Some of my favourite sitcoms like Two and A Half Men and Big Bang Theory were written from this kind of conflict engine.
Sitcoms over there appear to garner more global acclaim because all contributing departments have that firm grasp of the engineering of comedy, so the collaboration is inevitably geared towards excellence. Take their writers for example, a lot of them are specialized in comedy. They have had years of training, studying, improvisation, facing crowds via open mic and stand up to understand audience reaction, teaching, and so on. If you go online to check out the careers of top comedy writers, you’d see they have had experience writing talk shows, satiric shows, radio dramas and so on, cutting their teeth and building competency and mastery of comedy writing. This just suggests that there’s no shortcut to excellence. The work must be done to reap the gains.
Sometimes, I think the blame directed at the writers can be unfair. Apart from the fact that a lot of sitcoms run with faulty premises that make writing a chore, there’s almost always not enough time for proper story creation and writing to take place. Therefore, writers are forced to scribble half-baked scripts just to beat very tough deadlines. It’s the sad reality here.
ANTHONY KEHINDE JOSEPH
Most importantly, Comedy writers must have a Point-of-View. Kevin Hart discusses his insecurities as a small man, Amy Schumer mines humor from ‘big girl problems’, Lasisi Elenu tackles the absurdities of Nigerian life and Maraji parodies situations’ the average Nigerian is familiar with. Each writer must find the subjects that most interest, and importantly, provoke them.
- Look beyond generally “safe” thematic occupations. You are bound to run out of dramatic possibilities at some point and will begin to force the comedy.
- Find new story worlds or at least fresh angles to the conventional story worlds
- Design characters that clash, using their different traits or (and)goals to create conflict
- Think out of the box with Character quirks/peeves.