Jokes about famine and slavery are not the standard fodder of a comedy routine, but Daliso Chaponda revels in crossing the line.
The 38-year-old Malawian was a surprise star of Britain’s Got Talent this year, winning over millions with his cheeky but close-to-the knuckle gags about life as an African in Britain.
“When I moved here I heard a lot of people talking about the financial crisis,” he bellowed in the auditions phase of the ITV series. “I’m from Africa, what are you maniacs talking about? If this is a crisis, where’s Unicef, where’s Bono?
“You can tell me it’s a crisis when they’re flying planes over Birmingham tossing fish and chips out the window! It will be a crisis when there are ads on TV saying: ‘This chav has to walk five miles a day to get a bottle of WKD Blue!’”
Chaponda didn’t win the competition; he came third. But so quick has been his rise that 20 extra dates have been added to his debut UK tour, What The African Said, which kicks off in the new year, and the BBC has commissioned a comedy series from him for Radio 4.
“It’s surreal,” says Chaponda, who this time last year was playing local clubs and struggling to make ends meet.
“I guess people like the fact that I talk about some pretty crazy subjects like slavery and colonialism in a way that isn’t guilt tripping,” he says. “The way I see it, if you can make horrible things funny you take the teeth out of their demons.”
He has plenty of experience to draw upon. Chaponda was born in Zambia after his parents fled Malawi under the repressive regime of its then president, Hastings Banda. His father ended up working for the United Nations, which meant Chaponda and his five siblings moved every couple of years, living in places including Zambia, Kenya and Somalia. “It was a mad, colourful time – which is why it often comes up in my jokes,” he says.
But Chaponda has always considered Malawi his homeland, even after causing controversy there for his supposed “whitey views”, notably on gay rights. He was even threatened with imprisonment in 2012 when he lampooned the then president, Peter Mutharika, for blaming all Malawi’s problems on Satan.
People like that I talk about crazy subjects like slavery and colonialism in a way that isn’t guilt tripping
“He was probably being metaphorical but it was funnier for me to take him literally,” says Chaponda. “So I went on a whole rant about how we need to call in exorcists.” Nationally, the gag became a much bigger deal because Chaponda’s father had returned to Malawi and become the minister for education. Newspaper headlines the next day were all about how the “minister’s son tries to bring down the government”.
“You’d think that my dad being in government would give me some kind of immunity, but actually it was the reason I got into trouble. Everything I said was under more scrutiny,” he says.
His father almost lost his job, but Chaponda looks back on it as a crucial moment that opened his eyes to the power of comedy to make people sit up and take notice.
His family, – while supportive, he says – never really understood why he wanted to be a comedian. Partly this may be because stand-up is a very western art form – one that he himself wasn’t fully aware of until he went to university in Montreal to study computer programming. “I was like, wow, people can just stand up on stage and talk about their life? That was really the awakening moment for me. I had to try it.”
He signed himself up for an open mic event the following week and has chiselled away at stand-up ever since, moving from Canada to South Africa and then to join his brother in Manchester around a decade ago, largely self-financing his own gigs on the pubs and university circuit.
“My family used to joke that I was studying creative poverty,” he says.
Chaponda says he expected very little when he turned up for the auditions of Britain’s Got Talent. At best, he saw it as an opportunity to get a decent video clip that he could use to generate more work.
But he touched a nerve. The video of his opening act picked up 9 million views on YouTube and another 8 million on Facebook. The audience gave him a standing ovation and Amanda Holden, one of the judges, hit the so-called golden buzzer, sending him straight through to the live semi-finals, which he won.
Overnight, a standup star was born. “I didn’t really believe what was going on,” Chaponda says.
Not all the attention he has received since has been welcome, though. “People come over and want selfies. But some people take issue with my jokes. Like, ‘You black people are always banging on about slavery’ kind of things. I get that a lot,” he says.
“I aim to be politically correct in what I say, I’m not gratuitous or mean, but I do talk about subjects that people shy away from.”
In his forthcoming Radio 4 series, which has the working title Daliso Chaponda: Citizen of Nowhere, he plays a sort of relationship counsellor, helping people to navigate Africa’s historically choppy relationship with Britain. The idea is that it will be “informative but funny”.
“It’ll look at the whole history, not in an accusing way, but in the sense that we need to remember these things,” he says. “Hopefully, laughter makes it easier than somebody just lecturing.”
Daliso Chaponda’s tour, What The African Said, starts on 8 February in NottinghamFollow and Subscribe Nyasa TV :