Monday,September 28,2020 23:31 PM

Ugandan Emmy award nominee on failing to get American accent

By Emmanuel Ssejjengo

Added 14th August 2020 10:34 PM

Joseph Opio and David Kibuuka were recently nominated for an Emmy award in the category of Outstanding Writing for a Variety Show- 2020. They are both writers for the very popular The Daily Show with Trevor Noah.

Ugandan Emmy award nominee on failing to get American accent

Joseph Opio

Joseph Opio and David Kibuuka were recently nominated for an Emmy award in the category of Outstanding Writing for a Variety Show- 2020. They are both writers for the very popular The Daily Show with Trevor Noah.


Congs on your Emmy nomination. This is perhaps the highest honour for a Ugandan entertainer. What does it mean to you?

Being nominated for an Emmy is the TV equivalent of earning a PhD. You know how PhD holders pompously insist everyone calls them Doctor?

I can now also strut  around demanding strangers plaster "Emmy nominee" before my name. I believe that right is protected by the US Constitution.

What does your Emmy nomination mean for the country?

Well, it's Uganda's first-ever Primetime Emmy nomination. And, fortunately, it comes at a critical juncture: when the creative arts are under siege.

The Government is dutybound to foster the creativearts. Instead, it is passing restrictive laws that smother artistic expression. Look, I love Uganda.

But sometimes, the Government acts a lot like a deadbeat dad: It won't invest in you or support your hustle.

But the same way a deadbeat dad pops up to beg his children for alcohol or bail money, the Government will rock up to demand its taxes the moment you hit pay dirt.

Other countries establish National Endowment Funds to encourage artistes. That's how J.K. Rowling was able to continue writing Harry Potter as a struggling single mom.

It is how the musical Hamilton got unveiled in public before becoming a Broadway phenomenon.

And I am not being naïve. I appreciate Uganda is a Third World country with more pressing concerns than subsidising starving artistes.

But if they cannot support the arts, the least they can do is not deliberately suffocate them.

It is wild that Ugandan artistes succeed, not because of the government, but rather in spite of it. If God distributes talent equally among countries, Ugandan artistes are the seeds that landed among the thorns in the Parable of the Sower.

They cannot thrive because the moment their talent sprouts, the thorns a.k.a government laws seek to strangle it.

 And Inshallah, if they somehow make it, they are used as political props.

A presidential handshake makes zero difference at this point in my career. Comedy Central already rewards me handsomely for my work.

But you know who could desperately use the fabled presidential handshake?

Some upcoming creative in music, comedy, theatre or writing who has sacrificed everything to bet on their own talent.

You have been a footballer, a journalist and a lawyer. You were highly regarded in all those fields. What made you settle for comedy?

I have not settled for comedy. Comedy is what I am doing now. Five, 10 years down the road? Who knows what I will be doing.

I am a career nomad because I get bored easily. My goal in life is to always stay one step ahead of boredom. Whenever

I feel boredom creeping up on me, that is my cue to switch things up. And that makes me incredibly lucky.

Most people have neither the opportunity nor the courage to roll the dice on one dream, never mind three of them.

You bombed at your first attempt at ‘standup' comedy at National

Theatre and you were booed offstage at a Theatre Factory show. Where did you draw the inspiration to continue with comedy after that experience?

It helped that I have never really done comedy for other people. I always perform material that is funny to me.

Inshallah, the audience finds it funny, too. But if they do not, well, too bad.

As a stand-up comedian, I am always mindful of one fact: I have got absolute control over my art. But I have got almost zero control over the audience's reaction.

That is why I created and hosted LOL on Urban TV.

Every Tom, Dick and Harriet said satire was too sophisticated for local viewers. But whether Ugandans found my jokes funny or not was of academic interest to me. I just wanted to share stuff I thought was funny.

It is counterproductive, nay, suicidal to pander to an audience because no two audiences are ever alike. Unless you perform for your mom.

She is guaranteed to hoot and laugh at whatever you say.

Philip Luswata, the Theatre Factory boss, then said you were a gem and hoped to work with you. We did not see many collaborations after that, what happened?

We just never got a chance to work together. I started hosting LOL, a half-hour comedy show on Urban TV.

But within no time, I left for South Africa to expand my comedic wings. No sooner had I established myselfin South Africa than I relocated

to New York, which is the Mecca of stand-up comedy. I was never tempted to rest on my laurels. It is the only way to keep boredom firmly in the rear-view mirror.

Ever since you joined the Daily Show, Uganda has featured more prominently. Is that your deliberate effort or do you work alongside Kibuuka in ensuring that your country of origin gets all that airplay?

I was born and bred in Uganda. In fact, I had never been outside Uganda, until five years ago. So, it is natural that I name-drop Uganda any chance I get.

Uganda did not just shape my comedic sensibility, it informs my entire perspective. Whether it is stand-up comedy or screen writing, Uganda remains my North Star. It also helps that Uganda is not just the Pearl of Africa.

It is also a bottomless comedic goldmine. It is the gift that keeps giving. As a famous local proverb so eloquently puts it: "Uganda zaabu!"

Ugandan artistes (poets like Stella Nyanzi, comedians like Bizzonto) have found themselves on the bad side of the law forwork that has been deemed unlawful by the authorities. Do you also work in fear when writing skits about Uganda? Have you also been questioned by authorities about this?

Stand-up comedy is tough enough without having to constantly worry about some verzealous Afande storming the stage and dragging you away in handcuffs. Fear and stand-up comedy do not make viable bedfellows.

Stand-upcomedians love taking down sacred cows, challenging received wisdom and venturing, where angels dare not tread.

Think about it: performing before a live audience is like approaching a girl — without knowing if she will be receptive or slap you across the face and splash a drink in your face.

Yet stand-up comedians do it every night. We are gluttons for punishment.

The more forbidden the subject, the more stand-up comedians will gravitate towards it. So, it is really self-defeating to tell stand-up comedians that a particular topic is taboo.

That is like waving a red cloth in front of a bull. Comedians' brains are wired. It is like when children come across a big red button, screaming "Do Not Press."

The children who heed that ominous warning grow up to become productive, tax-paying members of society.

The children who see it as an open invitation and go like "challenge accepted" grow up to become stand-up comedians.

It has been estimated that you are the highest earning Ugandan entertainer. What is your worth?

Unfortunately, I am going to plead the fifth. There is no conceivable way to accurately answer that question without attracting unnecessary attention from the taxman. Or worse, slay queens.

If you were to perform here in Uganda, what would be your performance fee?

My agents set my performance fee, depending on different factors. But I think it would be anywhere between $40,000 and $50,000.

What advice would you have for the Ugandan comedy industry?

I would encourage comedians to expand their footprint outside Uganda. For one, it is way more lucrative.

But even more importantly, performing on the international circuit exposes one to superior comedic minds and a more diverse audience. You can be the Sultan of Stand-up in Uganda; the Caliph of Comedy in Kampala.

But if you never venture beyond your comfort zone, you will never maximise your potential. Think of it this way:

There is nothing wrong with captaining Butambala in the Masaza Cup. But to make the Ballon d'Or shortlist, you better start captaining Barcelona in the UEFA Champions League.

While in Uganda, you preferred-home prepared dishes by your mother. How are you managing in New York?

It helps that New York is the culinary capital of the world. You can get almost any cuisine in New York. Well, apart from

that famous Ugandan rolex with salads and just enough low-calorie roadside dust to help your metabolism.

I am also fortunate that when I miss my mother's cooking, I can just put her on the next plane outof Entebbe and fly her over to

New York City. And lest you judge me, let him who doesn't think their mom is a damn good cook cast the first stone.

Since your nomination, I have been asked by some lady friends for your contacts. Are you still single or I should just share the contacts with them?

This has always been my longterm plan. First, get nominated for an Emmy. Then, finally get a chance to live the ultimate dream: dating a Ugandan slay queen.

I stand to be corrected, but I believe "dating a Ugandan slay queen" is right on top of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.

That's why it's the most elusive item on my bucket list.

Tell us about your script writing process, perhaps to help in grooming our comedians who are stuck on improvisation.

I identify the subject I wish to satirise, do exhaustive research on it and then highlight the absurdities to make the satire pop.

Improvisation is a great asset in comedy. But writing helps you focus your material, cut any excess fat and ensure every word in your set-up is laser-aimed at serving the punchline.

When Ugandans make such achievements, they get a heroes welcome-starting with a drive from Entebbe Airport to State House. Would such a welcome excite you?

Thanks, but no thanks. Whenever I fly somewhere, whether to perform or vacation, my dream is to spend the minimum amount of time

possible travelling from the airport to my destination. Who wants to endure a long-haul flight and then get stuck in Entebbe Road traffic?

The American accent

For all the time you have lived and worked in the US (two to three years), you have managed to maintain an Opio accent. We have seen Ugandans whose accents take a turn at the sight of a mzungu. How have you managed to remain Opio of old?

Here is the strangest thing I discovered in the US: Foreigners are banned from leaving with the American accent when they depart.

President Trump even signed an executive order to that effect.

The moment you arrive at the departure gate, US customs immediately confiscates your accent. Maybe some Ugandans have successfully smuggled it out. But I have never been lucky.

Every time I am exiting the US, the security sensors at the airport go off and the customs agent asks me: "Sir, please put your American accent in the tray?" Jokes aside, I guess I am just one of those people incapable of adopting an American accent.

My tongue is locked. Like an old iPhone model, it is incompatible with the latest accent upgrades. It is the side-effect of spending all my life in Uganda.

Besides, I would totally get roasted to death by everyone in my family if I ever even so much as rolled an ‘R.'  

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