Sister and Brothers from Negrotown

My first contact with Key and Peele was in a profile by Zadie Smith in The New Yorker. I had no idea who the duo were, but I’m a huge fan of Ms Zadie and I read anything she writes. That piece turned out to be a very long read that I consumed without a pause on my phone, pushing up and up the screen and wishing it would not end.

Ms Zadie is one of the few writers who have the ability to make me find joy in anything they write. She could release a book of fortune cookie quotes and I’ll still read it like it contained the world’s most lyrical poetry. She started that essay with this: “The wigs on “Key and Peele” are the hardest-working hairpieces in show business.”  And from that detail went on to present the best profile I’ve read this year. The essay moved from the set of their show, to Key and Peele’s past and the cultural significance of their comedy like a perfectly choreographed dance-drama—every word a character that has perfected its part in the show.

Zadie Smith at the 2010 National Book Critics Circle awards finalists party
Zadie Smith at the 2010 National Book Critics Circle awards finalists party. Image via Flickr by David Shankbone

Of Key she says, “Key—to steal a phrase from Nabokov—is “ideally bald.”” And places it in parenthesis like she was whispering to me in a way that suggests we are both privy to the Nabokovian phrase she referenced. In a more recent essay on Joni Mitchell, she says she finds it hard to entirely believe connoisseurs.

“I will admit that in the past, when I have met connoisseurs, I’ve found it a bit hard to entirely believe in them. Philistinism often comes with a side order of distrust. How can this person possibly love as many things as she appears to love? Sometimes, in a sour spirit, I am tempted to feel that my connoisseur friends have the time for all this liberal study because they have no children.”

Zadie is a connoisseur of novels, as she admits herself in the essay, and the above is how I also feel when I encounter her wide ranging book references. I am not a good student of literature, and have a mild distrust of people who have read as much as Zadie has, the same way she does of connoisseurs.

In reading Zadie Smith’s pieces, however, I find that my latent philistinism does not rise to the fore the way it does when I read most widely-read Nigerians. Intelligent Nigerian literati write like they will suffer from indigestion if they do not vomit all their exotic language and obscure -isms on the page at once. Zadie’s work opens up literature to me, while theirs make me almost never attempt to read a book again. (The other person who does the same to me as Zadie, in almost equal measure, is Teju Cole, and one day I’ll write about him too).

It is difficult for me to talk about Zadie’s writing without resorting to words like ‘amazing’ and ‘brilliant,’ and acting like a groupie. But this post is not just about Ms Zadie. I’ve only told you the above to show how one writer whose work I love opened me up to a part of popular culture would have been hitherto hidden from me.

After reading the profile on Key and Peele, I decided to watch some episodes of their Comedy Central show. Although some of their references were lost on me, I immediately understood why Zadie had dedicated so much words to them. Key would later become a familiar face to many more around the world as Luther, Obama’s anger translator in his speech at the White House Correspondent’s dinner.

That viral video was an adaptation of one of the running sketches on their show.
But why I’ve decided to write about them here is because of their latest sketch about Negrotown. I’m not a fan of standup comedy, especially the Nigerian type. Of course some of it is funny—I still laugh when I recall some Basketmouth sketches—and there are others that are just downright distasteful, what many of them have not been able to do is make their comedy bigger than just laughs. This is the beauty of Key and Peele: They deliver laughter while leaving their audience with something to ponder upon without sacrificing comedic quality.
If there are Nigerian comedians who do this—by this I mean present important details of Nigerian culture to the world in nuanced ways while retaining their comedic flair—that I do not know about, please provide links to their work so I can change my perspective. In the mean time, do watch Negrotown and let me know what you think of it.

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11 thoughts on “Sister and Brothers from Negrotown

  1. Never heard of them, but this Zadie reads like an interesting woman and by your reference I am tempted to love her words too.

    As for making comedy reflecting society without sacrificing humor, I don’t know any Nigerian who does that, but it will be a good development.

    1. Uju, you should absolutely read Zadie. You can start with her pieces on The New Yorker and work your way into her novels from there.
      I’m surprised you’ve never heard of them. Key was in the Obama sketch that I thought was everywhere. I guess I overestimated its virality.

        1. Stay where you are biko. We are looking for ways to join you out in the world and away from these phones. You’re fine just where you are; it’s cold in here.

  2. I concur… Zadie Smith is phenomenal as is Teju Cole.. You’ve got no need to apologise for sounding like a groupie.. Worked through her collected essays earlier in the year (Changing my Mind) and they have only served to cement an admiration of her talents in my mind..

    1. Thanks Tomi. I’ve always known about Ogas at the Top, but never really thought of the creators as comedians. Seeing as the folks I know on the team are political writers branching into satire. But yeah, they have pretty good stuff.

  3. I beg to differ … a little, because I’m not versed in the Naija comedy scene. But you mentioned Basketmouth. Watch his stand-ups again. I haven’t watched many, but I find his sketches, and that of Bovi, to be satires of society. I laugh and I think. They’re making us confront society in a humourous way, and in my view, it’s intelligently done. And I say intelligently because their sketches are written and designed for their audience. Emphasis is on audience.

    Some people will watch Negrotown and just laugh. I appreciate what they’re doing because I’ve being following the events in The States.

    Are there shows like K&P or The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, for example, in Nigeria? I don’t know. Buni TV on YouTube has some thoughtful political satires.

    I wonder if it isn’t a case of personal preference or style for you, of which you sir, are very very entitled to?

    ” Intelligent Nigerian literati write like they will suffer from indigestion is they do not vomit all their exotic language and obscure -isms on the page at once.” Loooool. Are we writing to be understood, you know, to communicate, or to be praised for being a walking dictionary 😉

    Write more Ife, write more.

    1. It is definitely a matter of personal preference. I’m drawn to the K&P type of comedy more than the Nigerian stand-up. But I do believe Nigerian comedians are really good at their craft and drawing their audience—the amount they charge for their shows is enough evidence of that. I just wish there was more of the stuff I like.

      There are no popular TV political comedy shows of the Late-night variety, like they have in America, that I know of in Nigeria. And I don’t think we’re alone in this lack. Not too many countries have managed to combine politics and comedy like the americans have.

      I have concluded that, in Nigeria, we are more interested in showing off our vocabulary than communicating. But isn’t this simply consistent with our flashy nature? I often have to check myself while editing for unnecessarily big words. I think it is a cultural thing jare.

      I nodded when I got to the end of that comment. I will do my best. Thanks Timi.

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