Justine Wanda is a stand-up comedian, comedy writer, filmmaker, and satirist proficient in dark and observational humor. She has been featured on prominent stand-up shows such as Nairobi International Comedy Festival, Spare My Ribs, Laugh Act To Follow, Comedy Riot, and Because You Said So! and has appeared on Showmax’s Roast House and Comedy Riot. She is also a former contributor and correspondent to The Fareed Khimani Show and News By The Catalyst, and the creator, host, and writer of an online web series, Fake Woke With Justine, which provides satirical commentary on the Kenyan social, political and cultural experience. With increasing exposure on the continent and on the international stage, Justine Wanda’s star has been shining brighter. I sat down with her for a conversation on the Kenyan comedy scene and what rib-cracking things her fans should look forward to.

Mwende: You are one of the rising popular voices in Kenyan comedy. How and why did you get into it and how has your experience been so far? 

Justine: Thank you so much. I love making people laugh in whatever format and stand-up comedy is an instant way to connect with people. Life is hard so this is just some of the lemonade I chose to make from the lemons thrown my way. I was the class clown and that’s probably where it all started. I got into stand-up a little over 6 years ago as an escape from my frustrating job. There was an open mic that ran at Number 7 in town every Wednesday. I showed up for one and haven’t stopped since.

Being a comedian is fun and a lot of learning through curve balls. Unlike most professions, you have to learn on the job. I love getting up on stage and experiencing this pure moment with an audience every other night. 

Mwende: A lot of comedians have an interesting creative process. What is yours like? Any rigorous writing schedule or is it as inspiration strikes?

Justine: I wake up every day and write a billion jokes. I’m kidding. I listen and pay attention to the things happening around me, and that’s really what inspires me. It’s a lot of writing what I know. I take a few minutes every morning to write a joke and a few more before I sleep. I also make sure to get up on stage as much as I can. Workshopping with other comedians is also useful in bringing a joke to life. Standup comedy is conversational so you can’t run away from performance.

Mwende: And do you have a philosophy that guides your comedy? 

Justine: Comedy is very subjective. That said, most people have moved on from certain kinds of jokes and I absolutely get it because I have too. Unfortunately, saying people can’t joke about certain things just because you don’t like it is a form of censorship. Personally, there are things I can’t joke about and there are very questionable things that I find funny and okay for me to joke about. If you’re making a joke to make a point and nothing you’ve said is funny or your punchline is just a hateful comment or a known fact, then you’ve failed to do your job! If you’re going to be controversial, at least have a killer punchline. 

Mwende: You are able to do both stand-up and comedy commentary. What skill sets do you need and what has the reception been like especially for your online work? 

Justine: With standup comedy, the feedback is very direct. You either kill or bomb and that’s the fun part. Figuring out how to be better every time you get up there is a very exciting 100 piece puzzle that I would say I have figured out 70 pieces of so far!

My show Fake Woke With Justine is an absolute joy to do. News in general is very depressing and there are so many people who stopped watching because of the never ending anger it stirs in you. I love making this show because jokes help reduce the weight of the story. People are usually more receptive and inclined to engage with something if it doesn’t feel too much of a burden. To be able to do this show, I have to read a lot of rather sad and depressing news and still hear the echoes of the chaos in the background or establish the patterns that people can connect to. If people can laugh about even an overwhelming story, I’m happy! 

I do a lot of deep dives on my Fake Woke YouTube channel on specific topics. One of my first episodes of the second season was about period poverty, and I read about a previous regime actually doing the work. It was a great moment to realize that there was some goodwill at some point in this messed up space-time continuum and that’s important to share too. 

When it comes to writing for other people, you really have to understand their voice and vision. As a comedian, I like when my voice is heard, but I had to find a way to decentre myself so that the person I’m writing for can be heard. I worked for News By The Catalyst hosted by Noni Maingi and The Fareed Khimani Show which really taught me a lot. I also got together with a couple of friends to write the short romcom film, Influenced. It’s on YouTube, go watch it! You do all this and you realise just how different it is to write for all these comedic spaces.

Mwende: Could you share some of the highlights and challenges you’ve faced as a Black/African woman comedian?  

Justine: I’ve been very lucky that the doors I’ve walked through in comedy haven’t been riddled with a lot of misogyny and hate. All the comedians I’ve worked with have been extremely supportive and they don’t diminish your comedic voice in any way just because you’re a woman. However, just like any other industry there’s always still a lot of work to do. There simply aren’t enough women in comedy, especially in stand-up. Strangely though, audiences love female comics and are always excited to see us.

My favourite shows to perform this year were definitely Mammito and Girlfriends, and a show I did in Ghana. I had so much fun up there and beautiful moments like those are just indescribable. I’ll say the most exciting thing that happened to me when I was starting out was opening for Hannibal Buress after we’d (Ciku Waithaka and I) just briefly met him at a Blinky Bill concert. I’ve performed at so many amazing shows that I’m starting to lose count. I’m grateful for every stage I’ve ever performed on. 

Mwende: Have you dealt with people who think that women aren’t funny? Has that affected you in any way?

Justine: I don’t like this assumption because it doesn’t make any sense. Asking women to prove they’re funny is like asking periods to hold on. Being funny isn’t gendered. When you get up on stage and you can’t make people laugh, that’s just a you thing. I love writing funny stuff and enjoy performing so much I could never internalise that because it makes absolutely no sense. 

Mwende: What are your thoughts on the comedy scene in Kenya? What would you like to see more of?

Justine: Kenyans are among the most hysterical people in the world. And the comedy scene is packed with the most talented comics. For stand-up comedy, there is a chance to develop the comedy club scene and make it a cultural phenomenon. For comedians to get really good they need more stages and more opportunities to get up there and hone their craft. Limited stages lead to limited stage time, and comedians are still doing well despite this. 

Another challenge is obviously the way Kenyans generally speak about comedy. “There are no comedians in Kenya who can…” I think Kenyans should lean into many more forms of comedy, from the mainstream consumption to what they consume on the internet to the live events they attend. There’s a level of support that really propels all industries forward that Kenya still struggles with when it comes to certain art forms. It could be a purchasing power thing but it could also be a limited exposure issue. Maybe the algorithm hasn’t sent the kind of comedian you would like to see yet, but they’re out there. Trust me!

Mwende: Have you ever bombed on stage, and is there any advice you would give upcoming comedians who are afraid to put themselves out there?

Justine: I’ve been doing comedy for over 6 years. It would be amazing if I had never bombed once. I have bombed on stage. It’s very humbling. You have to find a way to recover because in a live performance you can’t pretend or hide. Everyone can see you so you just have to know what to do. As a comedian, you have to be okay with failure. You have to make your peace with it because that’s how you learn. You can be good right off the bat but there’s always work to be done and room for growth. 

Fortunately, some of the best lessons may come after your worst shows. Learn to listen to what didn’t work and the more in tune you become with what’s working, the more you grow your craft. Also, a comedian is only as good as their last show. Once you wrap up a performance, you can’t relive it with another audience. It’s a constant learning journey.

Mwende: Where do you draw inspiration from?

Justine: My work on Fake Woke is definitely a distant cousin of Redykyulass. At least three Kenyatta University generations removed, and even though the creators let life imitate art, their genius still lives on. I also draw big inspiration from late night TV greats, especially Jon Stewart. He is as the kids say, Mother (pretty sure I’m using this wrong), Conan O’Brien, David Letterman, Johnny Carson, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver and Samantha Bee. Samantha Bee’s field pieces on Full Frontal and The Daily Show are some of the most impeccable, emotionally intelligent and inspiring pieces of comedy I’ve seen. I also loved watching The Rundown With Robin Thede because it was awesome hearing her center marginalised voices. 

I hate to be a cliché but I’m obsessed with American late-night TV because the writers, producers, and hosts really put a stamp on comedy forever. And, by the way, The Daily Show was started by a woman (the whole breakdown and the works) so how’s that for women aren’t funny?

I enjoy British humour too. My ancestors are likely rolling in their 3 by 6 hearing me say that, but Russell Howard and Nish Kumar are awesome. 

My current favourite late-night watch is Properganda with Kandoro. He’s a Zimbabwean comic who does satirical commentary on their political scene. Whenever I watch him I’m like, why do we have borders? I’m also so thankful for What’s Up Africa by Ikenna. I don’t know where that guy is but I’m so grateful for the work he did in the 2010s. I’m continually inspired, learning, and pushing the envelope with my own show but I wouldn’t be where I am if it weren’t for all these bigger comedic voices that came before me. 

Mwende: Other than yourself, who are some of your favourite Kenyan comedians?

Justine: For Kenyan comedy, overall I have to go with Mammito Eunice. She’s the GOAT for me. There’s an ease to her comedic performances and brilliance that just makes me want to be better. She’s very inspiring with everything she does.

As for stand up comedians, I’ll say all the comics I’ve worked with at StandUp Collective really inspire me. Shazz Nderitu, Ciku Waithaka, Ruth Nyambura, Doug Mutai, George Waweru, Ty Ngachira, Maina Murumba, Amandeep Jagde, Emmanuel Kisiangani, and David Macharia are all so incredible. When it comes to skits and online content, I’ll go with Mammito (again), Njugush, Jackie Vike, Sheila Ajjie, Esther Kazungu, Crazy Kennar, Ronoh, and WololoTV.

Mwende: Are you working on anything right now that your fans should look forward to?

Justine: I’m working on another one woman show for my stand up. I did my first self-curated one woman show, Sorry For Your Loss(es), and I’d like to do some more of these. I’m also working on the third season of Fake Woke With Justine. Hopefully with new features and pieces so if y’all loved the first and second seasons, I can’t wait for you to see season 3!

Mwende: How can people interested in supporting you plug in? 

Justine: If you love standup comedy you can follow me @justinewanda. For social, political and cultural comedic commentary, @fakewokewirhjustine.

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