What Taaoo and the Old Zikoko say about Nigerian Laughter

Around the time Zikoko.com launched years ago, I tried to work out the reason behind the popularity of some of its content.

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I concluded that there was something amusing about looking at the Nigerian life from the outside in the way that Zikoko presented and maybe represented. I met one of the persons behind it a while after and I shared my thoughts. While he agreed with the theory, he explained that the writers weren’t really outsiders.

He was right. But there was a sense in which he wasn’t entirely right: the writers might have been insiders but they were also outsiders in the sense that they had recovered from the conditions they posted about. It is unlikely that anyone living in the crowded hostels of a public Nigerian university felt his existence was a comedy. What with the power outages, the mosquitoes, the noise, the cramped rooms, and, God save us, the toilets. Even now, the toilets have to make its alumni shudder.

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But those experiences become fodder for laughs, especially if you are telling someone who has a different experience because, say, such a person schooled overseas or attended a private school. Those are the cases where obvious difference is the basis for humour. There are also instances where familiarity breeds mirth. In this case, it would be that someone else who has had that experience finds it funny because she has now escaped it.

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In both cases, a lived experience has become funny because the victim of the joke is different from the audience. In the case of Zikoko’s coverage of Nigerian schools, the victim is the Nigerian student but the audience was either never a Nigerian student or is an escapee alumni. For the latter, that laugh is a product of distance and relief.

The genius of the old Zikoko was to find former victims who had become raconteurs. A cult member in Ekosodin might have slapped you, a Unilag princess might have spurned your advances, you maybe caught at STD in OOU, but you can count it all joy if you could channel this into an article (with memes) that fellow former victims can relate to. And because social media is a place where a trending joke can spawn laughter and retweets even before one truly gets the joke, current victims might be able to share in those laughs. It makes the term “viral” apt: You don’t need to get it, to show symptoms, before you spread it.

This brand of humour is realist, relatively normal and seems to be the most common type of humour bandied by the Nigerian millennial. It is hard to see how, in these times, a comedian like Dauda, with his physically challenged antics, can make it as big as he did more than a decade ago. It is doubly difficult to see how such antics can thrive online. This is how comedians who have remained popular with millennials despite not being millennials themselves include Basketmouth and Bovi, men who have never really being heavy purveyors of physical comedy.

A major reason comedy based on physical challenges can’t survive these times is that such things weren’t built to survive wokeness. It is also likely that only few people find it funny. A platform like Twitter, after all, is a place where sophistication is both lingua franca and currency. The old Zikoko channeled that sophistication into the reality of Nigerian life, and somehow that spurned a virality that was perhaps fated to be fleeting.

Today, Zikoko maintains the mix but its content appears geared towards an older, more financially empowered demographic. The sophistication is more sophisticated; the Nigerian life is not quite as raw. Perhaps the old content was great for popularity but not necessarily for Zikoko’s purse. After all, making profit from website content is tricky for platforms with teams larger than three persons and retweets still can’t be cashed at most banks.

But the formula in its rawest form isn’t dead. It has just shifted ownership. The formula — sophistication and Nigerian life — is now the purview of guys whose primary platform is social media. Zikoko will share its content on social media; these guys are producing content that lives exclusively on social media. The teams are small; the content brief; and the narrative structure miniaturised. It is thus cheap, easy to monetise for profit, attractive to brands, and there are no barriers to entry. Anyone online knows that if you throw a single digital stone, it will hit 43 different content creators.

None of them, however, use the “sophistication and Nigerian life” formula quite as directly as Maraji or Taaoo (Taaooma). The latter is more prolific these days.

In the skits which have made Taaoo’s name, the slice of Nigerian life captured is the relationship between a mother named Ronke and her daughter Taaoo. (Or it used to be, before Brother Tayo and Taaoo’s father, Kunle, started to show up more.)

Strictly speaking, the skits are not quite sophisticated in terms of the camera set-up, but there is something to be said for a short narrative with well lit scenes and quite clean cloning. The slap from the mother character Ronke, the high point of every skit, is perhaps the rawest aspect of Nigerian life captured. But even that is a tad sophisticated in how it symbolises the physical punishment inflicted on the erring child by the Nigerian parent. As kids who grew up in 1990s Nigeria might remember, belts, wires, canes and shoes were all part of the Nigerian Industry of Child Punishment.

Taaoo (whose real name is Abisola Maryam Apaokagi ) has explained, in at least one interview, that she isn’t routinely slapped by her mother in real life, which puts her firmly as an outsider to the experiences she captures. Even if other parts of her character’s life are shared by Maryam, it stands to reason that there were in the past, as the lady is serving in Lagos under the NYSC, away from the Ilorin, Abuja and Namibia of her younger years. Her fans are perhaps also struck by the familiarity of Ronke, and, if they are not, an exaggerated slap is almost always something funny.

As with Zikoko raiding Nigerian education for laughs, Taaooma examines family life in Nigeria. And if there is something of a cliche in Taaoo’s portrayal of a father with a wandering eye and a mother given to violence and Christianity, it is because you can immediately recognise those traits in your own parents. Or your uncles and aunts or your neighbours. You don’t have to eat the slice of Nigerian life presented but you, if you are honest, you will recognise it.

Of course, you can laugh because you probably no longer have to feed on that slice. But, do say a prayer for Taaoo. Nobody has ever seen her laugh after a slap from her mother. Maybe someday, like you, she can look back and laugh.

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Nigeria’s most acclaimed writer-reviewer. Business: www.criticsandbylines.com.

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