When there’s an alarming sense of whether you can put your faith in the eternally fluctuating leaders of our society, who best do we turn to in times of turmoil? Those that lift corners of our mouths, rising up into a smile, summoning a bellowing laugh. Where would we be without comedy after all? British-Zimbabwean actor, Munya Chawawa offers that very remedy in fruitful supply, taking to Instagram with short skits that mock the absurdities of our quotidian lives.
For the 29-year-old, humour is the central arc to acknowledge the injustices of the modern world – that oftentimes really doesn’t feel all too modern – from viral hits that kept our country sane during the pandemic, making light of the Government’s party gate catastrophe. “I’ve had that song in my head for weeks,” I share with Chawawa when we connect. “If you don’t have the lyrics tattooed on you, then you’re not a true fan,” he laughs.
Assimilating Nigella Lawson’s “micro-wav-ay” iteration into mainstream society, Chawawa’s ease with humour is organic, while grappling with paramount themes of race, identity and politics through short and nifty tableaus that bring light to issues that we’re often scared to broach in the public sphere. The onus of his work dispels the traditional and tired school of thought from the likes of Plato and Aristotle, suggesting that superiority humour – the general idea that a giggle is gauged by the misfortune of others – when in fact, it's about united voices, rather than isolating. The latter in present supply enough.
Born in Derby in the East Midlands, Chawawa spent his childhood in Zimbabwe before moving back to England, to the quiet village of Framingham Pigot in Norfolk. The transition has been fundamental in his relationship with comedy, as Chawawa, a self-confessed empath, was sidelined by his peers for his upbringing, something he seeks to channel in his work.
Chawawa represents the vanguard of jokers reminding us of Instagram’s initial purpose, a place of benevolence rather than prejudice. Dominating our phone screens with optimism, his ability to conjure hard-hitting, yet side-splitting spoofs, mimicking headlines that came out mere minutes before is a testament to his dexterous journey in live television.
As we speak through the ether, tissues in full supply for the tears of laughter, Chawawa talks on the importance of using social media as a light-hearted tool to teach, his childhood experience moving across the globe and tackling the pace of a speed-obsessed society.
SCARLETT BAKER: Munya, it’s great to meet you. You’re a viral succession on screen and you’ve made millions of us erupt into laughter. But let’s take it right back to the beginning and when you figured out your footing in the world of comedy.
MUNYA CHAWAWA: My earliest memories of comedy, or being consciously aware of comedy happened when I moved to Zimbabwe from Derby, which is where I was born. We had a lot of American cartoons and shows over there, like Kenan & Kel – they’re the original urban Ant and Dec. I remember listening to their catchphrases and hearing the live studio audience laugh at their jokes. I not only felt a sense of warmth towards these guys but there was this tiny part of me buried away thinking I wanted a piece of that. I wanted to create what they were creating, but I wasn’t conscious enough at the time to know that this was comedy. It made me feel so good. Being away from home, I was in this strange country where I didn’t know anyone or what was happening around me. Comedy was a real anchor for me and subconsciously, it was the first time that I realised that comedy can do that for a person too.
SB: At the crux of your videos, you’re addressing socio-political issues in a way that makes it relatable for a general audience, turning hard-hitting topics into something that is easy to consume. Did you ever set out intentionally to map your experiences in life into these videos?
MC: Culture shock is definitely a phrase that embodies how I felt in the first few weeks and months and years of moving back to England. I was experiencing it in dribs and drabs because my grandparents lived in England so I’d come back to see them, but going to school here after growing up in Zimbabwe was something I had no preparation for. When I was leaving Zimbabwe, I told my classmates that I was moving back to England and there was this rumour that went around in Zimbabwean schools – and maybe the entire continent of Africa too – that you shouldn’t go to school in England because they throw chairs at the teachers there. [Laughs] That was our old wives tale. The minute you step into the classroom, you’ll be impaled by a chair.
SB: How did you navigate that shift through such impressionable years of your childhood?
MC: I remember walking to class and the lady taking me around was trying to explain stuff. All of a sudden, I remember her voice just faded into the background and I was like, “Oh, my God, a boy wearing an earring. Any minute now. A tank is gonna plough through the wall, the SWAT team’s going to jump out and grab this guy and take him away. He's never going to be seen again – that alone was enough to blow my mind. I remember during break time, people would ask me: “Did you ride a lion to school? Did you wear a loincloth? Did you have a toothbrush?” There would be a competition too amongst the boys to try and get me to say swear words, but little did they realise, I was born in England, so I knew what the words meant. I think the only one that caught me off guard was when walking back from school holding hands with my mum and asking her, “What does prick mean?” That was the only one I hadn’t accounted for. Once I knew that I was very savvy with all the tricks they’d lay out in front of me. It was a very brutal adjustment period and I had to learn very quickly. I’d say that the way that translates in my work is trying to bring everybody up to speed in a comfortable and warm way.
SB: How do you go about doing that in a warm way?
MC: Warm in the sense that when I watched a show in which to laugh, somebody had to be hurt or somebody had to be ridiculed. Punching down is what they call it. You never want to punch down, you never want to target somebody who isn’t deserving or worthy of that kind of treatment. So that’s my approach to work; when you watch it, you’re meant to feel good. No one should have to pay for a joke and I want to make comedy of the kind that feels wholesome and aligns with who I am.
SB: Speaking of learning quickly, the rapid rate at which you release your videos after a major headline has dropped is insane. How do you manage such a quick turnaround?
MC: I think it’s really a testament to the way I came into my field. I go into a zone where I kind of just forget about time and space and just do what I need to do. People look at my work and think, “He’s in the moment, how did that happen? I wish I could do stuff like that.” But the reality is, I spent most of my time before this journey working in production. I was a writer and a researcher, and I worked on a show where we would get up in the early hours of the morning, read through all of the top headlines and by 4 PM, we would have 90 minutes of live TV ready to go with games, talking points and features all based around stories we read that morning. It was trained into me; if you were two minutes away from going live and something happened like Harry Styles drop-kicking a member of the Royal family by accident, then that would be the top story and we’d have to adjust everything.
SB: How did your experience translate into you wanting to move in front of the camera?
MC: At the time, I would often think, “Who’s supporting this when I’m not the one on camera? I’m writing the jokes.” But only now do I understand that it was all a part of the process and my time has come. When the lights are on, when the spotlights are there, when it matters, I’m able to do what I need to do. I put my hours in because of that journey, so that’s what I’d stress to people. The journey is important and although there’s this huge gold rush for overnight fame and success, you don’t get to learn those kinds of lessons and build those kinds of skills without having a bit of a journey.
SB: Your moment to rise in front of the camera is well and truly underway, from your Netflix debut this year withThe Sandman and playing a demon. How did that come about?
MC: I let Netflix know the demon is ready to have his time to shine. It really was a whirlwind; I thought that in Hollywood films and series, someone sits down with you and tells you how they need you to act, speak and move. I was thinking I was going to have a movement coach to know how to move like a demon and have a dialect coach and everything. When in fact, I turned up on the first day and up until this point, the height of my acting experience was Year Nine Drama lessons. So I just had to fake it until I made it.
SB: Were there any standout moments?
MC: Having to deal with the loss of my eyebrows. When I felt a mound of plastic laid onto my eyebrows, I felt less strong, less intelligent. It was crazy. I think for all demons going forward, they should be allowed to keep their eyebrows. I’m going to campaign for it. The second thing I learned is that actors don’t blink. The biggest challenge for me in all of that wasn’t remembering lines or getting stage fright; it was the fact that when the camera is rolling, not even the sound man blinks. So you end up doing scenes with your corneas burning, dying to hear the word cut. I remember thinking how surreal it was at the time, wondering whether my scene was even going to get used.
SB: You’ve also had an epic year with the recent release of the British comedy panel game show,Taskmaster. What compelled you to pursue this?
MC:Taskmaster was amazing. What I’m most proud of with this show is the fact that I get to feature on a show that has all of the best comedians who constantly keep the nation laughing and smiling. To even be considered amongst them, as I do my one-minute sketches on Instagram, is a huge reason to smile.
SB: Let’s talk more about your sketches and how you bring them to life. How do you keep your imagination ticking?
MC: I definitely like to create more time to be bored because I think when you’re bored, it’s adaptive for the brain. I think we have a phobia of being bored, but that’s often when we think of solutions. I get a lot of inspiration from watching cartoons because they push the constraints of your imagination as they don’t abide by what physical and real people can do. I don't tend to watch many comedians at all, I just spend time admiring the satirical genius ofSpongeBob.
SB: Your work is very cathartic for a lot of people, grappling with the idea of feeling seen. Do you feel that same sense of catharsis yourself when creating?
MC: I think the most important thing for a creative person is not to create perfection. It’s not about creating your best work every time, but rather just to keep creating full stop. You hear about a lot of music artists and playwrights and poets who begin to go crazy or they feel depressed because they're just not able to express their creative impulses. I think a lot of the time that comes from this idea that you must create the perfect thing each time, which is impossible. There was a time last year when, because of the reputation I built over lockdown, I was so terrified of releasing anything less than my best work, meaning that I made a lot fewer videos. I had this burning desire to make stuff but it didn’t feel good enough and that became quite venomous. This year, I'm just like, “If it feels like a decent idea, I must put it out. And if it's not my best idea, maybe that will be next week.” I'm a lot happier for it.
SB: Sharing your work on such a vocal platform, how do you respond to the reception, particularly through videos where you’re discussing themes of race through the form of humour?
MC: I love my audience so much because I'm always in awe of just how willing they are to engage in conversation. Whatever people say about Gen Z, they're super switched on, and super aware of what's going on around us and how it affects us. And to be part of that conversation, or to even trigger conversation is a real privilege. I'm literally counting on one hand the number of people who kick off about stuff; their responses if they’re kicking off are never in-depth enough for me to engage. But by and large, it inspires me to be the best satirist I can be because everyone else is so switched on and so alert to the world and its injustices.
Photography by Morgan Hill Murphy
Styling by Lewis Munro
Words by Scarlett Baker
Editor Ella West
Hair by Tariq Howes at Left Side Creative
Makeup by Ciara Makeup
Set Design Kat Hawker
Cover design Livia Vourlakidou and Harry Fitzgerald
Art Direction Aparna Aji
Production Director Ben Crank
Photo Assistant Ella Pavlides
Talent Comms Good Culture Inc