Telling stories with Daliso Chaponda [2020 re-edit]

Daliso Chaponda

The original version of this interview was published in my Northern Quarter fanzine back in Summer 2006.

Around the time of the failed launch of State of Play, I moved back to Manchester. My plan was to take matters into own hands with a self-published quarterly (hence the title), featuring writing from my old London friends and new Manchester work colleagues.

For all the usual reasons (life, lethargy and laziness), it only ran for one issue in the end. The best of my own articles was an interview with up-and-coming stand-up Daliso Chaponda.

Just over a decade later, Daliso appeared on Britain’s Got Talent. Amanda Holden used her Golden Buzzer to fast-track him to the semi-finals, and he eventually finished in third place on the 2017 series.

Daliso ended up with a BBC Radio 4 series Daliso Chaponda: Citizen of Nowhere off the back of it, showing that sometimes talent (eventually) does out.

Here’s that 2006 interview, given a slight edit.

Beat The Frog at Oldham Street’s Frog and Bucket can be a harsh place. It’s a baptism of fire for newbies and still a rough ride for more experienced stand-ups trying new material.

While it’s not as deeply aggressive as some gong shows, it’s still proved to be the last resting place of many comedians and much more material besides.

Some of the very best performers still struggle at the Frog. At least one of the three tipsy judges chosen from the audience on the night will usually stick up their green “get off the stage” card at some point during each set, regardless of quality.

Beat The Frog – a Manchester institution

Even for those who escape three cards and the Frog Chorus exit music, it’s clear that many find filling those five minutes a challenge. The crowd’s attention is often sapped by cut-price lager and the knowledge that hey, it’s a free night.

With all that in mind, a few months back we saw Daliso Chaponda making his Beat The Frog debut. His five minutes passed in what seemed like five seconds. He won the clap-off with ease and walked away from venue a more-than deserved winner.

We had to find out more. Where the hell did Daliso Chaponda come from, and where’s he going next?

The short answer to that first question is well… there isn’t one. Born in Malawi, Daliso spent time in South Africa and Swaziland before a move to Canada to study computer science and literature, taking what he calls “a good steady path to stability”.

His down-the-line schooling then got sidetracked. Unlike most Manchester stand-ups who got their first exposure to comedy via telly and the stage, Daliso took the scenic route.

“I didn’t watch any stand-up early on in my life,” he says. “I watched a lot of humour. I read a lot of humour, like Oscar Wilde, but not stand-up, so I’ve always had a sort of different, odd style.”

And at school in Swaziland he became a storyteller. “It’s a very big African art,” Daliso says. “It’s cheap, you don’t need any props, it’s just a dude who starts talking. Wonderful!

“It’s a very versatile kind of artform and I was very into it, also because I write fiction, a perfect mesh.”

Daliso writes. He writes a lot. His passion is sci-fi, with Orson Scott Card and Octavia Butler namechecked as influences, but there’s also a stash of erotica in his back catalogue.

Daliso Chaponda on his teenage years for Just For Laughs

With credits on, some stories in an erotica anthology and his own collection coming later this year, we can’t not ask.

“I needed a quick way to make money, and people are obsessed with porn on the net,” he says. “There’s so much, right? “I thought ‘Well, I can write porn better than this badly-written nonsense’.”

Starting off with the obvious fantasy material, Daliso quickly moved into writing erotic humour. “I thought there’s no point  spending time being ashamed of it, so I may as well write it in a way that I can tell my friends, ‘Look at this!’.”

Back to the comedy then. Daliso’s stand-up features quick, sharp gags, piercing insight and above all else, supremely confident delivery. He owns the stage. So, it’s no surprise that he cites Chris Rock as an influence.

A more unexpected shoutout goes to South Shields-born Sarah Millican, who’s been making big waves on the Manchester circuit. “She really impressed me because her writing was amazing, and the stuff which impresses me is writing, because I write.

“There are a lot of people who are great performers with dodgy material, so the ones who really astonish me are the ones who can write.”

With his storytelling background and focus on writing ahead of performance, Daliso has a different edge to many on the Manchester scene. His four years in Canada have also had an effect.

Daliso Chaponda at the ROFL Comedy Club

He thinks the smaller number of comedians and venues there compared to the endless gong shows here explains why so many Canadians have managed to succeed in the UK and elsewhere.

“Gong shows are a crap way to become good at comedy,” he says. “For your first year you can do one minute, it’s terrible! You never progress.

“In Canada I was doing five minutes every week, or every few weeks. There were only a few clubs too, so you’re forced to write new material.”

Having been repeatedly frustrated seeing potentially interesting comics failing to get off a single gag, and also seeing popular circuit names using identical material for months on end around the city, we’re inclined to agree.

The streets of Manchester are littered with the comedic corpses of unrealised potential but Daliso really feels on the cusp of something big.

Currently playing a mixture of paid gigs and amateur spots to get noticed, is there anything that will take the guy to the next level?

A look back to his time in Canada is certainly encouraging. He toured the full-length Feed This Black Man in 2002, followed by Don’t Let Them Deport Me two years later – that second show being a response to Canadian authorities refusing him a visa extension.

He’s still a storyteller, then. “I like writing novels. I believe that in stand-up you only get started when you’re doing half an hour. I just want to get to the point where I can do one hour shows. I like to think of them as being very structured, almost like a book.

“And I want it that when I’m 60 that you can line up the shows I’ve done and it gives you a story of where my life is at.

“When you do ten minutes, it’s just foreplay. You’re just making people laugh, you can’t say anything. So comedy-wise, I just wanna do shows. I wanna write scripts.”

Daliso’s last show in Canada was called They’re Deporting Me Anyway, performed as a one-off shortly before he was forced from the country. We ask if being a struggling immigrant comedian is any easier in the UK, and are unsurprised to find out that it’s just as difficult here as anywhere else.

There’s been plenty in the news of late about the release of non-British prisoners into UK society. Many in the press have wilfully confused and misrepresented the facts, choosing instead to emblazon their front pages with the words “foreigners” and “criminals” alongside large numbers, tapping into the latent xenophobia in British society.

“It’s interested the way you see the headlines… the words used,” Daliso says. “It’s also capitalised on by certain political parties, it’s just very worrying”.

Daliso Chaponda on Lazy Racists at the Hot Water Comedy Club in 2010

In local elections the day after our interview, the BNP doubled its number of councillors, making its largest gains in Barking and Dagenham and becoming the second-largest party there. Some suggest that fears of the BNP and others like them are overstated. Daliso disagrees.

“Notions of hypernationalists and what they do to countries are a very distant fairytale for people here, but growing up in Africa we’ve seen it straight up,” he says. “My home country Malawi had an extreme dictatorship, South Africa had apartheid and it was very nationalistic.”

And race is still an issue in comedy. We ask if Daliso would consider a permanent move to the US, like other successful Canadian comics. He’s not sure if he wants to move from the UK.

“What I like here is that you’re a comedian. You’re not necessarily a black comedian,” he says. “In the States you’re really a black comedian. I don’t know if that makes sense, but the race thing means more there.

“In terms of the clubs that are gonna book you, ‘Here black comedian, you do Def Jam’. You can do other shows, but certain clubs are gonna book you more.

“Here, I just go everywhere, and I talk about being black but I can talk about other things, and I like that element.”

Daliso wants to perform for everyone. “The truth is I’ll do comedy anywhere”, he says. “I had a hard time about a year ago when I did a golf club, because it was very rich people, a lot of my comedy was about being broke, they didn’t understand.

“Also a lot of them were sports people. I’m not a very big sports guy, but I learnt. Immediately after that I got home and wrote jokes about wealth. I wrote some jokes about sports.”

Daliso Chaponda’s 2017 audition on Britain’s Got Talent

Under all that wit and swagger, is Daliso Chaponda just another bland careerist, then?

Later that evening we dropped by the Comedy Balloon at Jabez Clegg, the comedians’ comedy night where stand-ups try out new material to an audience made up mainly of other comics.

After a few drinks, Daliso explains that as human beings we have a connection with everyone else. There’s always something that connects a comic to their audience, no matter how different they may appear on the surface.

And when you strip everything away, he says it’s the comedians job to draw out this connection and use it to make their audience laugh.

Perhaps it’s a hangover from his storytelling days. A medium where, as Daliso says, “you can go to all sorts of places and you can entertain children and adults”. That desire to take on any audience and find that connection. To bust open the conventions of stand-up and tell a story.

Published by Mayer Nissim

Pop culture and communications.

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