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The world of professional comedy has long been a boys club, in Nigeria and elsewhere. But the internet is helping to democratize who gets to make Nigerians laugh.
Twenty-something comedians Maraji and Taaooma each have more than 1 million Instagram followers who enjoy their skits about Nigerian culture and family dynamics. While women are often the butt of male comedians’ jokes, these social media sensations say they are flipping the script and showing women can dish out humor too.
Both women would like to someday take their comedy to the silver screen in Nollywood – Nigeria’s booming film industry – which capitalizes on the country’s desire for locally told stories. In the meantime, they hope their rise can provide a template for others.
“It is amazing” to see women becoming popular comedians, says Maraji. “A lot of young women are on it right now. It’s their creativity and if I have been of help in any way, then I am honored.”
In a brightly colored sitting room somewhere in Nigeria, a couple and their teenage daughter are gathered comfortably in front of the television, watching a foreign film. Suddenly, the two characters on the screen kiss, and everyone freezes.
“Go inside!” shrieks the mother in panic, as her daughter scurries out of the room. For the next two minutes, the same scene plays out several more times, each with a different awkward parental reaction. In one iteration, the mother deflects the room’s attention by chattering away about grocery shopping. In another, the father flails frantically for the remote to change the channel.
Since it was first posted last year, this 2-minute skit by the rising Nigerian comedy star Gloria Oloruntobi (known as Maraji) – who plays mother, father, and daughter in the scene – has been watched more than 800,000 times on YouTube.
The video captures what has made the 20-something comedian such a viral sensation – her knack for using relatable social interactions to elicit laughs.
But her social media stardom also points to how the internet is helping democratize who gets to make Nigerians laugh. Like in many countries, the comedy scene here has historically been a boys club, where success meant making your way up through the male-dominated world of standup gigs, headline shows, and television appearances.
On the internet, there are no such gatekeepers. And for Nigerian women, that means they are finally beginning to see their own experiences reflected back on their smartphone screens. Instead of being the butt of male comedians’ jokes, female comedians like Maraji say they are flipping the script, showing that women can dish out humor too.
“I don’t know how it would have been possible for me to reach the audience that I have, both within and outside Nigeria, without the internet,” says Maryam Apaokagi (known as Taaooma), another young female comic, who has endeared herself to her 1.3 million Instagram followers with her skits lampooning traditional family dynamics.
Nigeria – home to the world’s second-largest film industry – has long been a country that put a premium on locally told stories. And just as a far-flung Nigerian diaspora and international streaming platforms like Netflix have helped give Nollywood a worldwide reach, the internet has given the country’s comedy a wider fan base.
Earlier this year, for instance, Nigerian comedian Josh Alfred (known as Josh2funny) touched off a global hashtag, #dontleaveme, with an Instagram video featuring a series of puns on the word leaf. By early August, the hashtag had close to 5 billion views on TikTok.
Like social media influencers the world over, Nigeria’s online comedians tend to be Generation Zers fluent in sharing their lives across a wide variety of digital platforms. But they’ve struck a particular chord here for their skill at poking fun at Nigerian culture from the inside.
And for Taaooma and Maraji in particular, their ability to crack jokes about Nigerian cultural sensitivities and domestic life without being dismissive or exploitative has won them legions of fans, says Fareeda Abdulkareem, a culture writer and development worker in Kaduna, who credits their high level of “imagination and empathy” for their success.
That distinguishes them, observers say, from a crop of comedians who have often leaned on sexism and homophobia for laughs. Taaooma’s skits, for instance, often explore family relationships, humorously probing the tensions between traditionally minded parents and their irreverent offspring.
The videos themselves are often clunky, with amateurish camerawork and editing. But that, their creators say, is part of the charm.
“The videos I create most times are not always set out to make people laugh but for people to relate to,” says Maraji, who has more than 1.2 million followers on Instagram. “I just live life and I don’t stress it really.”
But if the clips have an amateur’s charm, they are also the work of savvy businesswomen. Maraji and Taaooma live completely off the income they make from their comedy, often collaborating with local brands including banks and skin care lines – though both fell into comedy accidentally, pursuing their passion without an end goal in sight.
And both are clear that they would like to someday take their comedy to the silver screen as Nollywood actors and producers. In the meantime, they hope their rise can provide a template to other female comedians.
“It is amazing” to see other women becoming popular comedians on social media, says Maraji. “A lot of young women are on it right now. It’s their creativity and if I have been of help in any way, then I am honored.”