Instagram Comedy and the Shadow of Nollywood

A scathing review of the political comedy Your Excellency, by Funke Akindele, written by an anonymous critic describes her directorial debut as a bunch of Instagram skits and not a movie. Rather than encountering ‘an amazing political comedy’ that satirizes Nigeria’s practice of democracy in a digital era, the audience, according to the anonymous reviewer, is made to endure ‘a string of Instagram skit videos, retinue of unnecessary actors and underdeveloped characters.’ This review embeds an implicit derogation of Instagram skits because they are not seen as professional or standard filmic practices, signaling attention to the conceptual dimensions of the argument that a Nollywood film is merely a pastiche of Instagram videos. Yet, the Instagram skit (or simply Instagram comedy, although these works circulate from and to several other platforms like TikTok and WhatsApp) has emerged as a new digital genre of Nigerian humor produced and circulated online for social media users targeted as fans and followers.

With superb performances by comedians who deploy humor as the means of interpreting local experiences for social media’s transnational audiences, the structure of the Instagram skit as a short text is based on few characters and a condensed plot that evolves over a short time span, usually between one to three minutes. A recurrent element of most texts of Instagram comedy is the sonic appropriation of soundbites from previously viral videos, such as Patience Jonathan’s famous “Okay continue” line. As these new digital genres of popular culture proliferate in recent years because of social and digital media, the prosthetic relations between comic videos that circulate on social media and the Nigerian film industry recall some of Nollywood’s most enduring subject matters and production dynamics.

#EndSARS, for instance, presented an opportunity to read the violence of police brutality through the pseudo-cinematic texts produced in real time by several online comedians including Debo Adedayo (@Mrmacaroni1) who documented the youth-led outcry against a dominant state repressive apparatus in their jokes. @Mrmacaroni1 who was later arrested at the now-infamous Lekki tollgate, also recorded his own encounter with the police in another series of skits that make legible the integration of social media affordances into the production of online stories against state domination. One of the major highlights of #EndSARS from the perspective of @Mrmacaroni1’s comedy is the convergence of the activistic and the artistic. Like the music of protest during #EndSARS, the real-time skits created by @Mrmacaroni1 to comment on the protest and invite more supporters online are significant aspects of the archive of narratives and images produced on the movement.

Although online social movements are not always examined in terms of the artistic practices that underpin and supplement them, the comedic texts of #EndSARS set up the conditions under which we may begin such engagements. This deliberate politicization of popular cultural form such as Instagram comedy, or the circulation of creative practices and activities on the internet for the purpose of resisting hegemonic power structures and ideologues is what I am describing as cultural netizenship in another work on social media-enabled popular performances in Nigeria. Unlike the normative performative signals of netizenship as an expression of Net citizenship, cultural netizenship evokes the deployment of visual and popular culture online to push back at oppressive power. But Cultural netizenship goes beyond humor and points to other regimes of visuality such as the creation of memes that foreground the remediation of Nollywood images for performative self-expressions online.

But as scholars like Jonathan Haynes and Akin Adesokan have shown, Nigerian popular representations have historically offered a terrain for the construction of politics. From Ola Balogun to Tunde Kelani, the genre of the political film in Nollywood is well established and enjoys considerable analytical exploration in Haynes’s 2016 volume on Nollywood. Gbenga Adewusi’s 1993 film Maradona (or Babangida must go) tackles the annulment of the 1993 presidential elections by General Ibrahim Babangida. For those who do see no connections between Nollywood and protest culture, films such as Adewusi’s offer some solid evidence. @Mrmacaroni1’s comedic videos continue this subversive tradition by rendering Instagram comic texts as reconstructions of the political. Hence, the crucial need to explore the discursive role of the social web in Nollywood’s political genre. Funke Akindele’s representation of social media in Your Excellency brilliantly offers a cinematic construction of Nigerian digital culture, showing Akindele’s savvy use of the platform to distribute her film projects.

Aside from the political uses of Instagram comedy, the production of these videos is similar to the do-it-yourself culture that inaugurated Nollywood, while the industry’s famous commercialism is a neat pretext for the widespread aspiration for commercialized artistic practices among Instagram comedians. Like early Nollywood, with its absence of big budgets and high production values, many of these comedians basically took narrative power in their own hands by grabbing a camera and shooting a viral, to borrow Kanye West’s lyrics from Power. The number of people who follow online comedians is vital and ultimately means that the skits produced by popular names such as @Taaooma (Maryam Apaokagi), @Officerwoos (Oladaposi Gbadamosi), and @Broda Shaggi (Samuel Animashaun Perry) eventually serve the logic of capital. For instance, @Mrmacaroni1 recently celebrated reaching 1 million followers on Instagram. The inference we may draw from this is not just about the much-coveted numbers many social media influencers crave for; it is also how the circulation of comic narratives is contingent on the shared participation of audiences that are invited in post-narrative commentaries that request them to “share or subscribe for more videos.”

With huge unemployment figures in Nigeria, Instagram skits serve as an entrepreneurial deployment of popular humor and reveals the capitalist transformation of online speech and agency into monetary opportunities. The Instagram skit implements a commodification of humor projected through narratives that both serve advertisers and entertainment, as the huge audience of the Instagram comedian is recognized by corporate patrons that are commissioned to make skits which advertise products. This way, the production of Instagram skits is both an expression of digital speech and, in more significant ways, a reiteration of the neoliberal logic of both Nollywood and the social media platforms that profit from the digital labors of users. Hence, Instagram comedy presents an excellent illustration of the commercialization of creativity that most animates the artistic practices of performers who started out as playful netizens on social media.

The many Nollywood stars who increasingly appear in these skits also consolidate the important linkages between Nollywood and social media texts of comedy, even as these characters feed off the influence economy from each other’s sectors, with Instagram comedians also featuring more prominently in new Nollywood movies. Thematically, although several of these comedians later explore other social issues, some of them abidingly retain perennial themes and style. For instance, @Taaooma makes skits that portray everyday realities which focus on mother-daughter conversations in Nigerian homes, but her comic style reinforces the stereotype of the so-called African mother as an inherently violent person who forbids the agency of children. This is, of course, not limited to @Taaooma. There are many other comedians, especially from Nigerian-diasporic communities, who project these single stories of African parents.

For his part, @Mrmacaroni1’s “Daddy Wa” character is a philandering agent who derives pleasure from the sexual objectification of women, although some would argue he merely uses this didactically to critique marital infidelity. Like the problematic depictions of women in Nollywood itself, which dates back to earlier androcentric representations of women in earlier popular forms such as Onitsha market literary pamphlets, @Mrmacaroni1’s skits depict women as materialistic subjects who depend on men and their money. While the men in these skits are often represented as wealthy and successful (in the case of Daddy Wa), women are consistently portrayed as sex objects who exist for male gaze and pleasure. There is an enormous body of work on this trashy representation of women in Nollywood, and several texts of Instagram comedy essentially rehash these ideologies, centering Nollywood as the dominant form of Nigerian popular culture.

Stereotypical representations aside, Nigerian online comedians are creating some of the most assured work on social media and are quickly perfecting a new genre of humor that invites us to imagine genealogical links between Nollywood and comedic practices on the participatory web. If Nollywood films dramatize the lives of everyday Nigerians faced with the postcolonial condition, the industry now has a shadow cultural economy that both ‘competes’ with it and strengthens it.

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