Dr Spire launches into comedy, explains why
- Written by Muhammad Kakembo
On March 24, Observer cartoonist and columnist DR SPIRE SSENTONGO will launch himself into stand-up comedy at the National theatre.
In an interview with Muhammad Kakembo, Ssentongo, who is known for his satirical cartoons and writing, said he wants to expand his horizons. Ssentongo, a university lecturer, said society construes comedy as the preserve of ‘unserious people,’ yet, on the contrary, there are very learned people who decorate Uganda’s theatre.
How did you come up with this idea of stand-up comedy?
Originally, this was Yusuf Sserunkuma’s idea. He felt that I could as well use the comedy media to do what I was doing with cartoons and satirical writing. Initially, I was reluctant since I don’t talk much. But I gradually bought into the idea. I figured that I could use many media platforms to reach out to the public.
Besides, I have always belonged to the school of thought that believes it is unfair for academics to detach themselves from society, which has made so many sacrifices to raise us to the academic pedestal. We tend to regard ourselves as belonging to a special class above ordinary people and to regard certain spaces as not being for us.
Even when we write, we use a language that excludes the masses through the use of jargon and complex English. I have always wished to be an academic who is relevant to my society beyond mere teaching. That is the satisfaction I get from drawing cartoons (cartoon activism), writing in newspapers, and now comedy.
Some people think comedy is not for serious people like you
If people think so, I wouldn’t blame them. Certain stereotypes take ages to clear. As a cartoonist, I still come across many people who imagine me to be some street fella of low education. One time I appeared on television to discuss the work of parliament.
And someone commented, “What is a cartoonist doing, debating matters of national interest?’ That time I was successfully tempted to give him my academic credentials, which I think he didn’t expect. So, I know there could be many unserious people in comedy.
But it is also in the nature of the art to present oneself as unserious. Already, in Uganda’s comedy, we have medical doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, etc. I look at it more as a means of communication that can be used by anyone who can. President Museveni is quite comical in his speeches, and that adds a lot to the reception of his communications.
Yes, in comedy, people come primarily for laughter, but in the process, a lot can be communicated. And it is easy to get away with messages about sensitive political topics. I find it quite effective in a society like ours where humour is part and parcel of everything, but also in going around the sensitivities embedded in certain issues. In short, there can be a lot of serious business in humour.
You are known for your no holds barred newspaper commentary and cartoons; how does comedy add to your identity?
First of all, I am that kind of person that does not want to be caged behind any conventional boundaries of ‘specialisation’ I want to do whatever I feel I can try, without carrying the burden of fearing what society will think. If society chooses to know me as one thing and not the other, that is their business.
I will draw, I will write, I will teach, I will build, I will sing, I will do comedy, and so on. My proper identity is ‘a human being’, all else is a fleeting spectrum of what I can do with my humanness.
Somebody asked if Spire is really funny. What should people coming to your show expect?
Humour is contextual and relative too. What might be funny for one per- son might not be funny to another. I cannot speak of myself as funny or not. Those who have been reading my column or seeing my cartoons should decide for themselves.
True, stand-up comedy might require a different set of skills, but, as a philosopher, I am a keener student of human beings. I keenly study what amuses them, what cracks them, what puts them on edge, what scares them, and so on. I am quite reflective about my directions, I tread with some knowledge of where I am going and what it means.
So, I am not gatecrashing comedy. I have been there, for those who are keen to notice. I understand, though, that it is hard for some to imagine, because their minds are programmed to only think of people as one thing, not many. The idea of one person doing many different things confuses them, and it disturbs their conventions. They would rather not imagine it. But they will repeatedly get surprised.
Do we see you doing this often, or is it a one-off?
I don’t intend to do it more than once. At least not in the near future. I am into many things and cannot do all of them consistently and effectively. I explore as many things as I can, but I can’t stay in them all.
How have people close to you reacted? Those who know Spire as an academic and social critic?
Some are excited, some are shocked. In real life, I am rather reserved, a loner, and a bit shy. That is why those who know me more closely immediately said: ‘That is not you, Spire’. But since they also know me for humour, pushing boundaries, and creativity, they quickly add: ‘I know you will surprise us’. However, those I frequently talk to are already laughing. They know what to expect.
What do you like/hate about our theatre industry, and how do you hope to influence it?
First, I don’t know whether my one act will have any influence. It can pass like a cloud, like so many other things that happen here. Much as I want people to come and pick what they may, I don’t want to inflate myself.
Second, I wouldn’t generalize about theatre in Uganda. There is so much I haven’t watched, since I am not a regular there. I imagine that there is some good going on there that I am not aware of, and that many of us may not see. I have watched some productions of Fun Factory, and I think they are doing great.
The Ebonies too, and many others. I observe, though, that many talents have gone silent, or into other things. But I can’t point a finger on why that is happening. It can also be seen that some undesirable things have come to characterize comedy, to the extent that some avoid it.
There is so much explicit/adult content in the industry. Some make it appear as though one cannot be funny without being vulgar. It is possible that this is a reflection of the tastes of the society, but it doesn’t justify it as the direction comedy should take. There is also too much tribal stereotyping that contributes to the solidification of the stereotypes involved, so much so that they start appearing to be obviously true.
While comedy and satire, in general, have so many permissions, they should as well watch themselves. Even when you are just cracking jokes, there is someone emulating what you are saying. I know that it is not desirable to overpolice creatives, as they are a complex talent that cannot be read in simple directions, but we need more conversations in the industry.
Any other thoughts?
Don’t expect a different Spire; expect the same Spire, talking about his usual topics, in a funny way. It is a moment for us to laugh about our madness.
Bizonto , a comedy gig of only 4 members has not only captured the attention of comedy lovers , but also that of the "devils" who work as agents of this paranoid junta. Bizonto`s comic idiology is purely and essentially situational ; like Dr.Spire`s cartoons.
Its as funny as it seriously depicts whatever is going on in Uganda`s socialogical and political arena
I have no apologies to extend for rating Dr.Spire higher than a stand-up comedian. My opinion is that he can contribute to comedy culture behind camera.
Whether I may be right or wrong , it only a damn fool that can distort my suggestion to mean that only I "know what people should do...."
As I told you, do not become a cold blanket when people are trying to make themselves more useful. You might be having one or two talents, but it doesn’t mean that everyone should only have two and shouldn’t try beyond. That is for us of ordinary talent. Let those who were given more than ordinary be
Is that how a good hearted advisor comes in or that’s for dark hearted witches? He managed to show us in a creatively entertaining way that comedy can be used for passing very critical messages on leadership and society, something that is lacking in our vulgar petty comedy. Naysayers like you were put to shame
Does Dr. Spire "insult" when he draws cartoons that make fun of his selected targets ? Does he insult when he draws a cartoon of Museveni dancing and rapping his head off with Buchman ?
No ! ; I don`t think so. in his own way , Dr.Spire is messeging thatM7 that Museveni`s appetite for power is making him too excited ; affecting his better judgement.
Me thinks that in any satrical arena , which Dr.Spire subscribes to , harmless banter is part of the menu.
I suppose he can take my sarcasm and does not advocate.
I notice that even Mr Tribal Leader has finally put out several comments without mentioning tribal this , tribal that .
Is there a pill . a kind that can instantly unlock a glued mind ?
I totally agree .
About 37 years ago , Alex Mukuku ( another creative artists) wrote a play : " 30 YEARS OF BANANAS". That play turned out to be a prophecy of sorts.
Mukulu rendomly picked a character . Kalekyezi ,a munyarwanda immigrant who exploited both the good nature of Ugandans and its confused politics. Kalekyezi cunningly weaved his way to the top and made it as the custonian of Nation`s meseum
Museveni , himself watched the play in National Theatre . Kalekyezi had explained that none of the past leaders listened to advice., reason why why they came without ears.
In his speech , after the show , M7 assured his listners that , unlike those other men , he had come in with ears.
37 years later ,, things Alex Mukulu`s prophecy has come to pass:
* Museveni lost his years immediately after watching Alex Mukulu`s play
* we see Kalekyezi everwhere we look.
Somewhere else, there was a man called George Orwell.
That one was many things too. But he is only or mostly remembered for his book: ANIMAL FARM.
We need the next Alex Mukulu ; the next George Orwell. Dr. Spire has all it takes to step into the shoes.