Liberia: Painful Laughs Of War Aptly Captured In Netflix’s Dangerous World Of Comedy
Monrovia – What better place to find
Report by Rodney D. Sieh,
If you’re a fan of Borat, The Dictator and a few outrageous episodes of Seinfeld, Charles doesn’t disappoint.
Murphy’s Law: From War Survivor to Comic
It is the healing power of comedy and the power to bring people together, he says that drove him to Africa’s oldest republic to find an unusual brand of comedy born out of the strains of a brutal civil war.
It is in this city that Duke Murphy Dennis, a comedian and war survivor, who started doing comedy in refugee camps in Ghana after he was forced to flee Liberia as a young man in the war, found his niche. Like many refugees in exile, Murphy returned to Liberia where he does standup, movies and hosts a regular morning radio show on Radio Monrovia 92.1 in hopes of helping to heal Liberia.
In a ride through a still scarred portion of Monrovia, which includes the neighborhood Murphy grew up, the comedian recalls how his younger sister died in his arms during the war.
“My little sister got stabbed right on that street,” he tells Charles, pointing to the Front Street community near the historic, but now dilapidated E.J. Roye building. “Sometimes, if you tell someone to stop and they don’t want to stop, the end result is going to be bad. She was furious and then, I was saying stop – and she could not stop and she was stabbed and before I could pick her up, put her in the car – before we got to the clinic, she died right in my hands,” Murphy recalls, holding back his emotions.
Murphy’s comedy could not save his sister but in her memory, he uses his comedy to push for peace and reconciliation.
“Comedy is therapy – a medicine all by itself”, he says. “In the halls of comedy, there is no tribe, no religion, no big shot, no small shot, everybody’s equal because we express ourselves, everybody laughs; the rich man is laughing, the poor man is laughing, that’s one thing we have in common, everybody laughs, everybody’s happy.”
Malawal-Balawala Gets it Due
For a short time prior to the start of the civil war, the most important television series to come out of Liberia was born. Malawala-Balawala, produced with no sets or budget, remains an epic part of Liberia’s television culture and spoke to audiences across the continent of Africa in the same norm, Charles narrates, as Seinfeld and Cheers spoke to its affluent North American audience.
Malawala Balawala told the folklore as it has never been told before. It wasn’t canceled because of poor ratings, but canceled because of war,” Charles narrates.
Kekura Kamara, who played the title character and directed the hit show explains that the show’s title – Malawala – Balawala means, “I don’t believe it but everyone should believe it”.
Kamara recalls that the hit show captured Liberia like a bomb. “Everybody wanted to watch the series, I mean the next episode, everybody wanted to follow the story.”
Charles describes the show as a weekly ritual. “Missing it would be like missing church”.
For Kamara, by the time the war came knocking on the Christmas Eve of 1989, the show came to an abrupt end. “We jumped into the war, the crisis started and we had to leave this country and fled to neighboring countries.”
Kamara says a lot of the episodes of the hit show got damaged in the war and passersby managed to recover a few lost episodes – which have found some life on Youtube nowadays. “When the NPFL wanted to take over, the Liberia Broadcasting System, they launched RPG into the building. All of our cassettes – at the time we were using VHS, were scattered in the rain. Someone found some of them and those are the ones we have now.”
Wisdom from the Streets
At the Center Street graveyard, Charles meets former child soldier Archie Toulee, known to many as “Special Forces” who is captured performing what appears to be dramatics of the civil war, aptly mirrored with actual footages of the war by Charles in the documentary. “What is easy to understand”, Charles says of ‘Special Forces’, “is that what he does, defies labels. A one-eye, emotionally-traumatized ex-child soldier performing routines for the amusement of onlookers.”
Toulee says he was only 10-years-old when he stood by and watched his father executed by Charles Taylor’s NPFL rebels. “I saw it in my presence where my father was killed. So, at the age of 10, I was able to join the rebels and retaliate. My brain was traumatized and I’ve been on the street for long – because that’s the only way I can help myself.”
Today, Toulee says he does not have his own personal area but is just managing day by day.
The documentary captures a poignant but emotional moment as Charles asks Toulee whether there is anything he would like to do with his life besides his street performance.
The former child soldier breaks down in tears, hidden behind his dark shades, as he shakes his head taking a pause before lamenting: “I’m praying for better changes- yeah, for the country. Because the people, most of them, they are not wise – they are blind to the system. So, I’m praying for better changes for the next generation – not for our own because we are getting old now, but for our children, the children that are coming up, we should give them a good foundation for tomorrow”.
In the same graveyard is Diallo Kanjar and Michael Jallah. Traumatized and addicted to drugs, the pair who roam the streets daily to fend for themselves, perform comedy sketches in the abandoned Center Street cemetery that help them and their fellow strung out ex-soldiers laugh and earn a living.
Kanjar was 14-years-old when he was a child soldier; Jallah was 17. Ironically, they were in the video club looking at posters when soldiers recruited them for the war, taking them all the way to Foya, Lofa County in the northern Liberia. “We had no way of coming back, so we were forced to be soldiers. “We, the child soldiers, we hold gun for an advantage. That person that killed my ma and pa, I want to make sure their government dissolve,” Jallah says.
Lucen Smith, Manager of the Clowns, explains to Charles that the act started after the war because there was nothing to do. “We were Susuku, a disarmament program organized by the United Nations Mission in Liberia. They perform for people to laugh and do a little bit of war drama. But after the Susuku abandoned us, we decided to do it here, in the graveyard.”
Now using comedy as a means to earn a living, Kanjar, like most comics here, admits that it’s very hard for comedy to make money in Liberia. “We do it just for pocket change and to eat. But with no help and no manager, we are stuck in the graveyard on Center Street, doing street performances to make people laugh and perhaps, get a drop in the bucket. I want for somebody to take me out of this habit(drug) but I have no hand.”
Homage to Paul Flomo & Angel Michael
On a hilltop overlooking the beach where thirteen members of former President William R. Tolbert were executed, Angel Michael and Paul Flomo, two of Liberia’s leading comedians, talk about the challenges and uneven playing field for surviving on comedy in Liberia.
The chemistry between Michael and Flomo remains strong: “We are close friends- we’re almost like brothers and we live in the same neighborhood. Angel called and said there was a need we do a skit together and we’ve been friends since.”
The pair Paul Flomo and Angel Michael, two of the biggest comedians in Liberia – being a comedian in Liberia, doesn’t pay the bills. Most big comedy stars have second jobs.
The duo’s popularity heighted during the height of the deadly Ebola virus outbreak when they did the skit about the Angel who refused to come to Liberia, which happens to be Michael’s first. “No money here, we’re not getting anything”, Michael says.
Flomo says the skit about Ebola came about as a result of an effort to ease stress. “During the crisis, the minds of most Liberians were stressed. “They needed something to at least stress-free their minds and get their mind off the traumas and hardships. So, we went back to the drawing board and said, we think comedy could do better in the Liberian film industry this time around. So, we started to shoot comedy. During the shoot we would put our big drum down with water and sanitizer while shooting – and Liberian comedy was really going.”
The pair also teamed up for the skit, “Jesus Walk on the Water”. “We shot the skit and put it on social media and people began to follow it. Since then, Angel Michael and myself been working together and we still working together.”
Riding on a high for little or nothing, Michael is proud of his comedic life. “Comedy is deeply rooted in me – I was born with it. From childhood, people would tell me, the way you are funny, when you make use of it, you will get rich. So, when I saw people doing comedy sketches around, I said to myself, I can do comedy.” But even he admits, making money out of comedy is a stretch.
Flomo says while the comedians do most of the work, marketers of their skits and films make the bulk of the money, not the comedians. “Imagine shooting a movie for a thousand dollars and somebody telling you they want to buy your film $US500, that’s an insult but what to do, you just got to do it to survive,” Flomo says.
But even amid the struggles, Michael says he sees some great things coming out of comedy for him. “I see myself out there, I see myself riding planes, I see myself riding the best of cars, I see myself building the best of house, sleeping in the best of hotels around, I see myself touring from show to show, I see myself raising the flag of Liberia – high, high, so high.”
The Lib Queens of Comedy
At what used to be one of the only five-star hotels in Africa, the Ducor Palace Hotel, now ravaged from war and a shell of the beauty and décor that once graced the structure, Charles features three of the leading women comedians in Liberia – Evelyn Fairley, Roseline Blamo, Super Mama and Mamie, as they offer their unique take on using humor as a way of healing from the effects of war.
The quartet endured difficulties of painful memories from the war: Fairley, a memory she never likes to speak about and Roseline, Mamie and Super Mama recalling rape and the horrors of the war.
Fairley, who recalls her son losing his eye during the war, says comedy offers an escape. “Sometimes, a little laughter takes away the stress. Comedy for me is not being silly, it’s a message, it’s a therapy to make people laugh – it’s not very easy.”
Blamo agrees: “For me, being a comedian helps me a lot in my own personal life, it helped me when I lost my marriage within a year’s time, it helped me when I lost my mother. It was some of my jokes I listened to and sometimes people will bring it back to my face – and then it will help me laugh and tear the stress out because comedy is a very important role in human life.”
For their take, both Super Mama and Mamie, the stars of the hit locally-produced “Samaguan in Love” share screen time as they discuss their experiences of how they managed to sidestepped death during the civil war and channel their hurt into comedy. “I was at the age of twelve when one of the rebels raped me, that’s how I had my child,” Mamie recalls.
Comedy has offered her an outlet and a therapeutic haven for these powerful women in their own right.
Super Mama, recalls walking through areas controlled by General Butt Naked and seeing human heads and intestines.
Super Mama recalls seeing more than one hundred severed heads, while passing by the checkpoint but nothing prepared her for the horror of seeing a pregnant mother slaughtered before her eyes. “A pregnant woman was ahead of us – that’s how – that’s how the rebels started betting whether the unborn child was a boy or girl – this war was not for fun – that just God safe us. Right in front of me, the rebel split the woman’s stomach and took the child out.”
General Butt Naked: Humor in the Midst of war
Although General Butt Naked has since the war transformed himself into a man of God, many like Super Mama and Mamie still find it difficult to come to terms of the horror. “When he told us that he was changed – to my greater surprise when I went to town, I saw him preaching,” Mamie says.
For Charles, Dangerous comedy is not just about comedians, but people who use humor in unique circumstances, like General Butt Naked, who recalls his first-time watching television. “When I was a kid, before going to the bush, I used to enjoy – in fact, my father made me to enjoy it, it was a common show called Combat and the character there used to be called Vic Morrow. My father would always say that the gods are proud of me, I’m going to be like Vic Morrow tomorrow for my people.”
The former warlord recalls passing time on the hit show Malawala Balawala, the Jeffersons and Sanford & Sons.
Through his ritualistic moments, he says, he bared it all. “I did that once I was ready to fight – and so when I performed this ritual – a journalist succeeded in taking my picture – and when he took my picture it came on the news – and so that’s how they called me General Butt Naked. Nobody knew my name, they saw me in charge of everything, they saw me naked, so they just said, General Butt Naked.”
Even during those dark war days, the General says he found time for humor. “Most of the time we set ambush and the opponent or the enemies fall in it and then we play fun out of them. We lure them into a place, where they’re not seeing me. They’re seeing a lot of kids, kids shooting at them and they are coming and the kids are retreating and they reach to a place like this and there is no way out and I jump from over the fence and I’m standing behind them and they all see me drop their guns – and they start begging and what have you and most of the time we laugh.”
Amid the killings, the general, who strangely has been in support of a war crimes court in Liberia, pauses when speaking about his first kill. “From the beginning it was hard but after some time, it became normal.” In the final moments of episode one, the general delves into his past as he describes the taste of human flesh and his last kill which sparked his reformation for the pulpit, as the Rev. Milton Joshua Blaye.
Larry Charles’ Dangerous World of Comedy offers a rare showcase for Liberian comedians to share a glimpse of their talents to a global mainstream audience. Where it takes them from here could largely depend on how the rest of the world embrace a rare artform that drew a noted Hollywood director to these shores to find the best Liberia has to offer.