Daliso Chaponda could never be accused of taking the conventional route to comedic fame.
The fast-talking stand-up came third in last year’s series of the hit ITV show, Britain’s Got Talent, introducing him to a huge new audience.
But the path that brought him there was a little unorthodox.
Daliso was born in Malawi, but his parents fled the regime of dictator Hastings Banda. His father then worked as a lawyer for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, a role which took his family across the globe. His father has since returned to the southeast African nation, where he has served as a government minister and is still an MP.
His son however, abandoned his degree in computer science and English literature at Concordia University in Canada to try his hand at comedy. This was back in 2002, and it was not a move his family thought highly of.
‘Initially they thought I was insane to the point that there were multiple attempts at an intervention,’ he laughs. ‘They thought I was throwing away my life, but I understand that as much as it was very frustrating at the time it came from a place of love - they were worried about me.
‘I was always very academic, it wasn’t like some kid who’s doing badly at school saying he wanted to be an artist. I was a straight A student on a scholarship, which was exactly what they were hoping for, then suddenly it’s: “You were the great hope, what are you doing!”
‘So they were very afraid. My brothers were very supportive but my parents were worried. One of the great things about Britain’s Got Talent was that my parents were in the audience, they flew over from Malawi, so it was lovely to have them from go doubting me, to having some tangible proof. They got so into it, my mum was watching the footage every day.’
He moved to the UK more than a decade ago – he now lives in Manchester – and for a long time he was your typical struggling comic, travelling all over the country playing the clubs. All that changed, though, when he appeared on BGT. Judge Amanda Holden loved his act so much she used the ‘golden buzzer’, sending him through to the semi-finals automatically.
His audition has been watched more than 9m times on YouTube. How has BGT changed things for him?
‘My life is the same as before,’ he deadpans, ‘but bigger.
‘I used to write and perform jokes, but I used to perform to 60 people, now, it’s 800-1,000. It’s just a bigger version of what I used to do, and I’m definitely enjoying the ride.’
Daliso often likes to needle authority in his routines, and this actually got him in trouble back home.
‘Oh yes, especially when I first started doing stand-up in Malawi, because there was no context. There had never been any comedians there, so the papers seized on everything I said.
‘The peak of it was when the censorship board came after me. The interesting was that it wasn’t for what I actually said, it was for how a reporter interpreted it. The problem with humour is that if you’re not there, on the written page it can lose a lot of the nuance. I did a joke about the Malawian president, and over-zealously the censorship board were like: “This is wrong this is terrible”, and threatened me with all sorts. What ended up happening was that we paid a fine, but there was a period there where anything was possible from arresting me, to shutting down the show. We gave them tickets and invited them to the show and said don’t judge me on this newspaper report - see for yourself. They came along and I made them part of the show, I introduced them to the audience, it was quite great.
‘In retrospect, I should have probably been more scared than I was, but because of who my dad is, the worst that would have happened is I would have been arrested for a day, and he would have got me out. But a lot can happen in a Malawian jail in a day.’
Would he get diplomatic immunity, then if his dad becomes president?
Daliso chuckles: ‘It would be easier for me as a comedian if he wasn’t. It’s a different level of scrutiny, I’d get him in trouble.
‘When I got in trouble with the censorship board, the worst part was that he got in trouble with the president because the president was angry with him, like: “Why can’t you control your son?”’
Aside from politics, Daliso often references slavery and colonialism in his act. But he doesn’t believe that being an African necessarily makes him better placed as a comic to comment on these subjects.
‘I think there are white comedians who tackle that stuff really well, but you have to do it well – like Bill Burr or pre his scandal Louis CK – so I don’t think it’s who’s saying it, it’s what they’re saying.
‘Similarly I have a routine about the disability benefit being cut, and there was one time I wanted to do it, but the producer said: “We love the joke, but it would be better coming from a disabled act”. No, I don’t feel that’s how it works. Like Katherine Ryan has said stuff about black culture I love, and there are black comics who’ve said stuff about black culture which I don’t think is helpful.
‘Yes, as a shorthand, it’s easier to accept a black person talking about a black issue, but I think an intelligent person can talk about anything – as long as you’re aware of your audience and the effect of your words.
‘Whenever people get in trouble for saying something, it’s like, don’t you know the power of your words? You’re an adult, you don’t say something “accidentally” racist. When you’re an adult, you know how people will take it.’
And his new found fame in the UK has made him a star at home too.
‘It’s bonkers how popular I am. When I arrived at the airport in Malawi, there were people at the airport wearing T-shirts with my face on and singing a song with my name in! But what you have to understand is that there aren’t a lot of celebrities in Malawi that the young people can sort of jump on to. The fact that there was an African on Britain’s Got Talent, they were sharing it on YouTube and got really excited.’
Earlier this year, Daliso had his own Radio 4 show, Citizen of Nowhere, looking at the relationship between the UK and Africa. It went well enough to earn a second series.
‘I do a lot of radio and I’m trying to break into TV, which is a very different market. There’s a lot of making pitches, and hoping that something catches the imagination. The amount of rejection you get as an artist is absurd,’ he gives a wry laugh. ‘But it’s worth it in the long-run.’
Daliso Chaponda : What The African Said
New Theatre Royal, Portsmouth
Friday, September 28