For a UK satirist and his online fans, comedy is catharsis

He is the hyperbolic news anchor with an agenda, the disgruntled Meghan Markle skeptic vying for Piers Morgan’s job, the British aristocrat insisting he is simply middle class — and those are just a few of the characters in Munya Chawawa’s arsenal.

But during a Zoom interview last month, Chawawa, 28, speaking from his London apartment in a neon hoodie, was exploring his own persona.

“I make content because I need to express how I’m feeling about the world,” he said of his comedy. “You have to have some form of catharsis when the world throws stuff at you. Otherwise, you’ll just go crazy.”

Chawawa’s dry sketches about racism, classism and everyday life in Britain had already found an audience before the pandemic. But in lockdown, his potent combination of singing, comedy acting and rapping has helped establish him as a sardonic voice of progressive young people in an increasingly diverse nation who are unimpressed by elitism and sceptical of the establishment.

The misery of a locked-down Britain has been a boon to Chawawa, who now has more than a half-million followers on both Instagram and TikTok. He has signed a contract with Atlantic Records, and his news anchor character, Barty Crease, appears in promotions for Netflix UK.

In such a year, “humor has been a much-needed tonic,” Chawawa said. And the string of successes has fueled an ambitious goal: “I’m working toward being one of the country’s most respected satirists.”

Satire, to Chawawa — whose comedy heroes are John Oliver, Andy Zaltzman and Sacha Baron Cohen, among others — feels “like a superpower.” That’s not only because of the challenge of execution but also because of satire’s ability to extract humor from situations that are not supposed to be funny at all, he said.

“Anything you laugh at can’t haunt or hurt you as much as it used to do,” he said.

Given the state of the world today, there is plenty of material for him to work with.

When critics called food packages for poor children too meager, Chawawa was ready with a sketch about a wealthy lawmaker scrambling to respond: “We can’t feed them, but we could put them in a film: ‘The Hungrier Games.’” He has parodied British journalists brainstorming headlines about the Duchess of Sussex using the game Cards Against Humanity (“Meghan Kidnapped Peppa Pig”) and a security guard letting rioters into the U.S. Capitol upon hearing they are white: “You’re already wearing your pass! It’s called white privilege.”

Among all his characters and creations, Chawawa is best known for Unknown P, an insufferably smug, Burberry-cap-wearing rapper from Surrey who riffs about tax evasion, trust funds and other things Chawawa imagines the 1% might talk about behind closed doors.

The character was born from a desire to expose the hypocrisy of classism and cultural appropriation amid a public debate over UK drill — a subgenre of hip-hop music that British authorities have tried to censor, blaming it for a rise in knife crimes in London.

For many young Black men and women, drill was an important form of self-expression, Chawawa said, giving voice to the frustrations and realities of life in a period of austerity. Chawawa said he was disturbed by the appropriation of the genre, with “posh white kids singing the lyrics” as it filtered into private schools.

Born in Derby, England, Chawawa spent his childhood in Zimbabwe, his father’s birthplace, before his family moved to a small village near Norwich, England. His first exposure to comedy was through his grandfather, whose jokes over the dinner table made him the centre of attention.

In England, where his was one of the few families of colour in the area, Chawawa stifled his natural extroversion, which had been encouraged in Zimbabwe. “Slowly, I stopped putting my hand up,” he said.

In college, he studied psychology but found himself spending all his time in the student radio hub. He also worked as a server at a high-end restaurant in Norwich, where customers sometimes complimented his English. There, he picked up useful insights into the ways of the ultrawealthy. It struck him when he moved to London that this world could be a mine of comedy gold.

He began posting skits online while working as a producer for the TV channel 4Music, hoping they would raise his profile enough to propel him onto the air. But as skit after skit went viral, Chawawa found that instead of trying to impress industry gatekeepers, he could bypass them entirely.

“You can go viral in a day, and everyone knows who you are,” he said, adding that many young people in Britain did not see themselves reflected by the satirists on their TV screens. “To me it feels liberating to combat the status quo.”

His own operation remains largely himself and “a tripod that has one leg sellotaped together,” he said, though he does employ help for more complicated graphics and animation.

To make sure his skits will resonate at a time when viral fame can be life-affirming or destructive, he shares them first with a panel of trusted friends. “Some people, I’ll be so different from them in real life, of course they’re not going to think it’s funny,” he said. “My followers are the people I think I’d get along with in real life.”

Chawawa rejects the criticism that satirising serious topics like racism and the pandemic trivialises them. The grandfather who inspired his comedy died from a terminal illness during the pandemic, and last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests left him with an emotional pain he had never experienced. “I could barely even pick up my phone,” he said. “I felt so low.”

But he subscribes to the adage that in difficult times, you can cry or you can laugh — and he would like to make people laugh. “It is better for me to add humour in the world at this time than add more reasons to be depressed,” he said.

Despite an eye for places and people to critique in the world, Chawawa does not want to become a cynic, he said — that guy complaining at the supermarket about how hard life is.

Instead, he is optimistic about his own future and the future that Britain’s young people are building.

“The older generation maybe think we’re all on TikTok grinding against a wardrobe — which,” he admitted, “sometimes is true.” But he believes his comedy is answering a need among young people for entertainers who are keenly aware of inequalities in the world.

“Once the old money starts to shuffle out, I’m very confident of how Britain will look when the new generation steps in,” he said.

Chawawa’s dream is to produce his own television show. He is branching into more acting and writing work. And once the pandemic is over, he — or, rather, Unknown P — plans to follow the likes of other British comedians and make a trip across the Atlantic.

“Americans think that Unknown P is real,” he said, grinning. He said he would welcome the opportunity for the character to “get some real cultural insights.”

For now, Chawawa is enjoying the chance to lean into that natural extroversion. “My dad always used to say to me, ‘When you were in Zimbabwe, you were so bold.’” Being a satirist now, he added, is “a resurgence of the guy I used to be.”

© 2021 New York Times News Service