ED2016 Comedy ED2016 Interviews ED2016 Week1 Edition

Njambi McGrath: One-liners, big issues

By | Published on Tuesday 9 August 2016

Njambi McGrath

Born and educated in Kenya, before attending university in both the US and UK, and now London-based, Njambi McGrath has been garnering lots of attention in recent years as she’s worked the comedy circuit and new talent competitions.
Adept at writing very fine one-liners, while also delving into some serious topics in her shows, Njambi brings ‘1 Last Dance With My Father’ to this year’s Festival. We had a quick chat to find out more about her move into stand-up, her style of comedy, and what this year’s fascinating show is all about.

CC: For those who have not been paying any attention whatsoever, let’s start at the start. How did you first get into comedy?
NM: I never considered myself a comedian. I work as a childbirth teacher and wanted to make my classes more exciting, especially for new fathers-to-be, since the mothers are usually already on board. So I wrote some jokes. And they laughed a lot and paid so much more attention on how to help their wives or girlfriends during birth. Basically I hoped to make a scary thing less frightening. After one session, a man – who was a film script writer – came to me and asked if I had ever considered stand-up, which took me completely by surprise. When I told my husband about it he encouraged me to try, so I went along to the Comedy Café in Shoreditch. I spoke to the owner who gave me a slot two weeks later, and then I was bitten by the comedy bug.

CC: You seem to have been in the finals of pretty much every new comedian competition in the last couple of years, what’s that been like?
NM: Getting to the finals is exiting, to know that I have been selected purely on merit and the quality of my writing, so it’s a very nice feeling of achievement. It’s also frustrating because it feels like you’re so close but yet so far! It feels like being at school again and you are one mark off an A, but you can’t keep telling people how close you were to the prize without sounding weird.

CC: Tell us about ‘1 Last Dance With My Father’.
NM: It’s a poignant comedy about my journey to discover who my father was. He was a violent tee-totaller who I hated but, having done lots of research about his life, I went from being angry to being desperately sad for my father, to having sheer respect and appreciation of how awesome he was. People go through their whole lives without asking their parents about their childhood. You don’t know what you will unearth. It’s ironic that I did so much study about his life, because he was a great believer in education.

CC: It covers some pretty serious events. Was it easy to find the comedy in the themes?
NM: It’s always tricky making jokes about something that upset you for most of your life, but it’s also quite therapeutic. At first talking about it was painful, but I like taking the audience through the journey because, even with the darkest material, one can find little gems to make fun of. It’s also a thin line between tasteless jokes and dark humour. It is the bleakness of life that can have the funniest moments. When I started my research I spent the first six months crying and once that was out of the way I could then begin to laugh.

CC: People have noted that you combine one-liner comedy with some pretty serious topics, which is unusual. Was that deliberate, or did that just come naturally to you?
NM: That was purely accidental. I worry if people don’t laugh for a while, and I like the instant gratification of laughter. One-liners weren’t what I aspired to do, rather, it was the doing of my ego. It’s important for me to be the voice of so much unspoken horrors but, at the same time, I want the audience to remain on my side. Nevertheless, I think my shows are thought provoking, and it is always pleasant to receive a tweet or email from people who read further on the topics I raised, be it the massacre of half of the population in Congo by King Leopold ll of Belgium or domestic abuse.

CC: A lot of young British comedians these days come from similar backgrounds and are therefore often telling very familiar stories. You have a much more interesting life story. Presumably that helps you stand out?
NM: Yes, I suppose it’s an asset, but also, some people may not be able to relate to it. Difference is always good, but sometimes some outlets can be quite conservative. It is all I know though and someone told me to always talk about what you know. Though I do sometimes worry about my differences, especially since people go to comedy to be entertained and to leave the bad news behind, so it can be a tricky balance.

CC: Have you ever performed your comedy in Kenya? Would you? Would the same material work there?
NM: Unfortunately I have not had the opportunity to do comedy in Kenya. I am taking the show to South Africa though, and when I was there last year the audience seemed to like my material. The promoter came to London and watched the preview, which she said was transferable, so I’m assuming it might work in Kenya as well, because many issues are relatively similar between the two countries. I would definitely have to adjust a few things, but I would love to perform in Kenya and for an audience to appreciate me there.

CC: Tell us about the comedy nights you organise in London.
NM: I run a comedy club called Heavenly Comedy in Shepherd’s Bush. It’s a new material night which allows me to experiment with ideas and, when I’m sure they work, I can then take them to other new material nights before the new jokes finally become part of my set. It’s also great for previewing Edinburgh shows and I get a chance to know a lot of awesome comics.

CC: Does promoting comedy nights help you develop your own comedy career?
NM: Yes and no. It’s a good experimental space, and I do have fun trying different things out. But promoting is also very time consuming. It helps that the night has a new material focus and is basically an open mic set up. Anyone can do the night, and the audiences who come understand that – because the acts are trying out new material – some elements will work better than others. That way it’s less pressure.

CC: How important is it for you to do being doing a full hour show at the Edinburgh Fringe?
NM: Very important, partly to showcase my writing ability to people from all round the world, but also to push myself to write. Because now, if HBO ever offered me a special, I would have a huge repertoire of material! Doing a full hour also allows me space to talk at length about issues that are important to me. And, of course, it’s nice hanging out with comics and promoters who you would not necessarily see throughout the year.

Njambi McGrath performed ‘1 More Dance With My Father’ at Laughing Horse at Espionage at Edinburgh Festival 2016.

Photo by Kat Gollock