Review: In “Spotting the Difference,” AY Makun Flounders in his Globe-trotting Mission

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It’s easy to imagine that many Nigerian comedians secretly envy their compatriots in the music business. And why not? While Nigerian comedy has struggled to find an audience outside Nigeria, Nigerian music has no such problems. Part of the reason is tied to the medium: jokes are often culturally specific in the way songs aren’t. Nigerians didn’t need to understand Lingala to enjoy the Soukous songs of the ’90s. But jokes about Jeffrey Epstein will go over your head if you neither know about the man nor his sins. And the other reason concerns range: home-bred Nigerian comedians simply have not evinced a truly global worldview. Who is Nigeria’s Trevor Noah? Lagos and Warri-inspired gags are rife among the major Nigerian stand-up acts, but how many of them have, or can, put a comic spin on the tensions in the Taiwan Straits?

Fifty-one-year-old AY Makun wants to be the man who takes Nigerian comedy beyond Nigeria. Hence his AY: Spotting the Difference, which premiered May 5 on Netflix. Shot in Atlanta, the show opens with a prelude which serves self-awareness and self-deprecation in equal measure, as AY admits his small place in the large scheme of things. In an elevator, a white man tells the comedian that while he is known across Nigeria, no one in America knows him, to which he offers no protest. AY only protests when the self-deprecation is laid on a bit thick, when a white woman tells him “everything about you is small,” a double entendre with a phallic reference. 

Self-deprecation gives way to self-marketing, as AY proceeds to show off his trophy rack. On-screen texts tell us his 30 Days in Atlanta movie holds a Guinness World Record and that he is the “most followed comedian in Africa.” Garish though this may be, this kind of blatant self-promotion has been crucial to AY’s staying power in the comedy business, even as most people agree he is not that funny. It’s also unanimously agreed that his strengths are his business acumen and a keen eye for talent. His annual AY Live shows, one of the most successful comedy shows in Nigeria, thrive mostly because of the guest performers’ jokes, not his. 

The Netflix special starts properly when AY comes on stage, wearing sunshades, a black leather jacket, and a confident attitude. To get things going he tells some spontaneous jokes. He tells a member of the audience, “[You are from] Cuba. No wonder you look like Maggi cube.” And with lines like that, you know to temper your expectations. 

The self-deprecation glimpsed in the prelude would underscore AY’s set. Only this time it is the comedian’s country, and continent, that is the butt of most of the jokes. AY achieves this by juxtaposing Nigeria, and Africa, with the United States and whites in general. This is what he means by the special’s title: he is inviting us to spot the difference between Nigerians and Americans, and blacks and whites. So he ranges Hollywood’s realism against Nollywood’s surrealism, white people’s karaoke against the Nigerian kind, and white people’s hyper-verbal sex against the Nigerian variety. In most of these comparisons, whites are cast as guileless angels of empathy. Whereas blacks, Nigerians specifically, live grittier lives and so are made of sterner, even inhumane stuff. The white ticketer at an airport will show compassion even when you show up late for your flight, so long as you have a good sob story. But a Nigerian in the same position will greet your sob story with a long, insouciant hiss.

This kind of jokes, in which one culture is ranged against another, is especially used by comedians of mixed heritage or those performing to a foreign audience. Acts like Noah, Gabriel Iglesias and Jimmy Yang often use it successfully. But the risk with this kind of jokes is it can come off as insensitive or condescending, particularly to the culture or race or country taking a beating. Most comedians get away with this by making the jokes, no matter how offensive, truly humorous. And this is where AY comes up short. Many of his jokes are a variation of something you have heard before. 

His gag about the Nigerian and Ghanaian jollof rice is from the previous century, and many other Nigerian comedians have said a thing or two about Chris Okotie’s verbiage. AY’s gag that black people, unlike whites, are the first to vamoose on the first hint of danger? That’s a line of clichè that stretches back to the days of Richard Pryor. Nigerians are familiar with these jokes, so not many of them will be laughing too hard. It doesn’t help that AY’s delivery, his comic timing particularly, is particularly off.

But what about non-Nigerians, whose affection AY ostentatiously courts? Even they will struggle to relate to the jokes, especially because AY tries to realise his ambition of going global by using local instruments: his pidgin ad libs and many Nigerian references are bound to alienate his non-Nigerian audience. When he says “14 years,” hinting at the penalty for homosexuality in Nigeria, the Nigerians in the crowd know what he means. But the Maggi-shaped Cuban, for instance, will wonder what the hell AY is referring to. 

Stale jokes aside, what really hurts AY’s ambition in this special is his lack of a global perspective. And not even the references to Iran and Saudi Arabia and Germany are enough to convince us AY is a man about town. He just isn’t aware of the world’s hot topics; and if he is, he doesn’t know how to spin them into comic yarns. One of those topics concerns mental health conditions; and there is the unspoken pact, especially in the West, that you mustn’t joke about such things. But if you must, then it must be a really good joke. Not for AY, who flagrantly breaks this pact with a throwaway line about Kanye West’s bi-polar disorder, which is not only crass but unfunny.

One thing remains indubitable though, and that is AY’s business chops. It’s why he is the first of his middle-aged colleagues to bring his business to Netflix. But this is one of those instances where sound business sense doesn’t match artistic quality. AY’s ambition is grand, even applaudable, but it won’t be the trick that makes Nigerian comedy a worldwide curiosity. For now, Nigerian comedians must keep envying their music counterparts.