Amanda Holden’s Golden Buzzer was a game changer for Daliso Chaponda. A jobbing comedian for years, paying bills from freelance fiction writing, his success on Britain’s Got Talent in 2017—he came third—instantly changed his fortunes. He went from struggling to shift tickets in small venues to selling out big ones every night.
He applied out of frustration at the slow pace of his comedy career. "I never used to get any telly. It’s easy to have conspiracy theories: am I too old? Not good looking enough? Do they already have too many brown people? But I didn’t actually know. With Britain’s Got Talent, I knew that if they didn’t think I was funny they would tell me to my face. There’s no conspiracy."
What surprised him was how, despite his slightly edgy jokes, lots of kids liked him. "They couldn’t possibly understand the jokes. But another comedian said, ‘well, you’re happy, you’ve got a high-pitched voice, you’re like a cartoon character, so it doesn’t matter if they don’t understand the jokes’."
His latest show, Blah Blah Blacklist, tackles the thorny topic of "cancel culture". Recent years have seen so many people get into trouble for old tweets that have resurfaced, or revelations and allegations of criminal behaviour. "So I talk about them. Everyone from Danny Baker and Liam Neeson to people much more criminal like Bill Cosby."
These days, he reckons, "social media has weaponised outrage. It used to be 20 people with picket signs, but social media has allowed all the little angry mobs in every country to band together quickly."
Chaponda examines the moment you lose faith in someone you idolised. "It’s tragic, but it’s kind of funny." But the show isn’t just making fun of celebrities. He digs into why we idolise people in the first place – famous people, but also our families too.
Chaponda’s own relationship with his parents has had its strained moments. His father is a high-profile diplomat and politician in his home country, Malawi. He’s been openly critical of his father’s party in his routines. "It’s something my father took a while to understand. But I’m a comedian. Whoever’s in charge, I tear them up. If I ever go home and it’s a utopia, I’ll leave them alone. When the opposition was in power he loved my comedy." His dad has come to terms with it now: "my success helps."
A few years ago Chaponda was himself blacklisted in Malawi, after falling foul of the censorship board. But he explains, "it wasn’t even my joke, it was a journalist’s misinterpretation of that joke."
The churn of offence is relentless, the length of the blacklist getting longer every day. In a sense, Chaponda’s show is never finished. "I’ve got 40 minutes set in stone, but if when we’re up there someone decides to humiliate themselves, they’re going to be in the show."