Munya Chawawa: the 'Covid comedian' bringing light in the gloom

When lockdown came, comedians used their time creatively, pumping out quick-turnaround, satirical content on social media to people seeking cheer. Campaign speaks to Munya Chawawa on bringing a humorous twist to brand tie-ups.

Munya Chawawa: the 'Covid comedian' bringing light in the gloom

The comedian Munya Chawawa appears to have inherited his funny gene from his grandfather, who, at family gatherings, was always the centre of attention, cracking jokes. “When I was a kid, I wanted a piece of that,” Chawawa says.

He certainly has a piece of it now. After leaving his job as a producer at Red Bull in March to focus full time on comedy, Chawawa turbocharged his career during lockdown with a series of Instagram skits using his panoply of characters to satirise everything from the BLM protests to those crazy days of supermarket stockpiling. The boost to the telegenic 27-year-old’s profile has also increased his work with brands, including Paco Rabanne, Bumble and Netflix.

During the Campaign photoshoot on London’s Brick Lane – where Chawawa is constantly recognised by passers-by – it becomes clear that while he is making his name as a funny man, he is deadly serious when it comes to his personal branding. He declines to take part in some of the more lighthearted art direction, citing a desire to keep a clear divide between himself and his characters.

Pragmatic approach

After graduating from Sheffield University in 2014, when he attracted some press coverage for being the first student to film an entire graduation ceremony using Google Glass, Chawawa, who describes himself as British Zimbabwean, tried his hand at fashion vlogging, podcasts and radio at youth station Reprezent before moving into TV.

His comedic turn started in earnest when he landed a role at 4Music as a producer in 2017 and one of his tasks was to write joke-laden scripts for presenters, which he could see were “landing”. On being told he couldn’t be considered for an on-camera opportunity, because he was a “nobody” who lacked a social-media following, he worked hard to change this with bi-weekly Instagram sketches, and his follower count overtook that of the show’s (Trending Live) crew. Just as his bosses decided to give him a presenting gig after all, the show was cancelled. Nonetheless, his Instagram experience had given him a taste for a different career path.

Chawawa’s stint working in TV production means he has no time for “the millennial idea that if you’re the talent, you’re the dog’s bollocks and you can say and do what you want” and he uses this pragmatic approach to create work and show brands that, reputation-wise, he can be trusted.

Chawawa characters rapper Unknown P and chef Jonny Oliver

“Being behind the scenes, producing presenters, understanding how we have to satisfy an audience, comply with Ofcom, all of those things have helped shape my style of comedy. Because when I work with brands, I’m not going in there using swear words or saying vulgar things. I’m thinking with my TV head on. Would we get complaints if we put this on TV?

“I’m using that to influence my comedy. How do I market myself with every sketch? How do I increase my attractiveness to brands and show them that I’m a safe but fresh option?” he says.

Jonathan Grant, a senior creative at The Brooklyn Brothers and a former stand-up comedian, keeps a close eye on the comedy scene. He is impressed with Chawawa and says he “completely understands” why brands want to work with him.

“Munya’s content is not only funny and always on-point, it’s genuinely really well made,” he says. “To display comedic flair, writing ability and the creative skills to realise that vision in a way that feels professional is very impressive.

“The fact that a young, BAME comic with a big online following is doing satirical material is also really important. Too often satire has been seen as the preserve of an old-school of white, male, Oxbridge-educated comics. That is a very narrow perspective on the events of the day and Munya is one of the voices changing that,” he adds.

However, the coronavirus-tinged uplift that Chawawa received this year almost didn’t happen. As the world slowed down, he, too, considered taking a break, but his talent agency, Moxie, advised him to step things up. “I remember my manager saying to me at the beginning of lockdown that there are going to be winners in this… I just blindly trusted them and tried to work harder than I’ve ever worked,” he says.

The lockdown effect was immediate. “I think [with] the first couple of sketches I saw my engagements double,” Chawawa adds. “I realised people are really around to watch stuff.”

He quickly created a host of musical characters, Craig Covid, Coro Neyo and Post Corone: parodies of Craig David, Ne-yo and Post Malone, whose songs put an amusing spin on the coronavirus news, to “take the sting out of the subject”.

Chawawa now has more than 400,000 Instagram followers, and his videos attract hundreds of thousands of views. His audience, he says, is mainly Gen Z with a two-thirds male to female split, who love “music, politics and social commentary”.

“With respect to how the world is changing, and how tough it has been for some people, as someone who makes videos from home and loves to create, it may be the best year of my life in the sense of finding the silver lining and helping others find it as well through my content… I didn’t anticipate that but I’m extremely grateful,” he says.

Chawawa has no qualms about using his creativity for commercial purposes, and advertisers have bought in to him. Bumble, for example, enlisted three of his characters to try to entice people back to dating, while Netflix has zeroed in on his newsreader persona, Barty Crease, to promote new shows. Soon after his interview with Campaign, Chawawa went public with an ad for Paco Rabanne’s 1 Million Parfum, in which he appears as himself.

Creative fusion

Chawawa describes the way he works with advertisers as a “creative fusion” that often involves him writing treatments and getting a brand to believe in his vision. “I need to pay my rent and this is now how I earn a living,” he says. “And the reason I’m not ashamed to openly celebrate ads is I know that by the time they get on my platform I’ve had such a hand in sculpting them for my audience that I’m proud of them.

"It’s in both of our interests. I want something my audience loves, and the brand wants what they have sitting on my page to reflect well on them. So if I know my audience loves it, it instantaneously reflects on the brand as well. I nurture an idea from start to finish when it comes to brand work because I honestly believe in authenticity.”

He cites the example of working with Giffgaff to promote refurbished phones to demonstrate why the “sell-out” tag, so often used to criticise social-media stars, should not be levelled at him.

Chawawa characters DJ Moochie and newsreader Barty Crease

Chawawa says: “I thought we should use my most exciting character, Unknown P, but rather than doing a song, which might feel a bit inauthentic because I’d be trying to fuse the narratives of a drill rapper with trying to sell phones, I thought let’s do a game show. He’s going out meeting ‘commoners’ for the first time and bonding with them over the idea that they could win a phone. With questions like how do you spell croquet? What’s the difference between a horse canter and a trot? What would you use an Aga for?

“And they went, OK, let’s give it a go as long as you can integrate this message in here. I did a piece to camera at the beginning and the end, but all that section in the middle was pure unrelenting Unknown P, which is what people love. So we hit the perfect balance. They got their message across but none of the characters were traded off. And if anyone came to me and said, you’ve sold out, I’d ask how have I sold out? By asking people how to spell croquet? That’s the most Unknown P thing ever.”

Not surprisingly, given this approach, Chawawa is uneasy being termed an influencer, musing that there needs to be a new way of describing creators’ relationships with brands that go beyond superficial endorsements. “I could never bring myself to be paid a sum of money to say something about something I really didn’t believe in,” he insists.

Chawawa is philosophical about his future: “I understand that you can’t be relevant forever.”

He adds: “People go through phases. You might be in a stand-up phase, and maybe I’ll become a great writer. And I’m prepared for all of those. But all I know is right now I’m having some sort of moment where people are really believing in me and brands are investing in me. I know it won’t be like this forever but while it is, I am willing to work 24/7 to maximise that time because once it goes, it goes.”

Brands, collaborations and cultural influencers

Munya Chawawa is managed by talent agency Moxie. Rebecca Dowell, its head of talent, discusses how brands can work with creators to go beyond badging exercises.

Campaign: How do you think the brand collaborations space is changing in terms of volume and the type of work coming through?

Rebecca Dowell: At Moxie, we’ve seen an increase in campaigns for talent, despite the past year being a very difficult period for the world. Brands are seizing the opportunity to reach new audiences that are hungry to be entertained and uplifted.

We’ve been moving away from the outdated influencer model of simply selling a product, but this has been supercharged recently. Brands are starting to understand this new generation of cultural “influence” and becoming braver in allowing creators to really engage with them in a way that feels meaningful.

The best campaigns we’ve worked on over the past year have been where the client recognised the unique point of view of the creator involved and gave them the space to flex their creativity and input right at the front end of the development process. You can see the difference when a creator is embedded in the idea from the off.

What types of content creators are brands looking to work with?

RD: Brands are now trading on cultural currency, which means they’re looking for creators that authentically embed them into the conversation. They’re also looking for creators with distinct formats. Branded content sits at the intersection between entertainment and culture; there’s no longer a clear line between what makes great entertainment and a great campaign.

There is still a huge emphasis on reach, engagement and demographic metrics for many campaigns, which can mean brands fall into the trap of working with the same pool of talent. I’d love to see more brands and platforms seeking out talent earlier in their journey and aligning with them because of the relevancy they bring to the space, as much as their reach.

True creators know what will work for their audience, and understand formats and ideas that will keep them engaged, even if it is a branded campaign. If more brands put their trust in the creator’s vision and understanding, we’d have even more successful, memorable and exciting moments in the brand space.

When stand-ups sat down

As it did for many others, the coronavirus pandemic meant comedians had to find new ways of working, and so a new style of lockdown comedy was born.

Alongside Chawawa, the onset of the pandemic has helped to catapult a fresh crop of comedians into the spotlight, who have shone under restricted creative conditions.

The fact that people stuck at home have been turning to social media to pass the time, allied to comedians finding themselves unable to work in their usual way, created an ideal environment for new acts to take centre stage.

Throw in a heightened public interest in the actions of flailing political leaders – it was Donald Trump, after all, who bragged about his coronavirus press conference “ratings” – and it is clear why satirical takes are having their moment.

Jonathan Grant, a senior creative at The Brooklyn Brothers and a one-time stand-up, says that "when times are tough our desire to laugh is even stronger". Social has "changed the game for comedians" for the better, he says. "Beforehand to be seen by a mass audience you needed TV exposure. This meant getting through all the levels, expectations and prejudices that make up that process.

"The fact that comics can now build a following of hundreds of thousands from the ground up, with a phone, a laptop and some imagination, means that a much greater breadth of comedic voices are being heard."

Sarah Cooper

The one who made Trump's words even funnier

Probably the most successful comic to emerge over lockdown, viral sensation Cooper turned the ramblings of Donald Trump into comedy gold.

Her approach – lip-syncing over the US president’s public pronouncements to comedic effect but crucially not changing a word – has proved a simple but deadly effective way to highlight his bizarre utterances. Fans have loved the optics of a black woman taking down a powerful – and arguably toxic – white man through humour.

Using TikTok, her breakthrough video in April was “How to leadership”. She created it after being struck by how nonsensical Trump sounded when talking of establishing a group to deal with coronavirus: “We’re going to have a few committees, I’ll call them committees and then ultimately we’re gonna make decisions… and I think they’re going to be the correct decision [sic], I hope so.”

But Cooper really hit the big time a few weeks later when she took aim at Trump’s jaw-dropping suggestion that ingesting bleach could cure Covid, with “How to medical”, which went on to attract more than 20 million views.

A former Google executive, who had enjoyed moderate success as a stand-up comedian and as an author of satirical management books, Cooper is now creating broadcast content longer than a TikTok video.

Sarah Cooper: Everything’s Fine, set on a fictitious breakfast show, premiered on Netflix in October. She is now working with CBS to adapt her book, How to be Successful Without Hurting Men’s Feelings, into a sitcom.

Michael Spicer

The 'Room next door' guy

Spicer’s frustrated political aide character who listens in to car-crash interviews and speeches has given his career a long-awaited boost. A jobbing comedian and comic actor for the past 20 years, he won plaudits last year with his YouTube video mocking Boris Johnson’s declaration of love for model-bus-making. Since then Priti Patel, Matt Hancock and Dominic Raab have all had the Spicer treatment.

Spicer now has a live tour planned for next year and has landed a sketch gig on James Corden’s The Late, Late Show. He also has a book out based on his character’s musings.

Spicer told The Guardian in September: “It would have been nice to have a career in comedy without this constant narrative of horror behind it. But here we are.”

Elsa Majimbo

The self-confessed 'professional bragger'

Nairobi journalism student Majimbo’s Instagram videos began getting noticed during lockdown when the 19-year-old joked that she was “missing no-one”.

With just under one million followers, she delivers “mic drop” moments, often as she dons a pair of sunglasses. This led to a partnership with Rihanna’s beauty brand, Fenty, for which Majimbo put its designer shades in a video. She is also a brand ambassador for Mac Cosmetics Africa.

Bilal Zafar

The Twitch star

Like many other comedians, Zafar’s stand-up career came to a juddering halt in March. He started to play Pro Evolution Soccer 5 on Twitch in the guise of a crazed football manager and discovered a whole new audience.

Now a Twitch partner, Zafar’s popularity is such that up to 600 people watch him three times a week on the platform, a decent crowd compared with the comedy club circuit.

Meggie Foster

The 'British Sarah Cooper'

At the start of the year Foster was an out-of-work actor who found herself furloughed from a sales job.

She moved back to the family home and took to TikTok in a moment of boredom and has since shot to fame lip-syncing the words of celebrities and politicians such as Meghan Markle, Diane Abbott and Lorraine Kelly.