You may know Chinasa Anukam as the host of the popular YouTube show, Is This Seat Taken?, but the multifaceted creative is much more than that. She is also a stand-up comedian, an actor and a writer. In an interview with PiggyVest, she talks about her career as a show host and breaking into the Nigerian comedy industry.
What’s your educational background?
I studied Law at the University of Bristol in the UK.
From law to comedy. How did that happen?
I don’t think they are as far apart as people make it seem. Being a lawyer is about being a good spokesperson in a corporate sense, and being a stand-up comedian is about being a good spokesperson in a casual sense.
I’m a writer as well. Growing up, I knew I would be good at stuff like writing ads. But in Nigeria, once you say you want to do Arts, it’s always law — especially if you’re articulate and passionate. So, law made sense for my personality, but I knew, even before studying it, that it was not what I wanted to do. And I made that clear.
I don’t know if you’ve seen this viral tweet that said, “Congratulations to the new batch of people that just graduated from law school. Now you can drop your degree and become a creative,” or something like that. [Laughs.]
I could relate because it’s the story of many Nigerians in our generation. The world we live in now didn’t exist at that time. But the idea of limitless possibilities now exists, and a lot of the dreams we have can now come to fruition.
Law is about using the existing legal framework to fight for your client. But with comedy, you can tackle many issues in a lighthearted way. Once I could appreciate comedy as an intelligent thing — and Trevor Noah was a big help with that — I realised I could use it to talk about the things I’m passionate about. And people have responded positively to it so far.
So what and when was your first stint at stand-up?
It was an open mic in April or May of 2019 in the UK. I really started on a whim. That day I told myself, “Look, these are a group of old white men that you have nothing in common with. If you can make these people laugh, then you have something going for you.”
I didn’t want to overthink it, and I really wanted to do it in a challenging environment. I wanted to see if it was something I could actually do. It turns out I could because the second time I did it, I won an award. And that was such a huge confidence boost.
Another thing about British people is how blunt they are. They are not the type to patronise you or hand you a cookie just for being a human being. So that feedback, in the beginning, pushed me to keep doing it.
How has that been so far?
The rest of the journey has not been as easy, but because the beginning was so affirming, that has propelled me to keep going.
Love that for you. So, would you say Trevor Noah is one of your biggest inspirations?
110%. I think just seeing an African at the highest echelon is the best part. And it’s not just about where he’s reached, he’s really good. He’s intelligent, articulate and charismatic. He makes comedy accessible in a different way.
Growing up, I was very academic, and I think this is one of the main reasons my dad struggled to accept the pivot to comedy. It was difficult to reconcile the things I was interested in with what was expected of me.
Comedy just didn’t seem serious enough, especially in the Nigerian context of seriousness. But seeing comedy used intelligently on hits like The Daily Show sold me.
You mentioned your dad struggling to accept it. How are your parents taking it now?
It’s still one step at a time. I think I’ve won the battle, but then he’ll ask some questions that’ll make me be like, “Sir, I thought we’d moved past this.” [Laughs]
My mom is supportive, though. She’s just happy that her child is a celebrity. My dad is still getting there.
What were your goals at the start?
After graduating from university, I knew I didn’t want to practise law. But I also knew that if I came back home, I would be forced to go to law school. So I got a teaching job in America,
When that was done, it was time to confront my real life. I had to go back to applying for law jobs, so I could try and become a serious citizen. But after many rejections, I decided to start writing a TV show as a stress reliever.
One day, I told my friend about the show I was writing, and he told me about another friend who was doing the same thing. His friend reached out to me and asked me to help edit the show he was writing. I really enjoyed that experience.
Then while talking to another friend, I told her how I was applying for jobs while writing a show on the side. And she was like, “Why on the side?”
Yes, that was when I decided I would go to film school. I had some money saved from my teaching days just in case my parents decided not to support me. And if I got in, I would take it as a sign from God.
My life has taken many shapes. But to shorten this, my goals are to become a working stand-up comedian. To have shows that I’ve produced, like Is This Seat Taken?, and other fun content geared towards young people. I want to write and direct TV shows, films and plays.
Talking about your show, what inspired Is This Seat Taken?
A bunch of things. If you look at the content space, there’s not enough content geared towards the youth. Things are better now, but at the time I had the idea, they weren’t.
Also, Nigeria is a very stressful place to live. The youth deal with many issues and nobody talks about them. We have to watch Hollywood movies to kind of relate, but not fully because they’re not in our own voice. A lot of our content here is, ‘To God be the glory’, and to God be the glory for sure, but we also need content that helps us de-stress and relax.
Another reason is, if you look at the interview scene, there’s not a lot of good interviews with artists, so I wanted an interview that artists themselves could enjoy. An interview that shows them outside of their work and projects; something that humanises them.
Finally, Nigerians are a very cheeky bunch. We’re funny and flirty, and we can die on man and woman matter. I wanted to capture all of that. And the show was something I could use to get into into stand up comedy. With this as an introduction to the market, people can see my talents and I can scale from there.
So how did you get Falz as your first guest?
Once I came up with the idea, I just knew I wanted him to be on it.My plan was that I would go to Lagos and find him, tell him about my idea and ask him if he wants to do it.
With artists you never know. Their yes is not always yes. It wasn’t hard getting Falz on, but it can get hard at times. Producing the show in general, I cry every time. But I thank God it’s resonating with people and doing well.
Bantering with celebrities can be tough, but you’ve mastered the art. What’s your secret? How do you prep?
It’s three things. I go into an interview wanting to enjoy it, wanting the artist to enjoy it and wanting the audience to enjoy it. So that means respecting all the parties involved.
Research is also key, even though researching Nigerian artists can be hard because there’s next to zero information on the internet. The show is not necessarily scripted, I only write maybe 10 things down just as anchors. If they carry me go where I no know, I’ll find myself.
But the main thing for me is to be present, to listen and be open to whatever they bring to the table. I naturally am quick-witted, which is why I knew I could be a comedian, so I just enjoy the process. It’s just another person sitting across from you at the end of the day.
So how do you fund your shows?
The first season, I took the concept everywhere but I only ended up with a lot of stories. So the first season, I had to use money I saved up from when I was teaching. I also got some help from my inner caucus.
Since season one went well, I thought the story would change for season two. And it did o. It now became, “You don’t have enough instagram followers,” “This episode is doing better than the other one.” Apparently, sponsors also want big celebrities. I looked everywhere for sponsors, but we only got one sponsor for season 2. And they came as a Hail Mary. Shout out to them.
For the third season, we’ve gotten a couple of interests. Thank God for that. But I want to start another show on my channel, and you’ll think that I’ll find sponsors for that as well. But nope. Nobody. That’s because Nigerians want things to be so obviously profitable before they can invest.
It’s honestly a lot of investing in yourself. I funded my Abuja show by myself. Whatever money being made from the work goes back into the work. Sponsorships are better now, but I guess I just have to keep doing more work.
Tough times. In all of this, have you made any money mistakes?
No. But again, I’m very good with money. I hate spending money, even on myself. In my family, people give me money to keep for them. So that’s not an issue.
What I want to work on is investing. But because I’m busy I don’t have the time to find good ones. I know if I was into investments, I’d make good money because I know how to let money sit. The most I spend money on is Chicken Republic. It’s ₦900, so I’ll be alright.
What has been the most difficult part of this journey for you?
All of it. I don’t have any sort of team or structure around me. Unlike some other industries, like music, where structure quickly forms around new talents, it’s not really the same for other creative arts. It’s a new market and things are still evolving.
Money is a challenge as well. Everything looks like light work, but I’m just here, fighting for my life. I hope that within the next year, there will be a structure of support that forms around me. We can do this much better, efficiently and frequently with the right support.
The Lagos edition of your standup show, By The Grace Of God And The Black Man Blood, is coming up in December. How has the preparation for that been?
Ah. Dying on the line. It has been a lot because I live in Abuja so it’s tough sourcing for things like location from here. Price of plane tickets to Lagos have become something else.
After shooting the Don Jazzy episode in the first week of August, we spent the whole next day going around to about 11 recommended locations. None of them had a stage, sound system or light system, and none could take more than 50 people. A whole Lagos, the entertainment hub of Africa.
It’s been crazy. But also expensive. The big things and the smaller things, from my set to my look, everything is stressful. Decision fatigue, that’s where I’m at. But the Abuja show went really well, so I’m quite excited for this one. And I have written some new material as well, which I think is really good.
Really rooting for you! Any advice for people who want to get into comedy?
Just start. We’re always waiting for answers to come out of thin air. But just start. Even if you don’t succeed, you’ll learn. Believe in yourself. Don’t wait for the validation of others. I always say, if I have only one fan, let that fan be me.
The confidence you’re looking for, you’ll find it just by virtue of being brave first.
What should we expect from Chinasa in the next three to five years?
I’m looking to go on tour next year. I want to take this material I’ve written to other countries. Obviously, season three of Is This Seat Taken? is coming next year. It’s gonna be mad.
Within the next three to five years, I’ve hopefully made a short film and a TV show. And also produced more shows on my channel, and for others as well. Fingers crossed.
I have a lot more stuff I wanna do, like host some events and act. We’ll see how it goes. Maybe you guys will even hear a freestyle rap from me as well. [Laughs] Jack of many trades, master of maintaining beauty.