On one of the walls of Munya Chawawa’s south London flat there is a “vision board”, a giant collage of images representing things he’d like to achieve. “I’ve got a picture of Daniel Kaluuya holding his BAFTA,” says Chawawa, his famously luxuriant eyebrows knitting in concentration. “I’ve got Sex Education on there – not as a plea for sex education, but more symbolically, because I want to cut my teeth [acting] on one of those real flagship shows… I’ve got Trevor Noah on there. I’ve got John Oliver, who’s gone over to America and dominated [TV]… And I’ve got a picture of a really nerdy gaming man-cave, with lights that change based on what’s on your screen.”
Two years ago, all these dreams, aside from the heartbreaking man-cave, would have seemed like just that: absurd, impossible dreams. Now, that vision board looks like a fairly realistic blueprint of how Chawawa’s next decade might go. In fact, given how much he’s already crossed off recently, he may need an entirely new board fairly soon.
2020 and 2021 were years of near total crapness, but Munya Chawawa was one of the bright spots. Making short, sharp comedy videos, he quickly found fame by finding humour in the darkest moments of the pandemic, economic crisis and a divided society. He made political videos skewering reliably useless politicians. He made sketches with his own characters, like aristocratic rapper Unknown P and dim, racist newsreader Barty Crease. He riffed on everything from Rihanna’s pregnancy to Will Smith’s slap. Basically, if there was a major national talking point in the last two years, Chawawa made a video about it. His output has been astonishing and helped him amass millions of views across Instagram, TikTok and YouTube.
“I was in a bubble, both literally and metaphorically,” Chawawa says of his lockdown. As more and more of his videos went viral he raced to keep the momentum going. “I could see things were shifting in my career and I thought, I need to seize this opportunity with both hands and not be complacent.” He would wake early to start writing and edit late into the night.
“I could see that I needed to seize this opportunity”
“It was only when I got to the end of it and realised I had a Don King-esque afro and I’d lost all my muscle that it hit me,” he says. “I had been inside for the last two years. I think the graft was worth it though.” No question. The profile Chawawa built for himself with his videos has seen him asked to host the MOBOs, the red carpet at the Brits, and given him access to the next step on the ladder: becoming a TV star.
Last year he presented Channel 4’s Complaints Welcome, alongside Tom Allen and Jessica Knappet. The format, a mix of viewer gripes about TV and comedy panel show, was weak but Munya and his co-hosts lifted it. He then made his own show, Race Around Britain, which saw him going around the country speaking with people about Blackness in Britain. It intelligently balances comedy and genuinely incisive discussion. In one episode he and fellow comedian/musician Yung Filly dress as police and role-play with young Black children to prepare them for encounters with the police. It showed he can do much more than quick-fire satire, tackling a heavy subject with a more assured touch than many journalists.
“Sometimes people say, ‘I really liked the show, because I was afraid you were going to point the finger at me or talk down to me as a white person’,” he says. “My grandma’s white. My mum’s white… If my grandma ever says something out of line I’m not going to WWE slam her for saying it. I’ll sit down with her over a Hobnob and say, ‘Grandma, you can’t say that’… It was taking that ‘Hobnob with Grandma’ principle and applying it to a show’.” Released on YouTube, the series earned Chawawa a BAFTA nomination for Best Comedy Entertainment Programme. He may be able to take that Daniel Kaluuya picture off his vision board after the ceremony in May.
Chawawa’s latest TV project is much lighter fare but probably his biggest in terms of audience exposure. He’s reunited with Yung Filly to present BBC Three’s Munya and Filly Get Chilly, a companion show to the BBC One programme Freeze The Fear, in which celebrities are put through icy challenges by cold-loving extreme athlete and sort-of-guru Wim Hof. The main programme is just another show torturing vaguely famous people, but there’s a lot of fun in the spin-off. Filly and Chawawa are both overflowing with charisma and throw themselves, literally, into the same tasks faced by the contestants.
“Just for the feeling afterwards, I’d definitely recommend… jumping in an ice lake,” he says. “It feels like electricity is coursing through your body.” We’ll take his word for it. Chawawa also shows himself to be a good interviewer, well-researched and ready to listen. He comes across as someone who wants to make good telly, not just be the centre of attention all the time.
“I’m an introvert – I find social situations overwhelming”
Chawawa was born in Derby but spent most of his childhood in Zimbabwe, before moving to the small English village of Framingham Pigot, near Norwich. It was in Zimbabwe that he developed his love for talking to camera. “My grandparents still lived in Derby,” he says. “Our means of communication, after my parents discovered we had no literary ability to continually write letters, was a camcorder. We would film what we were getting up to: building go-karts, climbing trees and stuff. I’ve always had this fascination with filming… and being able to tell jokes during the recording, knowing that when we were all sitting round watching it later people would be laughing at my jokes.” He says that getting a laugh from his dad, “a strict Christian”, was “the ultimate, worth more than any gold star.”
He liked speaking to audiences so much that he pursued it at every stage of childhood, doing public speaking at school, joining the college debate team, and hosting a student TV show at university, where he studied psychology. He eventually found his way into a researcher position at 4Music, working his way up to producer and writing jokes for other people to deliver. TV is far from new to Chawawa. The only thing that’s taken time is getting in front of an audience larger than his grandparents. “My satire, my comedy, was sort of an unexpected diversion,” he says. For a long time he was impatient to make the leap to screens bigger than the one in your pocket, but now he’s “happy it took as long as it did, because it allowed me to really hone my craft and make sure I could edit, write, produce – all those things. So when my moment finally came – and don’t get me wrong, I’m working towards bigger moments; I hope my biggest moment hasn’t come yet – but when a moment comes that’s career-altering, I’m ready to keep that momentum going.”
That level of attention to craft is probably why Chawawa is succeeding where few other British social media stars have. The list of ‘content creators’ who’ve successfully moved into TV is short. There are some like Joe Sugg and Tilly Ramsay who have shone on Strictly and parlayed it into a higher profile, or very glossy people who have been picked for Love Island, then maintained careers in reality television or documentaries, but nobody is creating at the same level as Chawawa.
Perhaps a significant difference between Chawawa and most social media celebrities is that he’s not really selling himself. As much as he jokes about his day on his Insta Stories, it’s his work not his life that he’s drawing attention to. People aren’t watching him because they want to know what he thinks. They watch because he articulates what they think, but in a much funnier way than any of us could manage.
“Open any social media and you’ll see 1000 opinions about 1000 topics,” he says. “Mine in particular I don’t want to throw into the ring because I’m not interested in getting a reaction to that… I’m more interested in creating a little time capsule of satire, so people can see where we were at as a civilisation… or as Brits at a particular moment in time. So politics, the economy, race relations, that sort of thing. That to me is of more value.”
Chawawa’s a very savvy interviewee, extremely engaging but quietly careful not to give too much of himself away. He makes sure to finish most answers on a joke, to keep things upbeat. He is nice about everyone, except politicians, and deftly steers away from anything that could be controversial. We discuss his parody video about the Will Smith/Chris Rock slap at the Oscars, a riff on Smith’s Men In Black (sample lyric: “I went on stage and gave Chris some fresh prints”). When asked what he made of the incident, as a comedian, he gives a very diplomatic answer, talking all about his video-making process and saying of the slap, “I didn’t even have time to think about it”. It’s the kind of answer you give when you don’t want one quote from your interview to become a headline. None of this is to say he’s false or cynical – far from it. He simply comes across as a man whose attention is on keeping his public image positive, because he wants to be around a long time.
“My future? Live comedy, movies, some sort of brand of sparkling water”
This element of performance is partly conscious. “I’m an introvert,” he says, quite surprisingly. “I find social situations extremely overwhelming.” He’s recently been reading a book, Quiet by Susan Cain, about introversion, which he calls life-changing. “Introverts think very deeply about stuff. One of the first things the book says is that introverts have learned to survive in a world that idealises extroverts by putting on this cloak every day. I know how to play the game but I find it exhausting. It’s why I love my sketches so much. I can do them in my own parameters and in the comfort of my own home. I get to administer extroversion in doses that feel good for me.”
Chawawa really is very good at the game, all parts of it. There seems no limit to where he could go. In the past two years his evolution as a comedian is remarkable. His satirical videos have become much cleverer, to the point that there is now no subject he can’t tackle. He even made a very funny, and pointed, video about the war in Ukraine. Called Wardle, it used the popular word game as a way to talk about how news reports were portraying Ukrainian refugees as somehow more relatable than other refugees but never explicitly explaining what they meant. The two five-letter words to crack on Wardle were “WHITE” and “BROWN”. It was one of the first times Chawawa took a pause before making a video.
“To jump in quickly on that particular issue would be really insensitive,” he says. “I said to myself, ‘Munya, take a step back, wait, and process’. It was then that I began seeing these vast spaces and differences in news coverage of [Ukrainian refugees and other refugees]”. It’s not his most successful video but it might be the smartest he’s made and a signal of how much further he could push his comedy. “As I’ve progressed, as I’ve grown up, I’ve realised silence can be powerful, action can be powerful, and timing is the most important thing.”
He’d like to evolve his comedy into other areas – “live comedy, movies, some sort of brand of sparkling water eventually” – and hopes to one day crack America. A tall order, perhaps, given how few British comedians manage it, but Chawawa doesn’t aim low. Besides, he’s seen one of his comedy heroes, John Oliver, do it, so why can’t he? He’s studied comedy all his life – ”I never watch comedy without analysing it, ever” – and has been studying Oliver, now host of HBO’s Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, since listening to his satirical podcast, The Bugle, in the late ‘00s. “I would go to sleep to that podcast and wake up to it,” he says. “They would have me rolling and I didn’t know how they made [politics] funny… I needed to work out how they did it. I think I’ve listened to the first 100 episodes 100 times”. One of his major hopes is that “maybe John Oliver or Trevor Noah will see one of these videos” and kick start his American dream. First, though, it seems acting is his next target, once presenting is ticked off. A move into film is “on the cards”, he says.
“I’d love to be the main cast member in a [TV] comedy drama,” he says. “And if someone came to me and said they’d like me to act in a way that’s not funny – if someone came to me and said they want me to be the next Thanos – I’m not going to turn that down. As long as there’s space for Thanos to drop the occasional dad joke.” And he’d love to one day win an Oscar, but he’s in less of a hurry for maximum success than he was in 2020.
“Hopefully I’ve got a bit longer on this planet… I just want to do as much as possible when it happens. If I win an Oscar at the age of 75, I’m not going to be like, ‘Bloody hell, this would have meant so much more when I was younger’. I just want to win an Oscar.’” The most productive man in show business may not be slowing down but he’s learning to enjoy the ride.
‘Munya and Filly Get Chilly’, sister show to ‘Freeze the Fear with Wim Hof’, airs Tuesdays at 10pm on BBC Three