From an interview with Conrad Osei-Bonsu.
Conrad Osei-Bonsu was born in Canada. When he was three years old, his parents divorced, and he moved to Nigeria with his mother and older brother. His father stayed in Canada and eventually remarried. Conrad grew up in Nigeria, went to school there, made his friends there and became part of the community. For all intents and purposes, Conrad was Nigerian. When he was thirteen, his mother passed away, and he had to think about his future: Conrad decided he would finish school in Nigeria and then come to Canada. Around this same time, he began exploring sketch comedy. Conrad shares his story of creating, writing, learning and finding his place in Canada.
I was eighteen when I came back to Canada. I was born here but had lived in Nigeria my whole life. So, it felt more like immigrating than a homecoming. I remember my childhood in Nigeria as being a fun and exciting time. There was always something going on, and we were involved in many different activities.
I grew up in a very educated household. The main focus at home was to be intellectually smarter. Going to school, you would strive to do your best. There was a high standard of academic achievement. Outside of school, it was socializing with friends. I read a lot, and was getting into films and felt I just wanted to be creative in some way. Then I found sketch comedy.
My friends and I all went to the same church, which had a drama department that no one really used. So youth services decided maybe we should start doing some basic plays once a month. We formed a kind of sketch comedy troupe. My older brother started before me, and I followed suit. He left it, and I began taking it more seriously.
There is an old joke in Nigeria that there are only three occupations: Being a lawyer, an engineer or a doctor. Everything else is a hobby; if you wanted to take up writing, that was a hobby; if you wanted to make comedy, that was definitely a hobby. So in light of that, I was in a kind of middle ground – getting really high grades in school but then having fun with my friends doing comedy.
I was thirteen, and it was around this time that my mom passed away.
When my mom passed, my dad reached out to me from Canada and asked me what I wanted to do when I was older and what he could do to help. I thought about it and told him I wanted to be a journalist. He asked me why, so I broke it down: I liked stories, and I like telling them, and I wanted to find new ways to tell them.
He said, “OK, well, If that’s something you’re interested in, you can do that in Canada. There are opportunities here. There’s space for you to try things and grow here. My brother and I decided to come to Canada when we finished high school in Nigeria. Coming to Canada as an immigrant and a Canadian.
Coming to Canada was a long process, and the cost was a barrier. It was very expensive for my family, even though my brother and I were already Canadian citizens. A lot of the money went to travel logistics and also just paying bribes in Nigeria to have the process go faster. I am not from a rich family (even by Nigerian standards). Luckily my older sister and a family friend help us financially, or I wouldn’t be here today. Once we had the passport, we had to connect with friends and family in Canada, and provide proof that we were going to be living with them for at least the first six months – because we claimed to be Canadians and needed a Canadian address as proof of residence.
Arriving in Canada and joining the domestic line at the airport felt so nice – and strange. On paper, everything looked like I was Canadian. It felt good. I remember opening my passport, and It was just a blank Canadian passport – no visa stamps. I thought, “Yeah, that’s cool.” I didn’t know a lot about Canada, but I knew that there were lots of opportunities here.
Starting a new life in Canada
The move was transitional and transformational for sure. Everything was brand new. The coolest part was really just getting to know who my dad was. He hadn’t seen us in sixteen years; he had four new kids, he had a new family. I understood that I would have to grow up fast and learn how to forage for myself. That was really important. Although I had a family, I approached it like a single man’s journey. I was learning the importance of responsibility.
I decided to go to Carleton University for communications, and my brother went to Laurentian University, where he studied chemical engineering. Because I’m Canadian, I could get a student loan. That comes with responsibility. I think that was the first thing I realized. I had to take all of those things seriously because they would pretty much build me. I figured that out early on that it’s a different society with different expectations: there’s a standard, a Canadian way of life.
Even in school, the way Canadians approach education is different. It’s far more hands-on; you’re closer to the people you’re learning from as well as the other students. Social events and clubs are a part of the curriculum.
While studying in Ottawa, I continued my comedy work. I joined a few sketch troupes and did stand up. There was a small comedy club called Improv Embassy. We used to do these weekly live sketch comedy shows. That was really fun. We wrote a lot, and we experimented, which was a great foundation. If you’re new to something, you have to think about how to approach it in your own way. It also helped me understand that writing comedy could be a career.
I wanted to be more involved in what I was doing. I’m a comedian, and I want to write comedy, and I want to make films about comedy. Before that, I just enjoyed making people laugh at bars – which is cool – but I started taking comedy even more seriously.
“If I can make you laugh, there’s a better chance we can be friends because humour is something we all want to share, and when it’s done right, it can transcend culture and boundaries.”
Learning about Canada through comedy
Reading a lot and genuinely being interested in learning more about Canada – past, present and future – has given me more context on why things are the way they are. This has allowed me to explore humour from an informed angle. I have a unique standpoint as a Canadian newcomer trying to understand why some people are unhappy in a country that provides all its citizens with virtually everything they want and need.
As time has passed, I have picked up on what other Canadians like and dislike and I can add or invent my opinion on those things through my comedy.
I think comedy is the most freeing and liberating form of human expression. It allows me to explore difficult topics through jokes. As part of my stand-up act, I talk about serious issues like racism. One bit goes like this: “Before you tell someone to go back to their country, maybe you should check the price of flights to Africa because it’s really expensive and almost unrealistic to leave on a whim.” It’s based in reality and absurdity, especially since most Canadians are so kind and well mannered.
If I can make you laugh, there’s a better chance we can be friends because humour is something we all want to share, and when it’s done right, it can transcend culture and boundaries. I’ve done comedy for nearly six years with an African accent, and somehow a tree-logging guy from Manitoba relates to my jokes, and that becomes our camaraderie – that’s progress!
Comedy and storytelling can be a bridge. People react well because I have a different perspective. I’m bringing a new point of view to the everyday Canadian experience. They see that’s a different take on the same old topic. My comedy is kind of stupid. But you learn something.
I like looking at things from different perspectives. As a newcomer, I learn about things like Canadian politics through research, and if I tell a story from my own perspective, I try to look at it the way someone else might see me. It’s all storytelling, and there’s so much more you can do with your story. There are so many versions of one joke. There are so many people who have experienced the same thing in different ways.
Take responsibility for your unique newcomer story
My tips for any newcomer is to find what you love and be honest and passionate about it. You will face challenges, but remember, it’s all a part of the process. I think people want to see people aspire to be better than they were without compromising what makes them who they are. Be unique, feel special, and make others feel special. The most valuable thing you can offer is perspective, so make sure you offer that when you can.
When you’re telling your story, make it your own. Put your own spin on it and try to be as original as you are versus trying to fit into a template. If it’s in the workplace, I try to look at a situation and develop a new solution. People appreciate it when you do something that they haven’t seen before. Aspiring to do that is definitely a good trait to have. You can do a lot from the newcomer’s perspective. It’s a fresh point of view.
How indie films, comedy and landscaping led to advertising
As a kid who got involved in sketch and stand up comedy, worked retail, worked for a governmental relations firm, still explores filmmaking as an art form, and even worked in landscaping for a while, I believe that having a diverse background is ideal for the wide-ranging requirements of the advertising world. Of course, my undergraduate degree in communications helps. I am excited to find new ways to produce new stories.
I have been offered a number of job opportunities recently, but one of them stood out. It was with the Toronto ad agency Taxi, which has a diversity initiative called Black Taxi. “The goal is to recruit and retain Black talent and have the same percentage of Black employees as the city has Black residents.” It was an opportunity I couldn’t really refuse. I really wanted to see what working in the advertising space was like.
Everything, including the interview process, was online. It was very interesting. The senior producer, another new hire, and I eventually got together in a park recently for an informal, in-person meeting. It was great to actually meet – even just to hang out for a while. I’m a producer trainee, so essentially I’m working under a senior producer on some really cool projects.
I’m a big proponent of the diversity of ideas. I don’t just bring my culture to the table, but also my personal way of seeing things. That’s my whole comedy style too. It’s not just a black perspective, but also within that black perspective, what are the multiple ways you could see situations. I think that’s an interesting way for me to look at it and approach making ads from that standpoint.
Ideally, we would be working in the office: a lot of things happen in person as a result of being in the same space. If it wasn’t for COVID-19, I would shadow the senior producer and interact with the creative teams to understand their processes instead of communicating via email and video calls. That physical part would be very beneficial – but yeah, it’s 2020.
Read more about the creative industry in Canada.
Your life experience makes you who you are
Growing up in Nigeria, in those two worlds of academic achievement and making comedy, I learned a lot about many things. What I was really passionate about shaped who I am. The sense of community in Nigeria is very important, and I think a lot of people carry that with them. It’s like you have a responsibility to represent not only yourself but everyone around you.
And responsibility was the key thing I learned returning to Canada. That was the big turning point in my life. My journey from Nigeria to Canada taught me different ways of doing things and how to adapt to the changes that come with life. I remember the email I sent to my dad when I was thirteen saying, “I want to be a storyteller.” It always comes back to that. I think I’m just holding myself responsible for being better at doing it in whatever way I can.