The Rise of Stand-up Comedy Genre in Nigeria: From Nothing to Something in Artistic Entertainment
Barclays Foubiri Ayakoroma, PhD
National Institute for Cultural Orientation (NICO)
No. 23 Kigoma St, Wuse Zone 7
Abuja, FCT, Nigeria
Professional theatre practice in Nigeria, has, over the years, suffered serious neglect. Many reasons have been adduced for this comatose state of the theatre, ranging from lack of facilities, government support, and funding, as well as negative audience attitude to the profession, to the state of insecurity. It has created a situation where trained theatre artists find succour in other areas of endeavour to make a living, to the detriment of the theatre profession. In the midst of this development, the stand-up comedy genre has risen to be a veritable medium of live artistic entertainment. Starting with Opa Williams’ “Night of a Thousand Laughs,” the genre has blossomed to become a phenomenon. This paper traces the rise and development of the Stand-up Comedy in Nigeria and argues that the theatre could borrow a leaf and experience a turn-around, thus, ensuring meaningful development. In other words, the stand-up comedy genre, as it exists in Nigeria today, guarantees quality assurance for live theatre; it could serve as a pedestal for the stage to experience a new lease of life.
Professional theatre practice in Nigeria has, either by omission or commission, suffered serious neglect, over the years. Many reasons have been adduced for this comatose state of the theatre, ranging from lack of theatre facilities, government indifference and lack of support, poor funding, to the high level of insecurity, as well as negative audience attitude to the profession. It has created a situation where trained theatre artists find succour in other fields of endeavour to make a living, to the detriment of the theatre profession.
Elsewhere, one had argued that for the theatre profession to take its pride of place in the country, trained theatre artists, like professionals in other disciplines such as law, engineering, quantity surveying, medicine, pharmacy, accounting, insurance, and so on, must develop interest and be committed to the survival of the theatre by practising it. Furthermore, funding of the theatre has to be taken seriously, as it obtains in advanced cultures, because theatre has the potentials of enhancing national development (Ayakoroma 522). But then, in the midst of this unhealthy development, the stand-up comedy genre has risen to be a veritable medium of live artistic entertainment.
Comedy, originally of a theatrical genre, was simply described as a dramatic performance, which pits two societies against each other in an amusing conflict. The Canadian literary critic and theorist, Northrop Frye, depicted these two opposing sides as, “Society of Youth” and “Society of the Old.” Basically, stand-up comedy is a comic style, in which a comedian performs in front of a live audience, speaking directly to them. The performer, known as a comic, stand-up comic, stand-up comedian or, simply, a stand-up, usually recites a fast-paced succession of humorous stories, short jokes, called, “bits,” and one-liners, which constitute what is typically called, a monologue, routine or act. Some stand-up comedians use props, music or magic tricks, to enhance their acts. Stand-up comedy is often performed in comedy clubs, bars, neo-burlesques, colleges, and theatres (www.wikipedia.com). Unlike comedies in dramatic form, stand-up comedies are mostly non-theatrical, without dramatic performances on stage reflecting characters in societies with a blend of elements of surprise, incongruity, conflict, repetitiveness, and the effect of sudden reversals. The intent of the comedian here is not the audiences’ critical perception of the message, but the eliciting of laughter or smiles over the jokes or vulgar jibes.
Born out of general entertainment, which comprises television, radio, music, film, cinema, video, drama and theatre, stand-up comedy has drawn a lot of attraction to its vast and enterprising industry in the last 20 years in Nigeria. Media entertainment generally began to thrive on more music and movies, so much so that it began to accommodate other amusing trends to relaxation apart from stress. The few, who initially ventured into the ‘clowning act’ and endured all through the early period, have started reaping the fruits. These ‘first-grade’ stand-up comic acts began receiving invitations to functions, and then gradually, reputation rose and attention was drawn to its prospects. Consequently, the market for humour merchants started to grow. Little wonder then that the need for the conscription of laughter into TV show segments, parties, ceremonies, campaigns, and even concerts, further led to the rise and development of the stand-up comedy genre in Nigeria.
History of Stand-up Comedy
Though the history of stand-up comedy in some form can be traced as far back as the 1800s, stand-up, as it is known today, did not really make any meaningful impact until the 1970s. Patrick Bromley states that in the United States of America, for instance, the 1970s marked the birth of modern stand-up comedy, as it witnessed the appearance of a new generation of comedians and the rise of comedy clubs. According to him, unlike the traditional setup/punch-line joke tellers, the new stand-up acts were faster and looser, mixing the confessional with the socio-political, a comedy art form that was reborn. The new crop of comedians, like George Carlin and Richard Pryor, became not just stars, but icons. Also, comedians like Robert Klein and Jerry Seinfeld ushered in a new style of “observational” comedy – material that sprang from everyday life, accessible to wide audiences that identified with the comics as being just like themselves.
In the analysis of Bromley, nothing in the ‘70s gave rise to stand-up comedy more than the birth of comedy clubs, which provided platforms for new and established comics to perform in front of audiences every night. In New York City, clubs like The Improv, which had been open since 1963, and Catch a Rising Star, which opened in 1972, became hot spots. Comedians like Richard Lewis, Billy Crystal, Freddie Prinze, Jerry Seinfeld, Richard Belzer and Larry David, all got their starts in either of the two clubs during this period. Also, on the West Coast, The Comedy Store (opened in 1972) in West Hollywood played host to comics like Richard Pryor, Jay Leno, David Letterman, Robin Williams, and Sam Kinison. Some comedians, like Richard Pryor and Steve Martin, became so popular that the attendances of their performances soon outgrew the clubs, and they started shows in amphi-theatres and even stadia.
As it were, the proliferation of comedy clubs did not only expose audiences to new comedians, but also provided new communities for the comedians themselves. As Bromley put it, stand-up comedians could make connections with each other; they could see other acts every night and compare notes. Unfortunately, many comedians were not paid by the clubs. The Clubs thus became more of training grounds that provided exposure for the comics, but were not lucrative for the artists financially. By 1979, many of the comedians, who worked regularly at The Comedy Store, went on strike because they were tired of working for free, while the club owners were making money. Nearly 150 comedians picketed the club for six weeks, demanding to be paid for performing. But the club stayed open during the period the strike lasted because some of the comedians crossed the picket line. At the end of six weeks, an agreement was reached where comedians were paid $25 per set for most shows. This “unionization” of comedians played another major role in legitimizing stand-up comedy in the ‘70s in the USA.
In addition to the clubs, television played a vital role in sustaining stand-up comedy. Comedians featured on variety shows and talk shows. Saturday Night Live, which premiered in 1975, gave many comics, including Carlin, Pryor and Martin, a 90-minute national showcase. But the biggest spot for a comedian in the ‘70s was on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Carson, a huge supporter of stand-up comedy, would give a spot to a comic almost every night. It was national exposure that no club performance could provide. The ‘80s also became the decade that stand-up exploded on television, because situation comedies (sitcoms), such as, The Cosby Show, Roseanne, An Evening at the Improv, HBO Comedy Hour, Young Comedians Showcase, and Half-hour Comedy Hour, among others, became massive hits.
At the end of the 1980s, the popularity of stand-up comedy was at an all-time high. Comedy clubs were everywhere, and stand-up comedians could be seen up and down the television dial. With so many comedy clubs flooding the market, it became difficult for anyone to succeed. The need to fill those clubs with talent every night also meant that the quality of live comedy suffered. Comedy clubs began closing and television shows focusing on comedians went off the air. By the 1990s, a new cable channel called, Comedy Central, offered stand-up comedy a window. Television shows like Saturday Night Live, In Living Colour and The Ben Stiller Show, became popular. By the 2000s, stand-up comedy had undergone transformation and comedians became established stars, and stand-up comedy genre had found new footing, becoming popular and viable again.
Bromley also observes that in the global arena, a major boon for the comedy world was the explosion of the global information highway – the Internet. He notes that by the early 2000s, countless websites had been devoted to showcasing comedy. Video and clip-sharing sites, like YouTube, allowed audiences new access to stand-up, sketch and improvisational comedy. Networking sites, such as MySpace and Facebook, allowed thousands of comedians a new avenue for exposure and promotion, and new communities of comedy fans began to develop. Sites like www.jokes.com created a platform for people to contribute jokes and learn new ones. The cable network, Comedy Central, which had been around since the ‘90s, was also instrumental in securing the success of stand-up in the 2000s. The network, which had primarily shown reruns of past comedy shows, like Saturday Night Live, The Kids in the Hall, Whose Line is it Anyway? and The Ben Stiller Show, began to develop original programmes centred around stand-up comedians. Programmes like Comedy Central Presents, Premium Blend and Live at Gotham, all offered platforms for stand-up comedians.
The Advent of Stand-up Comedy in Nigeria
There is no arguing the fact that stand-up comedians have existed in Nigeria from time immemorial, in the form of village spokesmen, especially at ceremonial occasions. They usually add colour to social occasions, to the admiration of those gathered for such events. This is to the extent that some people even show appreciation by giving such spokesmen ‘dash’ money. Sometimes, they even solicit for such dash, threatening not to talk again, unless somebody ‘opened’ their mouths. Their performances are so recognised that people ‘charter’ them, as it is term, for their events. The absence of such village MCs for ceremonies meant very dull programmes, as people would not be entertained with rib-cracking jokes and punchlines.
It is true that radio and television, as forms of electronic broadcasting, also contributed to the development of contemporary stand-up comedy in Nigeria. Here, the popular Mazi Mperempe programme on Radio Nigeria and the old Anambra State Television, Enugu, in the ‘70s and ‘80s, readily come to mind. This was a 30-minutes programme that featured Mazi Mperempe, telling various rib-cracking jokes, starting with his call-and-response slogan that, “Oluo n’omume… onye agbana oso!” Translated literally, it means, “The time for action has arrived… nobody should run away!” Dan Amor recalls that it was the business of Mazi Mperempe to be “as funny as possible physically, without the help or hindrance of words.” He states that he could:
look vague like a sit-tight dictator, smile like a deceitful angel who uses God as an excuse to perpetuate a hidden agenda, roll up his eyes, lace his fingers, thrust his hands palms downward as far as they would go, hunch his shoulders, rise on tiptoe, prance ecstatically in narrowing circles until, with tallow knees, he sank down the vortex of his dizziness to the floor, and there, signified nirvana by kicking his heels twice, like a swimming frog (Amor 1).
But then, comedy did not become serious business until Alleluia Atunyota Akporobomeriere, alias, Ali Baba, a 1990 graduate of Religious Studies/Philosophy from then Bendel State University (now Ambrose Alli University), Ekpoma, came on the scene. He had done his first show in 1988, at the pavilion of then Bendel State University, Ekpoma, for a paltry fee of fifty naira only (Umukoro 4). Ali Baba dared the odds of negative public perceptions to have a breakthrough in comedy. He has dimmed the impressive record of his precursors, such as the late John Chukwu (JC), Tony St. Iyke, and much later, Jude Away Away, who were good, great men that were into stand-up comedy, but did not take it to the level Ali Baba has done. Chuks Nwanne informs that by 1998, Ali registered a company, Ali Baba Hiccupurathird. That year, he erected three billboards in strategic locations in Lagos: Ozumba Mbadiwe Street, Victoria Island; Osborne Road, Ikoyi; and Marina, Lagos, paying N150,000 for each billboard per year. The billboards carried a simple message: “Ali Baba – Being Funny is Serious Business;” and it signalled the transformation in the business of stand-up comedy in the country (Nwanne 1).
Ali Baba had featured on Charly Boy Show, Friday Night Live, and Night Train with Bisi Olatilo, on the network service of Nigerian Television Authority (NTA), programmes that made him popular with viewers. The highpoint of his career was when Guinness launched Satzenbrau beer in Nigeria, and did a nationwide tour, in which he had a contract that put the first N1.5million in his hands (Nwanne 3). Ali Baba recalled that, “the appreciation level then was very low or non-existent because, a comedian was last on the list of an event planner and the first to go if they decided to cut cost.” As it were, the King of Comedy has maintained his status as a front-liner in the comedy business, not bothered by the number of up-coming comedians. He has not retired because of the need to put adequate structures on ground. His vision then is to put in place an institution that, “will regulate, promote and punish erring comedians, and help to improve creativity.” It is thus Ali Baba’s desire to ensure that there is reward for hard work in the industry, including the setting up of a 24 hours Comedy TV channel, as a platform to promote and encourage comedians. This is all in the bid to justify his promotional catch phrase: “Ali Baba – Being Funny is Serious Business.” But it is not serious business as far as his children are concerned because they:
think that I don’t have a job; they say it all the time. For them, it’s their mum that goes to work. They say things like, “You just sit down there, watching TV. In the evening, you wear your suit and say you are going to work. What kind of work are you going to when people are coming home?” But in all, I’m really happy with nearly everything that happens in my life (Nwanne 6).
Today, it is generally agreed that it is Ali Baba that gave comedy “the beautiful face” it wears in Nigeria. He became the first comedian to be well paid in the country, driving a Monster Truck, with a personalized plate number, “Ali Baba 1,” and a Dodge Ram, acquired as showbiz apparatus, registered as, “Ali Baba 2”’ (Nwanne 2). However, due credit needs to be given to Opa Williams, for creating the pedestal for the rise and development of modern stand-up comedy. Opa (as he is popularly called), a native of Aradhe in Isoko North Local Government Area of Delta State, who grew up in Ajegunle, the popular Lagos slum, had produced movies like, Deadly Affair, Tears for Love, Onome, Mama and Sergeant Okoro, between 1993 and 1997. Though most of his films were professionally adjudged to be good, their sales brought only misery and pain. He then realised that he was merely one of the pawns in the fatal grip of the then emerging power bloc in Nollywood, the marketers. According to Zik Zulu Okafor, Opa turned his back on Nollywood because of the siege of quasi-directors and pseudo-producers on the industry.
But I had no choice. I had seen the signs of the wrong things to come from the way my last two or three movies were handled by their marketers. I knew; I was so sure Nollywood was headed for the wrong direction and so I had to look elsewhere…. You do not see the books. What they tell you verbally is what you take home. It is crazy, very frustrating (Okafor 1).
From the narrative of Okafor, there is no gainsaying that the idea of Opa’s comedy business was generated accidentally. According to him, the movie producer had gone to the Orthopaedic Hospital, Igbobi, Lagos, to shoot a scene for one of his movies. Incidentally, they met a Nollywood actor there, who had had a car crash, and was on admission. As a way of giving him some comic relief, the cast and crew started cracking jokes that made him and other patients in the ward to laugh their hearts out. A nurse soon came and asked them to leave because the doctor was about to come for his ward-round, not knowing that the doctor was already in the ward, and had been laughing heartily too at the jokes. The doctor’s reaction was instructive:
He simply asked the nurse to leave us and the jokes continued. When I got home that night, I thought about what happened at the hospital and that moment, it occurred to me that laughter could be a healing balm. I started thinking of how we could use the idea of laughter to achieve something that can touch lives (Okafor 3).
Opa Williams realised that he could actually use laughter to touch the lives of the sick and prison inmates, and thus lighten the yoke of pain and confinement. But seeing that this idea could not be sustained without sponsorship, he conceptualised “Nite of a Thousand Laughs,” a public show, where part of the proceeds would go to charity. Consequently, he organised the maiden edition on Sunday, 1st October, 1995, at the University of Lagos, Akoka-Lagos. The event was a success, artistically, but a failure, in terms of financial returns. Despite encountering colossal loss that year, he hung on to the promise of the event, returning in 1996 with some partners. It was yet another huge loss and his partners, understandably, developed cold feet. But Opa was not daunted; though he met several brick-walls in the bid to get sponsors. Okafor recounts one of such encounters:
He had gone to an electronic company to seek sponsorship. The Indian man asked, “You want people to pay to come and laugh? Laugh is free my friend. Ok, come back in five years if you are serious,” he said, practically making a mockery of the idea. Ten years later, this same Indian would see him and say, “My friend, you are a great man. You are a man of great vision.” Although his company does not sponsor events, he gave Opa a N200,000 cheque and five television sets (Okafor 4).
In the main, Okafor posits that “Night of a Thousand Laughs” has endured because before it, comedians were mere jesters and clowns, used at intervals of events and paid pittance. Nigerians now pay yearly pilgrimage to “Nite of a Thousand Laughs.” In other words, Opa Williams made comedy a veritable business venture; he made Nigerians realise they have to pay to laugh; he made comedians realise they have to wear designers’ suits as professionals; and he taught them that comedy can hold in high profile venues and attract high profile fees. He created the comedy industry and set up the factory to feed the people (Okafor 4). Although Opa started with the likes of late Mohammed Danjuma, Okey Bakassi, Sam Loco Efe, Boma Erokosima, Late Sammy Needle, Late Junior and Pretty, his factory has since produced many more comedians, a great number of them entertaining millions around the globe. Some within the younger generation, with amiable styles and adaptations to stand-up comedy, include Francis Duru, Yibo Koko, Ayodeji Makun, aka AY, Julius Agwu, Basketmouth, I Go Dye, Bovi, I Go Save, Gandoki, MC Abbey, Gordons, Michael Ogbolosingha, Klint de Drunk, MC Basketmouth, Teju Baby Face, Maleke, Holly Mallam, Elenu, MC Shakara, Onyebuchi Ojieh (Buchi), Emeka Smith, Dave Sikpa, Princess, and Lepacious Bose, among others. Glo, the Nigerian telecommunications giant, has some of them, like Basket Mouth, as its ambassadors.
Abiola Odutola observes rightly that stand-up comedy, once regarded as a pastime of the unserious and the uneducated, has transformed into a big business, turning its practitioners into millionaires and throwing up a huge industry with several direct employment opportunities and support services. EmBARssy Lounge, an upscale ultra-modern discotheque, bar and lounge, has become the toast of fun-loving Nigerians. Shortly after it started business, it became the choice fun spot for entertainment artists, partly due to its vantage location near Yaba College of Technology (YABATECH) and University of Lagos (UNILAG), and partly because it is owned by Bright Okpocha, popularly called, Basketmouth. Nigerians, young and old, throng the multi-million naira lounge/bar daily to unwind with choice drinks and be treated to good music and, on special days, performances by established and up-coming comedians. According to Odutola, the dreadlocks-wearing comedian from Abia State is believed to have invested several millions of naira in it.
Basketmouth also owns Barons World Entertainment Limited, an events consulting and Management Company based in Surulere, Lagos. The company, which has been in operation since 2006, has provided gainful employment for close to 15 persons, but employs up to 100 ad hoc staff during special events. He also hosts “Laffs ‘n’ Jamz,” a comedy show that has so far recorded more than 48 editions, over a four-year period, becoming a veritable platform for grooming comedians and musicians. He feels it is his responsibility to create various means whereby people who have talents in comedy, music, or even poetry, can express themselves better. Basketmouth, who is, today, arguably, one of Nigeria’s biggest comedy brands, had an endorsement with Globacom, Nigeria’s telecoms giant, a deal that makes him one of Glo’s ambassadors, fetching him about N70million (Odutola 1).
It is said that for accepting to be a compère or master of ceremony for an event, Basketmouth charges between N700,000 and N1million, depending on the client (Odutola 1). Yet, the business exploits of the University of Benin graduate of Sociology/Anthropology are not limited to the local scene alone. He has since become a major export, entertaining foreign audiences and earning huge foreign exchange in the process. For instance, he recently hosted his “Nigerian Kings of Comedy” show at Indigo2, Peninsula Square, London, and Birdcage Withy Groove, Manchester, United Kingdom. He has also performed in Vienna, Austria, among other countries across the globe. Tickets for these events go for between £25 (N6,200) and £75 (about N18,500). Only recently, Basketmouth made history as he was contracted to host Comedy Central Presents… a television comedy show, on Wednesday, 24th April, 2013, live at Parker’s in Johannesburg, South Africa (“Basketmouth to host” 27).
Basketmouth is not the only stand-up comedian in the exclusive club of brand ambassadors earning double-digit money from endorsements. Ayo Makun (AY) also signed an endorsement, worth N60million with Haven Homes, a Nigerian real estate developer and another deal with Coleman Wire and Cables Nigeria, manufacturers of wires and cables (Odutola 2). His Corporate World Entertainment, an outfit that packages events and provides contents for radio and television, powers “AY Live,” his comedy and music concert; “AY Show,” a television programme; and the “Open Mic Challenge,” a monthly talent-hunt programme. The Open Mic Challenge, which holds every third Sunday of the month at the National Theatre, Iganmu-Lagos, and later at The Marquee of Federal Palace Hotels and Casinos, Lagos, has since produced many notable comedy brands.
AY, who gained fame by mimicking Rev. Chris Okotie, Pastor of Household of God Church, Lagos, has positioned AY Live among one of the best in the country. For instance, in 2007, the second edition of AY Live, “Lagos Invasion,” held Lagos audiences spell-bound, drawing a record crowd that forced him to do two shows, instead of one (Odutola 2). Two years later, a similar feat was re-enacted in Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory, for AY Live, “Abuja Invasion.” Today, the show by the multi-talented humour merchant, a 2003 Theatre Arts graduate of Delta State University, Abraka, still ranks as Abuja’s most attended entertainment event. The show won the Best Television Comedy Show in 2008 and is broadcast on Africa Magic and Nigerian Television Authority International (NTAi). It is arguably one of the most attended annual concerts in Nigeria and London. In Nigeria, for example, tickets for most of the shows range from N5,000 (Regular), N20,000 (VIP), and N400,000 (Table for eight persons).
AY and Basket Mouth are just two out of several stand-up comedians, who have carved a niche for themselves in the booming comedy industry. Apart from veteran stand-up comedians such as Tunde Adewale, aka Tee A; Gbenga Adeyinka, aka, ‘CFR’ (Comedian of the Federal Republic); Okechukwu Onyegbule (Okey Bakassi); and Julius Agwu, aka Julius ‘D Genius’ Agwu, a new crop of young talents has since emerged and they are creatively taking the comedy industry to the next level. Some of them include, Teju Oyelakin, aka Teju Babyface; Bosede Ogunboye, popularly known as Lepacious Bose; Idowu Nuel, aka Koffi; Francis Agoda, aka I Go Dye; Godwin Komone, aka Gordons (who was a member of DC Envoys, a Gospel Acapella group); Mike Ogbolosingha, Omo Baba, MC Shakara; Elenu; I Go Save; Gandoki; Emeka Smith; Bovi Ugboma, simply called, Bovi; MC Basketmouth; and Seyi Law, to mention a few.
Financial rewards from numerous international engagements, as well as revenues from ticket sales for shows, sale of comedy CDs, event compère and endorsements, have kept many of these comedians on their toes as some of them continue to device other means of increasing their revenue. For instance, Bovi, a Theatre Arts graduate of Delta State University, combines stand-up comedy with scriptwriting and other activities. The fact that he became an instant hit barely three years after becoming a humour merchant is an indication that he has made a commercial success of his career as an entertainer. Bovi’s hilarious and popular television sitcoms, the “Extended Family” and the “Bovi Ugboma Show,” enjoy huge following. The Bovi Ugboma Show alone, with cast and crew of between 20 to 25 persons, has become a must-watch on Africa Magic and MyTV Africa. The young and hard working comedian, who cut his teeth in the comedy industry, as Personal Assistant to Richard Mofe-Damijo (RMD), and understudied Basketmouth from 2005 to 2008, says the secret of his success is consistency, as one show cannot propel a comedian to the top (Odutola 3).
Koffi and Teju Babyface, two notable young stand-up comedians, also owe their rise to fame and fortune in the comedy business to hard work and consistency. Koffi, a 2004 graduate of Chemistry from University of Lagos, runs Workerman Movement, a consultancy firm, which provides full time employment to eight people. The ace comedian revealed that the company, which is also into the production of music, movies and scriptwriting, increases its workforce to as many as 50, when it has productions. According to him, the number of shows ranges from four to six in a year. On his part, Babyface, despite coming from a privileged background, has made a huge fortune through his Teju Babyface Show (TBFS), a television programme aimed at providing fun and entertainment to viewers. The one-hour show has hosted various captains of industries, public figures and celebrities, and won the hearts of viewers and advertisers such as Indomie Noodles, Loyal Milk, Arik Air, Haier Thermocool, and Tasty Fried Chicken (TFC), among others. It also won The African Audio-Visual Awards (TAVA) 2011 Most Outstanding TV Talk Show in Nigeria (Odutola 3).
In Bayelsa State, a young comedian, Simcard, conceptualised his own comedy show, “Groove Your Team,” which debuted at Intercontinental Hotel, Imgbi Road, Yenagoa, Bayelsa State. The event had an added attraction, as one of the conditions for admission, apart from the purchase of a valid ticket, was appearing in one’s favourite football club jersey. Thus, it was an event that displayed an array of jerseys: Man U, Man City, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool, Everton, Tottenham, Leeds, Barcelona, Real Madrid, AC Milan, Roma, PSG, Ajax, Juventus, Bayern Munich, Borusia Dortmund, Schalke Donesk, and so on. Unfortunately, you hardly found Rangers, Enyimba, Heartland, Bendel Insurance, Warri Wolves, Sunshine Stars, Kano Pillars, Calabar Rovers, Sharks, Bayelsa United, and the likes from Nigeria. The success of the first edition, in a relatively small venue, encouraged Simcard to go for Gloryland Cultural Centre, Yenagoa, the next year. But the interesting thing was that the second edition created quite some security challenges, because the 2,500 capacity venue was overstretched, and he was caught napping as regard crowd control. Doors were broken by the teeming audiences that were struggling, in their assorted jerseys, to gain admission, and the production team was confounded and helpless.
It is pertinent to note here that the comedy business is not the exclusive preserve of male comedians as some female stand-up comedians have also made remarkable impact in the industry. Notable female comedians, who, indeed, have been holding their own to the admiration of their male counterparts, include, Princess, Lepacious Bose and Helen Paul, popularly called, Tatafo. With about five people working for her as full-time employees and heavy investments in form of time and resources on research, Bose could not have wished for a more rewarding venture. With a touch of humour, the lawyer-turned-stand-up comedian says it was hunger that made her go into the industry, disclosing that after she finished from Law School, she went back to school to study Theatre Arts but could not make ends meet and decided to join the industry. She has performed for Michael Bloomberg, the Mayor of New York, and even anchored the wedding of the daughter of late President Umar Yar’Adua (Odutola 3-4).
The Present Face of Stand-up Comedy in Nigeria:From Nothing to Something
The point has been made that stand-up comedy has become an industry, with the prospects of generating revenue to government, if the necessary structures are put in place. For example, on Saturday, 12 May, 2010, Ali Baba created record in Nigeria, during the deluxe edition of Bunmi Davies’ “Stand Up Nigeria” comedy show, which held at the Muson Centre, Onikan, Lagos. He sat in front of an audience and cracked jokes for six (6) straight hours, keeping the audience laughing all through the show. He recalls that experience, saying, “it was just like a walk in the park and I was creating more jokes on stage. Some people thought I came with all the jokes that I told on stage, no. While I was there, I was making up new jokes” (Umukoro 2).
The above underscores Victoria Ige’s view that Ali Baba is “the grand godfather; the godfather of godfathers,” adding that contrary to the thinking in some quarters that he had reached his peak, and so should leave the stage, the king of comedy still packed enough lines to crack ribs in his show, “Aligations,” which took place on Sunday, June 13, 2012. As it has become a success formula in stand-up comedy events, the show was spiced with acts like KSA, Dan Maraya Jos, and 2Face Idibia, among others, with guests paying as much as N1million per table (Ige 1). The position of Umukoro is not markedly different when he states that, “if stand-up comedy in Nigeria were a country, then Ali Baba would be the president. And he would probably win with a landslide victory;” because he has “built and redesigned the landscape of contemporary Nigerian comedy” (1).
Ezechi Onyerionwu posits that the advent of the emergent stand-up comedy culture has hugely compensated for the disheartening decline of the Nigerian theatre tradition, adding that the feeling of loss is understandable because the Nigerian theatre institution was a potent form of social criticism, a colourful medium of cultural exhibition, or even a subtle vehicle for satire. To him, stand-up comedy as a new artistic medium of social commentary, has inherited the laudable responsibilities of the theatre, because both genres share many characteristics, which guarantee an overlap, delineating them thus:
First, like the core dramatic theatre, stand-up comedy is essentially a stage art. Secondly in the process of performance, both forms accommodate the aesthetics of presentation in the form of visuals and histrionics. Thirdly, both artistic media recognize to a large extent the premium on immediacy and spontaneity. Fourthly, music and dance are adjunct artistic phenomena to both arts of the theatre. Fifthly, if our dramatic theatre has produced world-renowned icons in the mould of the Ola Rotimis, the Femi Osofisans and even a Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka, our stand up comedy has also produced performers of international significance such as Ali Baba, Okey Bakassi, Basket Mouth, I Go Die, Mike Ogolosingha, etc (Onyerionwu 1).
Stand-ups are social critics, who take hard looks at various facets of the country. For example, Ali Baba tells jokes about OBJ or his father, who first refused to accept his stage name; AY parodies Pastor Chris Oyakhilome and Pastor Chris Okotie; Basketmouth makes fun of the false appearances of girls, regarding dressing and make-up; I Go Dye talks about Nigeria Police, guns and armed robbery; Gordons talks about parlous state of the Nigeria Police, the experience of women in the labour room, Nigerians not satisfied with one thing, and happenings in the church, profusely using Biblical texts to drive home his point; Mike Ogolosingha takes a swipe at the proliferation of churches, where all the alphabets (A-Z) have been used as names of churches in Nigeria; Klink de Drunk plays the clever drunk; Gandoki parodies social life in Warri, Port Harcourt and Abuja; Julius Agwu displays his high sense of humour and tells you he is very serious; Lepacious Bose uses her size to make a bold statement that you could be fat and still be bold and beautiful, and so on.
All of the foregoing are demonstrations of the role artists play as the voices of reason in a society in dire need of direction. Furthermore, it is understandable that being involved in the art of entertainment, stand-up comedians source materials from every imaginable aspect of Nigerian life, and dissecting them “with a knife dipped in the light-hearted fluid of comedy,” and the instructional import of its assertions never escapes the alert mind of the sensitive Nigerian (Onyerionwu 2).
Onyerionwu also maintains that stand-up comedy has lived up to expectation as being one of the most effective anaesthesia to the pains, sorrows, fears, disappointments, frustrations, worries and uncertainties of the average Nigerian, and that it is a most welcome development how these talented artists have recycled those same inglorious materials of their follies to become catalysts to the restoration of their sanity. He thus submits that stand-up comedy in Nigeria has become a popular art, and that for a stand-up comedian to be successful, he/she must be multi-dimensionally endowed: being a stand-up comedian and at the same time being an excellent dancer, a consummate singer, a polyglot, an actor, a poet, and so on. He surmises that
the Nigerian stand-up comedian as a custodian of the idea of total art understands the simple logic that effective art subscribes to an orderly, acceptable and functional arrangement, which not only speaks volumes of the artist’s sense of organization and structure, but also penchant for meaning…. The Nigerian stand-up comedy artist has also proved to be a researcher par-excellence, who not only has to know cultures, psychologies, societies, religions, histories, etc., but also subjects himself to the tedious chore of fitting into all these, and fashioning out an appropriate module of presentation (Onyerionwu 4).
The Nigerian stand-up comedy remains a hugely important instrument of the artistic rebirth occasioned by the return to a democratic system of government, in the sense that it has provided them the ambience to say it as it is, as well as how they want to say it without fear of intimidation. This art-friendly environment accounts for a bulk of any credit for artistic courage and bravery we want to ascribe to the comedians. But then, Onyerionwu advises that there should be some considerable degree of self-censorship on the part of the stand-ups, as some of them are carried away or simply throw modesty to the winds. It is thus his thinking that with the establishment and success of “Nite of a Thousand Laughs,” among other outlets for the stand-up comedy genre, something substantial has been recovered from the comatose Nigerian theatre tradition, and that with the impressive “inter-disciplinary bonds stand-up comedy has been able to foster, theatre goers are guaranteed an artistic capsule that serves a wide range of audiences and purposes.” It is gratifying that Nigerians continue ‘occupying’ the entertainment scene in the United States, as Julius Agwu’s Crack Ya Ribs was live in New York for the first time on the 1st September, 2012, at the Symphony Space Sharp Theatre. Julius ‘D Genius’ Agwu had earlier performed in Glasgow on the 24th August, 2012, and London on the 26th August, 2012, in his “Ghana meets Naija Crack Ya Ribs” comedy show. Speaking before the London show, Julius Agwu had said,
this year will mark 12 years of Crack Ya Ribs and we needed to repackage it to inject some fresh ideas to keep the brand going. We are now trying to make it bigger by turning it to a Pan-African event. So we are doing this edition with Media Ghana and Empire Entertainment from Ghana (www.informationng.com).
According to media reports, the array of stars from Nigeria and Ghana that were billed to perform at the comedy event included, Mavin League’s D’Prince, Seyi Law, VIP, Senator, Yvonne Nelson, Funny Bone, Castro, and Jay Ghartuy. Tickets for the New York show were $30 (Regular), $50 (VIP) and $100 (VVIP). After staging spectacular shows in Glasgow, London, New York, Houston, and Dallas, Julius Agwu thrilled Abuja residents with his Crack Ya Ribs on Sunday, 30th September, 2012, at the Transcorp Hilton Hotel. Speaking on the show, Julius Agwu said:
The Abuja edition of this year’s Crack Ya Ribs is my independence gift to Nigerians as we return after the summer tour. Not forgetting the fact that this year marks 12 years of Crack Ya Ribs and it has been repackaged with some fresh ideas to keep the brand going. We have made it bigger by turning it to a Pan-African event and that informed why there were performances from Ghanaian leading music and comedy stars at the London show. With our current plans for the Abuja show, lovers of quality entertainment are in for a good time (Aiki 1).
The audience definitely had a fun-filled day as many fine comedians featured, including I Go Dye, Senator, Dan D’Humorous, Funny Bone, Osama and Triple White. For musical entertainment, Egberi Papa 1 of Bayelsa, Timaya, and Kukere master, Iyanya, performed; and the tickets were: N5,000 (Regular), N10,000 (VIP), and N300,000 (Table), obtainable at Drumstix, Ceddi Plaza, Grand Square, Exclusive Stores, and Silverbird Cinemas.
After the Abuja experience, it was the turn of residents of the Oil City, Port Harcourt, to experience the best of comedy and music of Crack Ya Ribs on Tuesday, 25th December, 2012, at Aztec Arcum, Stadium Road, Port Harcourt. It featured Okey Bakassi, Seyi Law, Osama, Daniel D’Humourous, Funky4, Ajeh Baba, Romeo and, of course, the host, Julius d’Genius Agwu. The show also featured musicians like Iyanya, Burna Boy, Ijaw Boy, and Dantonio. Like the Abuja show, the tickets were: N5,000 (Regular), N10,000 (VIP), and N250,000 (Table), obtainable at Silverbird Cinema, Genesis Deluxe Cinema, Ground Zero, Charcoal and Spice, Everyday Supermarket, Edi’s Wine and Bar, and Liquid Lounge.
Similarly, a comedy show, “Enter the Laughter with Edo Charles,” was organised at Evangel Pentecostal Church, Okota, Isolo, Lagos, on March 29 and 30, 2013. The event, packaged by Edo Charles, a former keyboardist with Paul Play Dairo, which entered the 11th Season, was advertised as a “high-octane” entertainment and featured Helen Paul, Jude Orhorha, Omo Baba, Mc Ice, Ogbolor, Open Teeth, and Elder O. Others were Nothin Do Me, Heavy Man and Ajebo (“Top Comedians” 53). This was also at a time AY advertised “AY Live Easter Show.” Comedians on the bill include, Ali Baba, Julius Agwu, Gordons, and I Go Dye. Others are Akpororo, FunnyBone, and Elenu; just as Timaya, Wizkid, Tiwa Savage, Terry G., and actress-turned singer, Tonto Dike, were musicians billed to feature (“All set for AY Live” 54).
In Ibadan, Oyo State, “LaffMatazz with Gbenga Adeyinka and Friends,” co-hosted by Funke Akindele-Oloyede, alongside Gbenga Adeyinka, was advertised for Easter Sunday, March 31, 2013. Stars like Davido, Capital Femi, May D, Dammy Krane, LKT, Seyi Law, Skales, Jaywon, Seyi Shay, Lepacious Bose, Omobaba, Owen Gee, Seriki, Jayru, Obama, Eteye, Laffup, SB Live Band, Adetoun of Project Fame, Explicit Dance Troupe, Kayefi, Isaac Geralds, Peteru, Baba Gboin with DJs Sexcy and Van Vicki, were on the bill (“Funke Akindele” 23).
Bovi has not been left out as he conceived his first stand-up comedy show on the 10th March, 2013, tagged, Bovi – Man on Fire. Unlike most other shows, according to him, it was a solo stand-up comedy show for him to express himself for an hour and more, noting that it was the trademark of a true stand-up comedian. Bovi maintains that he tries “to entertain primarily but also use the medium as a correctional tool for our youths, our government and our system. People may laugh at our jokes but they believe most of the things we say.”
The rise and development of stand-up comedy means that the comedians, like their Nollywood counterparts, have been smiling to the banks after every show. A job, which was once looked down upon (as nothing), just like music in the 70s, is now a craft that rakes in millions (something), considering the costly cars many of the established stand-up comedians are driving now, as reported by Osagie Alonge. Ali Baba maintains an expensive hobby: collecting cars, and bought a wine colour Mercedes Benz SL 500 valued at N20m. Julius Agwu bought a gold-coloured Mercedes Benz GL 550, a 7-seater SUV that costs N19m, for his 40th birthday. Teju Babyface acquired a Lexus LS 600h hybrid executive car, which selling price is N12m, though he had been driving a Toyota Land Cruiser. AY acquired a white ‘Acura ZDX AS,’ as a Christmas present for his wife, Mabel, costing N9m. Bovi, who had been under the tutelage of Basketmouth, also bought for his wife, Christabel, a Range Rover, estimated at N8.5m. Buchi, in early January, acquired a white 2009 Land Rover Discovery 3, which goes for N8m. And, Basketmouth, host of “The Big Friday Show,” drives a 2011 Toyota Venza, worth N6.5m (Alonge 1-2).
There is no contesting the fact that these entertainers-cum-entrepreneurs would probably not have emerged but for the pioneering efforts of Ali Baba, whose name, more or less, now personifies the art of stand-up comedy. Koffi affirms this position when he said,
I joined the comedy industry full time in 2007. Then it was not as big as this but thank God for Ali Baba who brought a new dimension into the industry. He made us see the business side of the job and made it look like a career. I can’t forget my first show when Ali Baba gave me N50,000 to support me. It was a big surprise to me, because I was not expecting such from a man that is not even related to me (Okafor 6).
Lepacious Bose could not agree less on the place of Ali Baba in the burgeoning comedy industry, saying:
The comedy business is fast becoming an industry and has been growing in the last 10 years due to the innovations introduced by Ali Baba. He taught us branding and made us realise that it is the way we present our jokes and ourselves that determines how we are paid and respected. I believe that is where it started from; everyone started taking it so serious (Okafor 6).
Little wonder then that for his pioneering role, Ali Baba is about the most expensive comedian in Nigeria, earning millions in performances in Nigeria and abroad. Although the industry was quite difficult when he started out in 1990, Ali Baba has, in the last 23 years, turned comedy into a money-making venture.
The Challenges of Stand-up Comedy in Nigeria
Like any other industry, comedy business in Nigeria is not without its challenges. These include: finance, venues, sponsorship, negative perceptions, social media, copyright, failure to leave jokes at climactic points, recycling of jokes, and royalties, among others. It is necessary to take a brief look at some of the issues.
a. Finance: Organising a good show does not come cheap. For instance, a modest estimate for a good comedy show would be between N10million and N20million. Apparently, there is hardly any possibility of recouping the costs from tickets sales. Most of the comedy shows feature a minimum of five stand-ups and three popular musicians, who do not all charge commercial rates, in order to support their fellow artistes, and the favour is reciprocal.
b. Venues: There is the problem of affordable venues for shows. According to Bolaji Abimbola of BD Consult, a public relations firm, it costs about N750,000 to rent a hall at Federal Palace Hotel & Casino, Lagos. This is in addition to a caution fee of N300,000, making a total of N1.2million. He also disclosed that Eko Hotel & Suite is the most expensive, charging about N3million for a hall per day. The hotel also insists on organisers using their food, music equipment, and lighting, which all make it so expensive (Odutola 4-5). The viable option then is to canvass for corporate sponsorships for shows. But exemplistic of corporate bodies in Nigeria, this does not come by easily. Where it happens, the arrangement has to be in favour of the sponsors. For instance, AY used the hall of Federal Palace Hotel & Casino for his shows, for free, in exchange for the display of the hotel banner on the stage.
c. Gender Discrimination: For the ladies, the main challenge is that the industry is seen as one meant for men. Thus, they are seen as venturing into “a man’s world,” just as they are looked at as commercial drivers and pilots, among other male-dominated disciplines. It means that the female comedians have to work very hard to gain acceptability and the respect of their male counterparts.
d. The Advent of the Social Media: Comedians now have to contend with current developments in the global information highway – the Internet and the global mobile telecommunications service (GSM). As Yinka Olatunbosun rightly observes, this is in the sense that new media jokes are on the rise and fast gaining popularity on the social media and threatening the business of stand-up comedians. New media jokes, which have some features that are similar to those of stand-up comedians, are in abundance and more accessible on blogs, websites, Twitter handles, Facebook pages, as well as BlackBerry messengers. Furthermore, the GSM providers have also joined in the jokes bandwagon by creating monthly subscription options for customers. They usually have faceless authors, who only make the jokes for the singular aim of entertainment. Most times, these new media jokes make reference to current developments and sometimes help douse matters of serious national concerns, as it was seen recently in the “Oga at the Top” incident. Such jokes can also be reckless, vulgar and unprotected by copyright law. According to Olatunbosun, even non-professional comedians are capitalising on new media jokes to gain relevance and selling their personae. But another dimension to this challenge the stand-up comedian has to deal with is keeping up with the volume of jokes that flood the social media. For instance, the “Akpos jokes” have become a brand on the social media. It is a series that centres on the life of a clever boy, Akpos, who is presumably a teenager. Although Akpos is a stock character and is often predictable, his responses hold the punch lines on which the peak of each joke rests, as could be seen in the one below:
Teacher: Akpos, a person who writes is a writer; what do you call a person who prays?
Akpos: A person who prays is a prayer!
In the main, Akpos is portrayed as a one-way thinker, who often seeks the easiest way to solve problems. But then, as Olatunbosun noted, there are some “fake” Akpos jokes that have failed to elicit laughter, may be due to the fact that some people are trying to use the Akpos brand to sell their jokes, at no cost, just to get attention.
e. Recycling of Jokes: There is also the problem of comedians recycling jokes, to the extent that it has become very difficult for some stand-up comedians to actually “crack ribs” or generate “a thousand of laughs.” Some of them, including Gordons, have attempted to justify their inability to make people laugh by saying that if some people do not laugh at their jokes, it was not because their jokes were dry, not funny, but because the listeners had personal problems that far outweighed the humour in their jokes (Gordons “Ward 2”). Nonetheless, Ali Baba looks at it from the socio-cultural perspective, when he stated that:
You could crack some (Waffi) jokes and someone who is not from Warri won’t get it. You could crack a Nigerian joke and someone who is British would feel like it is dry. So it is who can relate to the joke that would get it. Somebody could crack a Hausa joke; some people may laugh while a few others wouldn’t. But that doesn’t mean the joke was not funny, it only meant that some didn’t get it. For me, I try to reinvent myself on different platforms, whether it’s Twitter, writing on my blog, Facebook comments, live on stage, motivational speaking, talking to people, one-on-one, or emceeing a show; we just change the template (Umukoro 3).
f. Failure to Identify Climaxes of Jokes: Some comedians fail to identify the climaxes of jokes and peg the jokes there. Olatunbosun posits that the only selling point left for stand-up comedians, now that almost every Nigerian is a comedian, is their persona on stage. For instance, Helen Paul’s jokes are ordinary, but she does the extra-ordinary with her voice and “silly laughter.” Gordon’s jokes are slices of life but become jokes through his modulation. I Go Dye’s jokes are on his petit person; all he needs to make people laugh is his appearance on stage. It, therefore, rests on stand-up comedians to sharpen their skills. This may have been one of the reasons why many of the stand-up comedians, like Teju Babyface and AY, have diversified into television series. There is no doubt that stand-up comedians have to rise up to the billing in order not to lose the art to faceless jesters.
g. Comedians Using Jokes of Colleagues: There is the problem of comedians using the jokes of others, which amount to plagiarism, piracy or copyright infringement. This reflects that such comedians are lazy, taking the easy way out in the business of entertainment. It is of essence that comedian avoid repetition of jokes and give due credit to the authors of rehashed jokes. It is true that comedians can share ideas, even crack the jokes of others, but care has to be taken as to the occasions in question. It becomes an issue of piracy or copyright infringement when a comedian cracks a joke in “Night of a Thousand Laughs,” and another one repackages it in AY Live. Bovi takes serious exception to such breaches, when he said:
I’ve heard of comedians using my jokes at premium events and I didn’t hesitate to call them to order by confronting them with the question and then a warning. I air my displeasure basically. This applies in premium events, the ones that may end up on YouTube or CDs. Those are the only ones I take personal (“I was a Comedy Apprentice” 2).
h. Royalties: Unfortunately, there are no royalties accruing to comedians for their creative works. It thus becomes the famed “monkey dey work, baboon dey chop” scenario, as any comedian can rehash a joke as if it is his/her own. Also, live performances are just recorded on CDs and put on sale, while the comedians get no returns on their creative enterprises. According to Ali Baba, there is need to give copyright and ownership to jokes, as one of the ways of improving creativity in the industry.
If you use somebody’s joke, you are going to pay for it. Abroad, comedians pay royalty for using another comedian’s jokes; but what you have here is somebody telling other people’s jokes in a show and the organisers will put those jokes on CDs for sale, without paying royalty to the original owners of the jokes (Nwanne 5).
In this paper, we have examined the rise and development of the stand-up comedy genre of artistic entertainment in Nigeria. The point has been made that having worked with people like late Mohammed Danjuma, Basorge Tariah Jr, and Okey Bakassi to professionalise stand-up comedy in Nigeria, Alleluia Atunyota Akporobomeriere, popularly known as, Ali Baba, embarked on its redefinition, and has watched it take a leap in the last 20 years. This period has seen the industry metamorphosing from a state of “nothing” to an enviable state of “something,” currently, with many of the “boys” transforming to “big boys.” Furthermore, the contribution of Opa Williams in creating a veritable platform, Night of a Thousand Laughs, which has been a dynamic breeding ground for prospective stand-up comedians, cannot be over-emphasised. But then, as Basketmouth notes, what the industry needs now is improved support on the part of government and private organisations, in the area of sponsorships, to enhance the entertainment packages. Though some of the challenges facing the industry, namely, finance, venues, sponsorship, negative perceptions, social media, copyright, failure to leave jokes at climactic points, recycling of jokes, and royalties, to mention a few, have been highlighted, the thinking is that the future of the contemporary stand-up comedy industry is bright in Nigeria, as many of the entertainers are doing well and are getting respect from people. The consensus then, among stakeholders, is that going by the exploits of these humour merchants, locally and internationally, very soon, like the positive developments in Nollywood, Nigerian comedians will start competing favourably with their counterparts across the world, both in rich, quality content and business exploits. Indeed, the stand-up comedy genre in Nigeria has transformed from nothing to something, and unlike the theatre, it promises to maintain that status for a long while; all credit to those who dared to dream.
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***Being a Paper Delivered at the Society of Nigeria Theatre Artists (SONATA) Annual Conference with the Theme, “Quality Assurance: Theatre, Drama & Film” at Benue State University, Makurdi, Benue State, Nigeria, from 4-8, June, 2013***