The Rise and Rise of Nigerian Stand-Up Comedy
By Emeka Uzoatu
As the times keep toughening up in our beloved country, only a few sectors appear to have risen to occasion. Apart from the negatives like banditry and kidnapping, one of the few positives that have stood up for the count remains our comedy industry.
Primarily it has served to lift its many practitioners – pro and tyro – from poverty. And this sans any government contribution whatsoever. That is apart from the fact that the abysmal performance of the men running our affairs of state often end up providing our stand-ups with the easiest of materials.
Also – perhaps more importantly – the prodigious repertoire of our comedians has helped so many of their patrons keep their heads in these thoroughly macadermised times. Infact, next to seeking green-bottled solutions to their problems, many Nigerians now bury their elongating sorrows in the reverberating labyrinth of a comedian’s joke.
The more so these days when they have all but virtually taken over all social media platforms. From Twitter to Whatsapp, through Instagram to Facebook, well before the birth of TikTok, comedy skits now rule okay unhindered. As though programmed by the gods, once you watch one, another pops up. So much that before you can break the laughter ‘hanging tremulous between your lips’ half an hour is gone.
Initially the earlier cultivators in comedy’s vineyard had only functions like weddings and naming ceremonies to exhibit their wares at. And this to often unpaid paltry appearance fees that had them groveling at the feet of their patrons. Even when they have often had to work as comperes, they were hardly paid enough to buy their way home.
As was, only a few of them could raise their heads above water those days. And numbered here were the few with enough gravitas to feature in government-house vaudevilles and, perhaps, corporate functions. This included the likes of the late John Chukwu and other coeval pathfinders in the then rarified minefield of Nigerian comedy.
Till the rise of Ali Baba Akpobome. As the tale unwound, he was joined by no other than Ayo Makun (AY for short), his erstwhile Personal Assistant. The glamour train they unleashed was soon boarded by a multitude. So much that presently their top ten now assumedly boast net worths of anything from 3.2 billion to 500 million Naira.
While Ali Baba and AY are perched at the top, they are hotly pursued by the likes of Basket Mouth, I Go Dye, Bovi, Julius Agwu, Okey Bakassi, Gordons and Akpororo to name but a few. And this is discountenancing such later revelations like Acapella and Mr Paul.
Like it stood, the earliest acts were mostly restricted to high and low local destinations. This was to climax with the well-received ‘Night of a Thousand Laughs’ convened by the irrepressible Nollywood maestro Opa Williams. Arguably the godfather of modern Nigerian comedy, after gathering the often disparate acts on one stage, he was to take the show to other African countries after its premiere at the National Theater in October 1995.
However, courtesy of AY, their acts have been repeatedly taken across the shores of the African continent. These foreign shows served up palpable elixirs for the genre. Apart from making it possible for our comedians to sharpen their repertoire, they have, as well, helped them to rake in more funds.
As high as the industry has risen, a close observation points to the reality that its zenith is yet to be reached. Way back then all that it needed was the ability to entertain your audience with sharp jokes, the more spontaneous the better.
James, a 50+-years old follower of the trend, summed it up most summarily.
‘Initially’ the soft-spoken gentleman said, ‘the jokes played out like good old highlife. They came in well-aligned intros and straightened-out bodies before climaxing with well-wrought-out cliffhanger endings. But not any longer. The newer entrants have stretched the genre to jazz. Bebop, in short.’
He however reserved the last word for one of the latest guys on the block named Mr Paul. According to Mr James, he has single handedly proven that jokes must not come in well structured patterns.
‘That guy is a genius’ he enthused as we made to part. ‘Without him who could have ever wondered that a guy could stand in front of an audience and hold them captive to laughter by talking rubbish! As in yapping total nonsense till he is dragged off as has become his nom.’
Surely the funny ones are not yet born. O yes for the limit is not nigh yet. Content apart, there is still a yawning gap in the funds attainable. What with the reality that compared with what obtains across these shores it’s morning yet in their day of maximum achievement.
A truism uncontestable when the highest grossing comedian in the USA Jerry Seinfeld is worth a staggering $920 million. Meanwhile Jay Leno who closes in at a distant fifth position manages $400 million only.
Who knows. Perhaps by the time newer acts come in time, we may end up exporting jokes for foreign exchange. Not unlike what we are presently doing with Nollywood. And luckily the path is there for the taking. And like once before we may yet become the uncontested Giant of Africa.
Emeka Uzoatu, a seasoned journalist and writer, is the editor of Nairaweb.ng. He writes the occasional column, Penny Wisdom.