How we make fortune, fame from making people laugh -Nigerian stand-up comedians

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By ABIOLA ODUTOLA

Shortly after it flung its doors open for business, it became the fun spot of choice for entertainment buffs from far and near. Partly due to its vantage location near the Yaba College of Technology and University of Lagos, and partly because it is owned and promoted by Bright Okpocha, popularly called Basket Mouth, ace stand-up comedian, EmBARssy Lounge, an upscale ultra-modern discotheque, bar and lounge, is the toast of fun-loving Nigerians.

Daily, Nigerians, young and old, throng the multi-million naira lounge/bar to unwind with choice drinks and be treated to great music and on special days, comedy performances by established and up and coming comedians. Despite the huge fan base and patronage EmBARssy Lounge already enjoys, Basket Mouth still considers it as work-in-progress. “EmBARssy is a pet project for something much bigger,” he says.

Although the dreadlock-wearing comedian from Abia State declined to give more details of his plans for the lounge and how much he has invested in the business, it is believed it has gulped several millions of naira. The comedian also owns and manages Barons World Entertainment Limited, an events consulting and management company based in Surulere, Lagos. Basket Mouth also hosts ‘Laffs n Jamz,’ a comedy show that has so far recorded several editions over eight years, becoming a veritable platform for grooming comedians and musicians and; Flat Mates, a comic-soap opera currently being aired on DStv.

Bovi

“I feel my responsibility is to create various means whereby people who have talents in comedy, music or even poetry can express themselves better,” he says.

With these projects and others in the pipeline came fame and fortune. Basket Mouth, who is today, arguably, one of Nigeria’s biggest comedy brands had once signed a mouth-watering endorsement deal worth N80 million with Globacom, among others.

Basket Mouth is not the only stand-up comedian in the exclusive club of brand ambassadors earning double-digit dough from endorsement deals. Ayo Makun, popularly known as AY, became the envy of his peers in other industries, when he signed an endorsement deal with Coleman Wire and Cables, and Lekki Homes, among others.

Like Basket Mouth, AY is the brain behind Corporate World Entertainment, an entertainment outfit focused on packaging events and providing contents for radio and television stations. The company powers AY Live, a comedy and music concert and the AY Show, arguably the most-watched TV comedy show.

AY

AY, who gained fame by mimicking Chris Okotie, has positioned AY Live, his flagship programme, among one of the best in the country. In 2007, the second edition of AY Live, Lagos Invasion, held Lagos show lovers spellbound, drawing a record crowd that forced him to do two shows instead of the normal one show. Two years later, a similar feat was reenacted in Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory, when it stood still for AY Live, Abuja Invasion. Today, the show, a product of the resourceful brain of the multi-talented humour merchant and a 2003 Theatre Arts graduate of Delta State University, Abraka, still ranks as Abuja’s most attended entertainment event ever. It also holds an enviable record-breaking title of the most attended annual concert in Nigeria and London. Tickets for most of the shows do not come cheap. It ranges from N7,000 for regular to N5million for Platinum.

 

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 Atunyota Akporobomeriere (Ali Baba), Tunde Adewale, (Tee A); Gbenga Adeyinka, Julius Agwu and Okey Bakassi, a new crop of young talent has since emerged and they are creatively taking the comedy industry to the next level.

Some of them include Teju Oyelakin (Teju Babyface); Bosede Ogunboye (Lepaciuos Bose); Idowu Noel (Koffi); Francis Agoda (I GO DIE); Godwin Komone (Gordons); Elenu, Bovi Ugboma, and Seyi Law, among others.

Basketmouth

For accepting to be a compere for an event, Basket Mouth charges between N1million and N3 million, depending on the client. Yet, the business exploits of the University of Benin graduate of Sociology are not limited to just the local scene. He has since become a major export, entertaining foreign audiences and earning huge foreign exchange in the process. He has hosted his Nigerian Kings of Comedy show in London, United Kingdom, Austria, among other countries across the globe.

Financial rewards for numerous international engagements have kept many of the comedians on their toes as some of them continue to device other means of increasing their revenue. For instance, Bovi combines stand-up comedy with script writing and other activities. “I am a writer, an actor, a comedian and a salesman. That’s four streams of income,” he says.

The young and hardworking comedian, who cut his teeth in the comedy industry as a personal assistant to veteran actor, Richard Mofe-Damijo, says the secret of his success is consistency.

“One show cannot propel a comedian to the top. I try to be consistent because you are only as good as your last performance. I work hard like every show is my first and last,” he explains.

Two notable comedians, Koffi and Teju Babyface, also attribute their rise to fame and fortune in the comedy business to hard work and consistency. Teju Babyface lays emphasis on consistency in his motivational book, ‘On the Street.’

Despite coming from a privileged background, he has made a huge fortune through his Teju Babyface Show, a comic TV programme aimed at providing fun and entertainment to TV viewers. The one-hour show has hosted various captains of industries and celebrities and won hearts of viewers and corporate advertisers such as Indomie Noodles, Loya Milk, Arik Air, Haier Thermocool, among others.

 

Akpororo

However, the business is not the exclusive preserve of male comedians as some female comedians also record outstanding performances in the industry. Notable female comedians who can and, indeed, have been holding their own much to the admiration of their male counterparts include Lepaciuos Bose and Dr. Helen Paul, popularly called Tatafo.

“I won’t lie to you, it was hunger that made me to come into the industry. When I finished Law School, I went back to school to study Theatre Arts and still couldn’t make ends meet. But since I joined the industry, I thank God,” Lepacious recounts.

At the global level, she has performed for the Mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg. At home, she anchored the wedding of the daughter of late President Umar Yar’Adua. But she declined to disclose what she charges “due to security reasons.”

These entertainers-cum-budding entrepreneurs would probably not have emerged but for the pioneering efforts of Ali Baba. For many Nigerians, who are conscious of the comedy sector of the showbiz circle, Ali Baba’s name is not only synonymous with stand-up comedy in Nigeria, but he, more or less, personifies the art of stand-up comedy. Ali Baba is believed to be the pioneer of modern Nigerian comedy. Koffi admits that much, saying, “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 for me, because I was not expecting much from a man that was not related to me.”

Lepaciuos Bose could not agree less on the place of Ali Baba in the industry. She says, “The comedy business is fast becoming an industry and has been growing in the last 20 years due to innovation introduced by Ali Baba. He taught us branding and made us to 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 seriously.”

However, like any other industry, comedy business is not without its challenges. One of them is finance. Organising a good show does not come cheap. A good comedy show, according to practitioners, costs between N20 million and N50 million or more and in some cases tickets sales usually do not cover the cost.

Due to the high cost, some artistes opt for corporate sponsorships. AY initially had a barter arrangement with the Federal Palace Hotel for his shows some years back.  For Basket Mouth, what the industry needs now is greater support from government and private organisations in the area of sponsorships so that artistes can better provide entertainment to the masses.

“A lot could be improved upon in terms of content, if there is support. A few organisations have done incredibly well in this area and have shown a keen interest in the development of the entertainment industry in Nigeria; we would like more players and investors to come forward and identify with all the talents we have in this country because the potential is limitless,”
he says.