BY CHUKS NWANNE
His kids were having a ‘swell’ time in the swimming pool when I arrived his Ikoyi residence with some colleagues, who also desired an interview. However, the ace comedian, Ali Baba was said to be out with his wife, Mary. He was aware of my visit, so, I waited -- busy scanning through some colourful magazines placed on the centre table.
Ali soon arrived in a Range Rover SUV with his wife; he hopped out of the car...
“I’m very sorry guys, it was traffic. I actually told them to inform me when you are here, but the road was very tight, I’m so sorry about that.”
He led the team through his sitting room.
to his private library.
Time was in this land when nobody would dare introduced himself as a comedian publicly. Those who did anything close it preferred to be called Masters-of-Ceremony (MC); it was more prestigious to go by the appellation of an MC than to be associated with a bunch of people, then, described as ‘never do well.’
But the industry witnessed the arrival of Atoyota Alleluya Akpobome, better known as Ali Baba; and the rhythm changed... forever!!!
A 1990 graduate of Religious Studies/Philosophy from the then Bendel State University (now Ambrose Ali University) Ekpoma, he dared the odds of negative public perceptrion to make it big in comedy. That way he dusted the quite impressive record of his precursors such as the late John Chukwu (JC), Tony St. Iyke and much later, Jude Away Away. Those were good, great men but they did not take Comedy to the level -- (forking out big doughs from the purse of big corporate spenders and the State houses) -- Ali Baba did
Since he hit the scene in 1993, he has stepped ever higher. In fact, right from the beginning, the Edo State native was set out to play in the big league; a deliberate move that took him years to nurture and package.
By 1998, Ali registered his company, Ali Baba Hiccupurathird; that was the year he erected three billboards in strategic locations in Lagos -- Ozumba Mbadiwe Street, Victoria Island; Osborne Road, Ikoyi; and the Marina. He actually paid N150,000 for each billboard per year, for two years. The billboards carried a simple message, ‘Ali Baba — Being Funny is Serious Business.’
That signaled the transformation in the comedy business in the country.
Today, it is generally agreed that it’s Ali that gave comedy the beautiful face it wears in Nigeria. He became the first comedian to be well paid in the country. You now see him driving around town in a Monster Truck with a personalized plate number ‘Ali Baba 1.’ The other car, Dodge Ram, acquired as showbiz apparatus, is registered as ‘Ali Baba 2.’
The King of Comedy will this year, be 20 on stage as a professional comedian, so, I decided to pay him a special visit, which was quite revealing.
“By September this year, I will be 20 years in the industry; I actually started professional comedy after my university education, when I came into Lagos in 1990. I’m really looking forward to marking the day in a big way, using it as a platform to give back to the society,” he reveals.
Though Ali started comedy back in his university days, the quest for greener pasture forced him to relocate to Lagos. “There were hints then, that this business was something I should work hard on. My Dad was giving me N120 monthly as pocket money when I was in school. As at that time, N120 was a lot of money; we had parents whose salary then were like N500, N600, N700… if you earned up to N1000 then, you were a big boy!”
From earning N80 to N100 per show, for making people laugh, Ali Baba reasoned that the comedy could fetch him serious money if well packaged.
“I did one show in the University of Benin that gave me N600. So, I figured that, if I could earn that kind of money within a month, and I do up to five events, it meant that if I could do it more professionally, I would earn more money.”
He continued: “All the schools in Edo State then, even in the University of Port Harcourt, their highest pay was N500. But Therapy students of LUTH, could pay N1000; the clubs in the University of Lagos paid N1200 and YABATECH students paid up to N1000 per show. So, I figured that Lagos possessed a lot more potentials for me,” he recalled.
In coming to Lagos, the comedian made up his mind to do his business professionally, which made him to invest heavily in the art.
“For something to become a profession, you have to make up your mind that you are going to do everything to enhance yourself, improve the skill and the service that you offer.
“So, those were the things that I had started doing that time. Before then, I was doing it just for fun; there was no preparation towards event. But when I came to Lagos and started charging big money, it occurred to me that if anybody came and said, ‘we need you to do this and that,’ I work and prepare towards it. That’s how I started making it a professional.”
In doing so, Ali Baba was making rules and at the same time, breaking them.
“There were no precedents to follow,” he noted. “It’s not as if I woke up one day and decided to build an industry; it was just about doing something I love doing and doing it well. But gradually, I think some people took notice of what I was doing. But 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. So, it was like, if for any reason at all somebody paid you to perform, then the person should get the worth of his financial commitment.”
Aside from low level of appreciation, Ali’s father was another big hurdle.
“My Dad needed me to prove to him why I didn’t want to study Law; everything I did was in trying to prove him wrong and showing I was right. My uncle, who I complained to that my Dad refused to pay my school fees when I refused to change to Law in my second year, would ask, ‘tell me, who are the people in this profession you look up to as mentors?’ At that time, who were the people you are to look up to… Natty, Zebrudaya, Papa Ajasco? By the time I came on board, John Chukwu was out of the scene; it would have been nice to say, ‘ok, see John Chukwu.’ But the man was already dead by then.”
Despite the challenges, Ali’s strongest driving force at that time, was the fact that if the audiences encountered the services he was offering, the money they paid would be justified.
“This section here, were the things that actually set me on my path; they were the only things that I had in my box when I came to Lagos,” he said, pointing at Reader’s Digest on his shelves, which contains all sorts of jokes. “The military were in power that time, so we needed some of all those things to continuously boost the services that were offered.”
Ali recalled how his uncle threw him out of his 1004 apartment in Lagos, just because of comedy.
“I just got back one day – I still remember Tokunbo Ajayi was reading the news – and the man said I should come downstairs. He just told me, ‘this is the last night you are spending in my house,” he said shaking his head.
What was his reason?
“He said he had children in the house that he didn’t want to believe that living a late night life and coming back was the way to go. It’s not as if I wasn’t making money,” he noted. “As at the time I came to Lagos, I was already charging N1000, N2000 per show; some of my guys that just came from NYSC, who were in paid employment, were earning like N3000. So, I was like, ‘if I could get four-five of these events in a month, then I was doing better than those guys who were bankers, lawyers and so on. The challenges were there, but the driving force was that this is something that would benefit me later.”
So what happened when you left your uncle’s house?
“I got another apartment; it was very big.”
Where was that?
“Lagos Bar Beach,” he said with laughter. “It was a beautiful place; there was no need for air-conditioner; you didn’t have to pay light bill and the place was close to NTA, so there’s proximity.”
You lived on the beach?
“Yes, the guy that was housing me then, his name is Lati... Then, the bar beach was still far from the dry land, so, you had huts made in an ‘E’ shape. You have these chairs that fold, which they give to you and that’s where you sleep. Before 6am in the morning, you arranged for people that would give you warm water to take your bath. After you’ve had your bath and breakfast, then you resume with every other person; we all lived on the Island,” he said.
Between 1990-91, when things were not falling in place yet, Ali Baba decided to go for his NYSC, where he served with the Abuja Council for Arts and Culture.
“After the one year, I came back and did some Charly Boy Show. I also did Friday Night Life, and Night Train with Bisi Olatilo on the NTA network; the show was created by Danladi Bako.”
For the comedian, Friday Night was a big stage to showcase his talent.
“Everybody looked forward to it because the show (indicated) where things would happen in town. That was a launch pad for me because, a lot of people, who saw me on Charly Boy Show, thought the show was scripted for me, but Friday Night was live. There was even a time I did a request for comedy; people asked for jokes on different areas, and I gave it out immediately. I really had a lot of things to prove and that kept me going.”
The highpoint of Ali Baba’a career was when Guinness launched Satzenbrau beer in Nigeria.
“Thank God for Satzenbrau; they came in and were doing a nationwide tour. That was my first time of holding N1.5 million cheque. Since then, it’s been tough, but to God be the glory.”
Though established in the industry, the King of Comedy is bent on maintaining his status as a frontliner in the business. He is not fazed by the number of comedians coming up on a daily basis.
“I want to remain on top of my performance every time; I don’t want people to be like, ‘ah, I thought you said he’s the best.’ So, I’m still taking things very serious.”
He continued: What I had in mind was that by 2010 when I will be 20 years on stage, there would have been the need for me to cut down on the type of standup comedy I do. For instance, if somebody has an end-of-the-year party and he has an MC, and they called me to just do a 10 to 15 minutes comedy. My plan was to be leaving all those 15 minutes to young comedians, who needed a break to launch into the industry. But I’ve realised that it’s not as if those people don’t see these young comedians, they just wanted you to add colours to the night as a person.”
Sometime ago, it was rumored that Ali Baba had retired after staging his last show, but the comedian informed that, “some people asked me, ‘Ali, if you leave comedy now, what structure would you be leaving for young comedians to build on?’ I looked back and there was none; except for the fact that we’ve created an industry, there was nothing else. So, we need an institution that will regulate, promote and punish erring comedians, and help to improve creativity.”
Improving creativity, according to Ali, includes giving copyright and ownership to jokes.
“This means that 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 joke in a show and the organisers will put those jokes on CDs for sale, without paying royalty to the original owners of the jokes.”
Though Ali Baba is still keeping plans for his 20th Anniversary personal, there are indications that there’s going to be a line up of activities to mark the event.
“Not all of it will be in the press. We’ve discovered that over the years, when we put things on papers about what we plan to do, before you know it, somebody picks it and that’s all. We are keeping them under wrap, but what I want to assure you is that, they are going to match my status,” he boasted.
Rewarding deserving students is also part of Ali Baba’s plan.
“These days, we don’t reward hardwork. Those days, you hear that people don’t pay school fees because they are doing well in school; it makes you want to belong to that class. Some people even got free school uniforms because of their records in school. We want to do a whole lot of that, but we don’t want people to see them as publicity; it’s going to be entirely charity. We plan to have a 24 hours comedy TV channel; we are still working on that.”
Ask about his biggest achievement in life, the comedian said, “coming from nowhere to where I am today is one of the sweetest things in my life; my Dad is a retired soldier man and my Mum is a farmer. If you think back from that point to here, it will be a mark of ingratitude to say that God has not done well. Sometimes, people ask me, ‘what are the regrets?’ And I tell them ‘none’. Look at me…my life right now is a boost; I’m sure my Dad will never tell somebody that he tried to discourage me from doing comedy.”
But on a lighter side, Ali informed that, ‘it’s my children that 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.”
As far as Ali is concerned, the future is bright for Nigerian comedians.
“Before, people do not know how much comedians are paid. But thank God that top comedians in the country are blowing up and they are getting respect from people. Look at Julius Agwu, Baskethmouth, Tee A, Okey Bakassi, AY… they are all doing well and we thank God for that.”