Atunyota Alleluya Akpobome, better known as Ali Baba, single handedly, changed the face of comedy in Nigeria. From the back seat where it used to be, he transported the business of making people laugh and cracking ribs to the front row; establishing it as a profession that many now lay claim to practicing happily and even pocketing millions from. Cerebral and charismatic, generous and gregarious, Ali is always there to lend a helping hand to the upcoming ones. Little wonder his home is always a beehive of activities. He joined the golden club on Wednesday, June 24, 2015 and YES INTERNATIONAL ! Magazine Publisher/Editor-in-Chief, AZUH ARINZE, couldn’t resist visiting his Lekki, Lagos home for an exclusive interview. It was his first for the day and also barely hours into his clocking 50. Amidst the frenzy of activities at his wondrous home that morning – workers fixing this and that; colleagues and also family members wishing him well and praying for more showers of blessings on him and his business; event organisers setting up at his pool side for a party that will soon follow – we retired to his very rich library and for about an hour, the Agbarha-Otor, Delta State born Religious Studies & Philosophy graduate of Ambrose Alli University examined his life at 50, what got him where he is today, his unfulfilled dreams and more. Much more. Enjoy…
How does it feel to be 50?
I don’t feel it! For me, it’s just the fact that people have been shouting 50, 50…But I don’t feel any different.
What was the first thing you did when you woke up this morning? (Wednesday, June 24)
The first thing I did when I woke up this morning was to kiss my wife (Mary) on the forehead (Laughter) and tell her thank you and then she got up to go and sort some things out because I didn’t sleep till about 2am. I was downstairs here while people were cleaning and clearing a lot of stuff because we are expecting guests… Because of that, I ate very late and I didn’t brush my mouth. So, when I woke up this morning and I kissed her (wife) on the forehead; when I said kiss baby, she said your mouth is smelling, go and brush, go and brush. But I woke up and said a few words of prayer and then went downstairs to see my mum.
Was there any special or specific request that you made to God this morning?
The only thing I said is I just thank You. That was all. Sometimes there’s no need to ask for anything. You just say thank you; thank you for my life, thank you for health, thank you for provision, thank you for protection, because we are on the road every now and then, you are in the sky every now and then and you go out and come back and nothing has happened. So, you probably take it for granted that there’s a lot to thank God for.
What is going to change about Ali Baba now that you are 50?
Oh, there’s a lot. I’ve stopped eating meat; I would start travelling more, I would see a lot more movies. There are so many movies that I should have seen and I have a book here that says a thousand movies to see before you die and I think I’ve not gotten up to like 30. So, I need to finish with all those ones. But above all, it is that there are things I need to begin to do. I need to use my platforms to grow a lot more comedians and to begin to leave a legacy that a lot more people that are coming behind us can follow.
What would you describe as your greatest achievement at 50?
Beside staying alive, the greatest achievement would be the fact that I have been able to redefine comedy in the standup sense, because comedy was there before I came on. Dem Baba Sala, Papi Luwe, Zebrudaya were all comedians. Though some of them were just tube comedians. Some of them were also live comedians like Gbenga Adeboye. He was a comedian in real life, but I helped to redefine standup comedy.
What were some of the targets you set for yourself at 50 that you’ve not been able to achieve?
One is that I will be able to speak French (Laughter). Yes! I thought I will be able to speak French, I also thought that I will be able to play the keyboard and the saxophone very well now. I was on the way to playing the saxophone, but what happened? From the time of Lagbaja, at Sea Gardens was when I bought my sax and started playing bit by bit. But what happens with sax is that if you leave it for 2 days, it leaves you. Those were two things. Then the third thing that I’ve not been able to do is to get a PhD. I thought I would get a PhD in Mass Communication and Media Studies, because I would like to teach in the twilight of my years.
Comedy has done a lot for you, what has comedy not done for you?
Comedy has not been able to give me dual citizenship, comedy has not been able to make people see me as someone who…It’s controversial though. I thought with comedy people would get to recognize you as a professional in the true sense of the word. Professional in the sense that you are a professional like a lawyer, you are a professional like a doctor. It’s getting there, but it hasn’t yet. But I know it will, because people still give you forms to fill and they will put other professions there and you don’t see comedian. The best you can see is entertainer.
What would you describe as the single greatest thing that comedy has done for you?
It got me presidential acceptance, and not many people have performed in the presence of like six, seven presidents. I’ve done that and more. In Nigeria and outside Nigeria. Comedy has been able to open doors that would not have opened…For a lot of people who went the way I have gone, not many of them have been able to open the doors.
What singular event turned around your life as a comedian?
It’s the birthday party for Obasanjo in 2000.
What mistake must a comedian not make?
It’s repeating a joke that you have told before at the same event.
What is the wisest decision that any comedian can take?
Read and expand your knowledge.
Where do most comedians get it wrong?
Thinking that their talent is enough to get them to where they are going. Because the thing is that talent is not enough. You can be talented as a comedian, but if you don’t know how to package yourself, you will miss it; if you don’t know who to work with, you will miss it; if you don’t know when to say no, you will miss it. You also would get it wrong if you think that you are the best, so there’s no need to improve on yourself. You would also get it wrong if you think that the jokes that you told 4 months ago, nobody else will tell them and then prepare to tell those same jokes again 8 months after. What you can do is to just be spontaneous. Comedians that are not spontaneous are the ones that are dragging their careers by the neck.
What is the best way to attain success and also to be able to sustain it in comedy?
To deliver service. Consider anything that you are doing as a service that you are providing. So, if you are a lawyer, you are providing a service; the service is getting people out of trouble. If you are a musician, you are providing a service – people can listen to you and be impressed or be soothed or be happy. If you are a photographer, it’s the quality of your pictures that makes somebody say oh, I like the services we got from so, so and so person. If for instance you employ a maiguard, it is not the fact that he’s tall, he has broad shoulders; it’s the fact that he can keep people away from the scene and alert you when there’s a problem, open the gate when the gate needs to be opened that shows that he’s a good maiguard. It is service delivery. So, if the service you are delivering is not good, forget it.
What makes a good comedian?
Well, a good comedian is someone who can relate the experiences he has had with what is happening right now or bring the experiences he has had to the people that are listening to him in a very humorous way and also be able to turn around anything that people may not even have thought about in a funny way.
What makes a good joke?
A good joke must have a good set up, a good story and a punch line. So, once a story starts properly and you have built the punch line, you’ve set it up properly, you can now drop the punch line anywhere. And then the best joke is the one that has several punch lines in-between the story before you get to the major punch line. So, you find sometimes when a comedian is telling a joke, before he gets to the punch line people have laughed and laughed and laughed and laughed and then he gets to the punch line and drops it. That’s a combo! That’s a jumbo joke! Those are the kind of jokes I love and by the way, those kind of jokes are not every day jokes that you can tell everywhere because you are limited by time these days. So, if they tell you to come on stage, you have only 3,4,5 minutes, it is not the time to be working on a jumbo joke. All you need are one-liners. You throw the one-liners in, in, in, in, in…like that and make as many jokes as possible. Which is the down side. If you do 12 jokes and 12 of them have beautiful punch lines, you will be considered a better comedian than somebody who has one joke that he keeps talking and talking, and when he wants to end, they will say oh, he told a joke about a farmer. Meanwhile, he spent 10 minutes to tell the joke about the farmer. There are several lapses inside. For the person that tells a joke about the doctor, tells a joke about the politician, tells a joke about himself, his mother, children, this one, that one, by the time he finishes, somebody will say that’s a consummate comedian. Because he has a lot of experience, all woven into his art. On the other hand, you have another one who is a seasoned comedian, but because he likes to tell one story, people won’t think that he’s as funny as the person that was telling different jokes that everybody could relate with. Because as you are telling that long joke, maybe four, five people may not relate with it. But the other one, as you are telling it and going from here to here, you are talking about Ibadan, you are talking about politicians, you are talking about elections, you are talking about this, you’ve done about 12 jokes in the same time that somebody did just one joke. So, your points of reference are a lot more than the person that did just a joke.
What stands Ali Baba out?
Beside the fact that I had a head start , the other thing is that I’ve been there, done that and sometimes 20 to 30 to 40 percent of some of the jokes that are being told now, I had told a long time back and some of them are refurbished, some of them took a new turn. So, for instance, if I said there was a doctor that did this, then the person who wants to tell the story now will say there’s an accountant ; I will say one day one Yoruba man was going, the person says one Igbo man was…So, those are the things that really set me apart . Besides that, it’s my spontaneity. My spontaneity is the fact that you can wake me up in 20 minutes and say Ali there’s a show, I will go to the place and still do it. Then, the other thing that also stands me out is the fact that I can make sacrifices. Somebody calls me, he says Ali, we have a show, we will pay you 800k. I will say ah, 800k is small o! Can you do N1.5 million? They guy says no and I (will) say what is the date that you are talking about? He tells me and I say oh, I’m booked for that day. I may not have a show, but I may say that because I know that some other comedian needs that show to fly. And then I probably will even recommend the comedian.
What is the greatest lesson that life has taught you at 50?
Okay! The greatest lesson life has taught me is that there’s no talent anybody has that is for him. Every talent you have was given to you to entertain others. Your ability to write; you don’t write to read for yourself, you write for people to enjoy; you sing; you sing for people to enjoy; you are a great fighter, you must fight for some people to enjoy. So, it’s either you fight to protect the city, you fight to protect yourself or some people…But the thing is that every talent that we all have is for the good of the whole community. So, that’s one thing that I have learnt, and that if you do not develop any talent that God has given you; probably you are blocking the blessings of some other people that should have blown from that place. Let’s say God makes you a great singer, somebody is actually like the best manager that money can find and all he’s been waiting for is you. So, the guy dies being somebody’s PR manager when he should have been a manager to you. You will find some people who until GSM services came, they were hustling and hustling. They tried their hands in all kinds of businesses, but now they are billionaires from selling recharge cards, from doing telecoms business and all of that. There are some people whose businesses have taken off because of the advent of GSM – like Konga, like Jumia and the rest of them. You can even see that a lot more services are coming because of internet and because of the GSM providers. So, that’s what I’m saying. It is that whatever talent you get and whatever abilities God has given to you; look at Usain Bolt. Today, I’m sure the advertisers are benefiting from his ability to run. There’s a doctor that is benefitting from his ability to work. So, there is an allied responsibility that his career has provided for other people.
It’s obvious that God has been nice to you at 50, what more do you want from Him?
Well, long life and the ability to continue to be of service to a lot of people. It’s hard to see that we do not provide foundation for people and so my prayer is that I’m telling God to make sure that He can empower me in a way that I can make a difference, in their lives. Because I think that there’s hardly anything that I want and I think there are a lot of young men out there that are waiting for a miracle, but unless you are crippled, blind, deaf and have some medical conditions at the same time, there’s hardly a reason or an excuse for not being successful , because you owe your success as a responsibility to some other people. And I say this with all sense of responsibility. It’s like you go somewhere, and you see some men of about 45, 50 years coming to tell you oga, give me something and you see them do this every day. What it means is that this is somebody who begs to train or take care of his family. So, the wife and children are all dependent on that, when it is hard for people who earn a living (Laughter). People who earn like a hundred and N200,000 are complaining, how hard would it be for someone who wakes up in the morning and goes to a place like Eko Hotel, Muson Centre, National Stadium, National Theatre just to make sure oh, as anybody comes in, he will go meet them, oga, your boys are here , give us something. That’s to tell you that there’s an orientation that we need to re-jig.
Can you single out one individual that gave you the greatest encouragement when you were starting out and what specifically the person did?
That will be Edi Lawani…
What did he do?
Edi Lawani came to Ekpoma with Charly Boy and Shina Peters or so for a concert and I did some standup routine and the guy said Ali, I think you can do better than this and if you come to Lagos, come, I’m the Administrative Secretary of PMAN, I’m into music, managing music, but the thing is that I know people. Come and I can introduce you to three, four people that make things happen. So, I said okay, thank you. He said yes, anytime at all that you come to Lagos, come to me. He gave me his card that had that PMAN triangle and on it was written Edi Lawani, Administrative Secretary. So, when I came, I looked for him and he started giving me his card that he wrote behind the card and most of the things he wrote behind were like to Roots Niteclub, to The Lord’s Niteclub, to Peak Niteclub, to Jazz Ville, to Niteshift and all those places. He said take, tell them I sent you, they will give you 5 minutes so that you can do your thing. And to Klass Niteclub too. He gave me to Charly Boy, he gave me to Mustapha Amego, Dapo Adelegan. And most of all those people that I went to now became catalysts in my growth. That’s why I said you could trace it to one singular factor. Because as I went to those people and they gave me platforms, it just exploded.