Star comedian, Ali Baba has really come a long way. On Friday, June 4, 2010, the king of comedy hosted ENCOMIUM Weekly’s Leke Adeneye, at his home, off Queen’s Drive, Ikoyi, Lagos. Leaving behind his intimidating garage packed full of wonder-on-wheels, as well as his family and ‘dogpound’ of rare breeds, he cruised across the Lagos Lagoon, from Ikoyi to Victoria Island on board of Tarzan Jetty facility, making 20 inspiring comments on his 20 years in comedy.
Let us asses your 20 years in comedy.
The initial challenges were strong, bit surmounted. The problems had to be there because there was no precedence. And it was a new kind of business, not many Nigerians were aware of. It was like breaking a new ground.
How did you surmount them?
I was making up rules. I was reading and watching people in other business, because I was doing it like a business. Everything I did was always assessed in order to do the better. Then, books helped. I read books on negotiation, customer relations, keeping customers, how to make customers come back, service delivery and how to market yourself. So, I got on by doing that and watching people in business.
What are the challenges facing the comedy profession today?
Quacks! Just like in every other profession, they just jump into it because they see some people in it doing fine. But they jump in with nothing to deliver. They have no commitment to it. They are in it just for commercial reasons. And the big problem is that they don’t have materials. They feast on the materials of people, who are grounded and tested in the business. They live off other people’s jokes.
Another problem is people not wanting to pay due value for service, not wanting to pay what you demand. They behave as if your service does not really matter, but if you fail to show up, they will tell you that you messed up the whole event, which means the whole event was anchored on you.
So, what is being done now to check the quacks?
Regulation is part of it. Then, our anti-piracy laws seem non-existent. Elsewhere, comedians pay when they use another comedian’s joke. But here, nobody pays such. For instance, I create a joke for an event, somebody uses it and I see them selling it on the street, and there’s my joke on the CD.
By the time the person pays, anytime he wants to use a comedian’s stuff again, he will ask, “Is this your joke? If so, write that it’s your own”. So if you now sue the producer, he can then produce papers given by the defaulting comedian. He can even sue the comedian for copyright infringement after he must have paid damages to the real owner. In a sort while from now, this will take effect.
What is your personal role in all this, being the contemporary king of comedy?
We hold meeting, but I think the issue is just laziness. If all comedians work hard, everyone of them will have his own jokes. And this is what we inculcating in then now. Another role I play is making sure there are enough jobs to go round. Trying to encourage the senior colleagues to stay away from all those small events meant for starters and juniors. If a big comedian is doing naming ceremonies, birthday parties, house warming and all that, what will the upcoming comedian do? So, we host meeting to see that all of that is sorted. We also talk to them one-on-one. But our ultimate goal is making them know that the more jokes you make for yourself, the more self-reliant you can be.
20 years ago when you started, did you envisage coming this far?
No. initially, I thought it was going to be a stepping stone to something else. Because it just provided certain things at that time. But I later realized it was an accepted form of entertainment. It never harmed me nor anyone else. It was new to Nigerians and welcomed greatly. And the cost of going into it is low. You don’t need to get equipment.
As long as you have your voice, your hear, and you can think straight. Another thing for me is that us fulfills a lot of things financially. When I was in school, my dad used to send me N120 monthly for feeding, transportation, hideouts and toiletries. But there I was as a comedian earning that amount per show. It meant if I had five shows in a month, it was lucrative. So, I knew that with the way it was, if I worked at it, it would do more.
So, what are the really high points on easy recall?
One was performing at Lekki Sunplash years ago. The, I also remember clearly when people came back about ten years later to tell me they were really interested in what I was doing, forgetting that when I needed their platform, they didn’t give it. There was another point when I discovered I was undervaluing myself. After I left the Ambrose Alli University, I was still negotiating in hundreds.
So, one day, someone sought for my service and I told him I wanted eight. He said six and I said I said if he wasn’t paying eight, he should forget it. So, he agreed to pay me seven before the show and the remaining one after the show. He brought me N7,000. I thought he was negotiating in hundreds, like I was doing. So, it immediately occurred to me that was more to it. Those were key turning points. Every event you anchor opportunity to sell yourself. Since I realize that, I made my mind to give my best at every event.
What are the things comedy has done for you in these 20 years?
Job satisfaction. It has made me acceptable before kings. And above all, it has given me popularity. You know some are popular for the wrong reasons. Comedy has made me to benefits from a lot of people. And it has given me the grace to provide for my family. It has also helped to shape my understanding of people. In short, it has provided happiness for me.
How do you charge for your service now?
I am not so free to disclose my charges openly again because it may be misunderstood deliberately by some customers. But my lowest fee is free. Sometimes it is for charity, sometimes it is free because of the personality behind the event. Sometimes it is determined by the situation of your clients pleading with you to come and perform, and save an embarrassing situation.
Then, networking is another reason, and it may also coincide with a holiday. One other reason is when you do it to honour a personality. Maybe the person is 100 or 90 or an inspiration, and you just feel like honouring such a personality. In some situations, the client calls you and says just do this job as a breakthrough, just like trap. Let’s say a Mike Adenuga or Femi Otedola or Dangote says, “Ali, what are you doing? I am doing so and so, come and anchor it for me”. You just go. They ask how much, you say don’t worry. And you just do it. Then the person decided on his own to just get you well paid as appreciation.
Charging up to N1 million as service fee used to be your dream, at what time did you realize it and how?
I can’t remember when it happened exactly, but the first million that I got was N1.6 million or so. And it was paid to me by Guinness for Satzenbrau. I think it was in 1996. It was my first major bank draft and it was a turning point for me. For a Warri boy of an average family, whose job was considered for the never-do-wells, by 1996, I was already a millionaire.
Who is that person that has made the greatest impact or encouragement on your comedy career?
There’s no singular person. Because one person’s effort led some others. It was a chain of support. The first person that gave me a note was Edi Lawani. He came to Ekpoma (my university campus), he saw me and gave me a note. He said, ‘come to Lagos and see me”. Then he was the administrative secretary of PMAN. So, I came to Lagos and I met him. He said, “I don’t anywhere you can perform, but I can point you here and there”. So, he sent me to the Guv’nor of Niteshift, Eddy at Class Night Club, another person at Jabita Nightclub, tell them I sent you. So, every time I did that, the door was always opening. Then, from all of those places, a lot of people got to know me. The second major impact cam through the defunct Patrick Doyle Show on NTA. Though the show, people started knowing me for being spontaneously funny.
A lot of people called Patrick Doyle to say my jokes were not funny, but Patrick would always insist that I was funny. He really stood by me. Lai Arasanmi of blessed memory, Danladi Bako of Morning Ride fame, and Bisi Olatilo too. There were many others who helped me in ways you could not readily see. Ajaloko, the wrestler and Sylvester Oseghede, who gave me accommodation for a while in Yabatech, whose father didn’t want to accommodate me, but he accommodated me for a while.
Who were those that discouraged you?
There was no direct discouragement as such. Only those who didn’t believe and there’s no need to mention their names here. They know themselves. The best way to deal with somebody who says you can’t make it. So, when he sees you successful, he will be too ashamed to acknowledge in past disbelief. Such people, they see you at an event, they want to buy you champagne and stuff, just to make up.
What inspires you joke?
The bills I have to pay. When you have bills to pay, you have to be funny, you will be broke. It is a very good logic.
We understand that jokes are often inspired, then prepared, of dev and delivered carefully, how do you do yours?
With experience, when jokes are inspired, you just save it. Something happens, you save it away in your head. One of these days, it becomes relevant during your performance. It fits in just like into a puzzle. In addition, there is the need to test your jokes to know if they are good and working. And for the delivery, timing and relevance matter most.
Even when a joke is relevant to a particular audience, you should also consider whether the joke is good at the time. The language of delivery, the audience, the opportunity. But above all, you have to be prepared always.
What is your unique selling point?
I have a head start. I started earlier than all of them. It’s like Nokia with about 46 percent shares of the market, and 52 for the other brands to share. That’s how I am to them. Sometimes some things even happen and shake up the status quo, but if you are consistent, dynamic and never remain stagnant with your ideas and creativity, of course, you will have an edge all the time. Sometimes you hear if it were not for money to pay, they will come for you.
So, when it’s time for the big boys to play, if there’s only one person that comes to mind, it is Ali Baba. Besides, you ability to relate with these people. There’s thin line between being funny and being offensive. So, you have to tread it careful in order not to step on toes and hurt anyone.
Since your segment on Patrick Doyle’s show on TV gave you great fame, why did you rest your TV show, Tom, Dick an Ali? Will we ever see you on TV again?
Yes. We are working on something big, but let’s be silent about that now. It was a class of services that made us top.
What’s your greatest achievement in comedy?
I think it is the ability to have with the Mohammed Danjumas, Okey Bakassis, Basorge Tariah Jnr, Allam Blows, Yibo Kokoks to create an industry that people can live off now. It is pioneering a profession that people looked down on, taking it to an enviable and rich height.
Since your sense of purpose is in comedy, with this far you’ve come, do you feel fulfilled already?
No, but I am satisfied and content and there’s still more to be done. Nobody says it is finished. Only Jesus said it. But that was even the beginning.
- This story was first published in ENCOMIUM Weekly on Tuesday, June 8, 2010