Popularly called the king of comedy, Atunyota Akpobome, aka Alibaba, speaks with JOY MARCUS about his life as a comedian
You are regarded by many as the king of comedy. What are some of the special qualities that have kept you going?
I believe that stand-up comedy is about being creatively relevant. Being creatively relevant means that you constantly do what people can connect with. The reason I am still here is because there are certain things I still do right that make a lot of clients and customers still call for my services.
A lot of comedians that you mentored seem to have become so successful that they don’t even talk about you anymore. Do you think they are ungrateful?
I don’t think so. I have a very good relationship with many of them and I don’t sense any ingratitude from them.
Have you ever felt a bit of jealousy towards them (younger colleagues) with the way they flaunt their wealth, which makes many think they are richer than you?
You see, society has built the criteria for measuring wealth that may not be so correct. That a person wears expensive shoes, drives an expensive car or wears an expensive wristwatch does not mean that person is richer than someone who is not driving an expensive car. Like they say, the money a barren woman uses to buy jewellery is the same money that a mother uses to train her children in school. So, when you see a woman that does not have children, you will see her always adorned in beautiful attire, but the mother of four children would rather spend the money on her children. This tells you that everyone has different priorities. Society likes to use wealth to define success, but it is not accurate in all cases. However, it is alright when you have succeeded in something and you want to celebrate your success. Also, there is something called old money. You can’t compare the money somebody has made for years with the kind of money a person is just making, because the old money would have had so much investment.
Thirty years ago when you started comedy, the act was not so popular. How did you overcome the struggles that came with people not believing in your craft?
I was able to overcome the struggle because I presented my talent as a service, and not a means of enjoyment. I drew the line between a hobby and a career. If you know how to sing and decide to do so only in church, then you are not commercialising your talent. But if you want people to pay for it, you have to package it as a service and present it to those who need that service. So, from the start, I identified that I had a talent and worked so hard to make sure that it was a service that some corporate organisations and individuals needed.
Did you have experiences that discouraged or encouraged you while you were starting out?
I had so many experiences. One was the fact that I was getting N100 from my dad as my monthly allowance. Then, I started earning N250 in a month from doing shows as far back as 1988. It was a good indication, and that was one of the things that encouraged me. The second thing was my interpersonal relationship with the people in school. I became popular and more people got to know me – some of who I ordinarily would not have spoken with. I also found that there were people who made careers out of comedy in the western world; so, I thought that I must do it.
However, the lack of appreciation for the art as something people could pay fees for was a downside. It made me feel that I would have to hustle very hard because there was no precedence, unlike now that we have cleared the road. Now, you will see a comedian starts and in less than two or three years, if he is good, he would have made it big. Meanwhile, when we started, the process took years. I think my big break came about seven years after I started my career. That will give you an indication or an insight into the fact that it took a while. But then, we had to lay the bricks, mould the mortar and clear the path.
What particular event gave you your big break?
It was a series of events, which led to the event that made me realise that this career was the right choice. At a time in school, I was earning between N80 and N50 per show. Then, students of Yaba College of Technology invited me and paid me N150; that was around 1988 and 1989. At another time, some students called me from the University of Lagos and they paid me N200. Then, the psychotherapy students association of the Lagos State University invited me in 1989 and paid me about N300. All these indices served as proof that it was something that I needed to do.
How do you feel being regarded as the king of comedy?
Let me say now that there are many kings of comedy because we have grown to a point where we have several kings. I can name about eight of them who are performing and doing very well. I am very proud of them and most times, I post (on social media) some of the things they do. Also, I encourage them as much as I can. I see myself as someone who had a head start. Even if Mercedes Benz (now) makes the best cars, we know that there were some people who started making cars before them.
Can you recall your first experience with stand-up comedy?
I started in September 1988 at a show in the university. Somebody else was supposed to perform but the person didn’t meet up to expectations; so, I went on stage when the whole place was scattered to make up for it. I wasn’t scared because I was a heckler. Most people knew that I had it in me; so, they were not surprised when they saw me on stage.
You recently cleared the air about living off your ex-wife. Don’t you think it was uncalled for?
Right now, we have a lot of people who were not in that generation when the issue happened and a lot of things are on the Internet now. So, I had to say some things for people to get it right. Without taking away from the successes of their spouses, one can just ask what the wives of some of our top comedians do. Should I be the one that is living any less? That must tell you that there is so much money in the business.
You are always active on social media platforms where you write about the lives of entertainers. Why do you do this?
I want people to understand certain things. You see, there is a misconception that needs to be corrected. Everybody thinks that every celebrity out there is making all the money they are making from acting, music or comedy. So, they jump into it and when they don’t see that kind of money, they get frustrated. There was a need to correct that impression. When I was about to go into acting fully, I told aunty Joke Jacobs about a movie I wanted to act in and the money they were offering me. She said acting was really not like being a master of ceremonies because she does MC jobs too. She gets paid more as a MC than they pay her to act. She told me that acting is a labour of love. If you want to be paid as much as you are worth, you may find some issues because nobody wants to pay you your worth. I understood that, so, I needed to put it out. When people start looking at people who are living large, they forget that it may not be how they live on a daily basis. If an aspiring actress is looking at people such as Kate Henshaw, Genevieve and the rest of them who dress well, they may be misled. Sometimes, those actresses may not have bought those outfits. It may be the designer that gave them the dresses to promote his or her brand. So, when some people see those outfits, they would want to wear them at all costs, that they even spend all their money on it. They forget that the people they are comparing themselves with may have earned more money from the businesses that they had done that is not even acting. So, I needed to make that point clear. I feel that as a forerunner, there is a need to correct some things. I have been in this business for 30 years; so, I know where the bodies are buried. Most times, I tell people that are following our footsteps about what they ought not to do. I also get calls from a lot of people who seek my advice on how to deal with debtors. I just feel that a lot of people can benefit from my knowledge. A lot of people of this generation know little about me. I am an entertainer but the happenings in the country concern me because I have children. There is nothing that I write about that has nothing to do with me. I used to be a columnist with the Daily Times in the 1990s. Then I moved to Thisday newspapers between 2000 and 2001.
Since you want people to benefit from your knowledge, are you considering politics?
No, I am not. With the kind of political dynamics we have, cash reigns and it’s all about who you know. When the purpose of governance is for people to enrich themselves, there is a problem. When there is a constitution and it isn’t followed, that is not right. Many sectors of the economy need strong laws to help them survive but nothing is done. For instance, we have been shouting about piracy for a long time, but the government wouldn’t say anything about it. Meanwhile, there is a lot of money in the entertainment industry and this sector can employ a lot of people, but the people in leadership positions don’t care. We hear that teachers are poorly paid and the quality of teachers has dropped. What this means is that the quality of primary school teachers has also dropped, and if that is the case, it will affect the foundation of the child. The senators and House of Representatives members don’t think that it is important to do anything to correct that but when it comes to electoral processes, they are ready to move the motion. Politics like that can’t work for me and that is why I am not into politics.
What do you think about some of your colleagues who are going into politics?
I talk with a lot of them and some of them have different convictions. For instance, if somebody says there are too many divorces happening, it doesn’t stop any other person from getting married. So, it just depends on your own convictions. For me, I don’t think I can go into politics with the arrangement in place now. Until we have a constitution that is strong enough to make sure that I don’t get robbed at the polls, count me out. People believed that Banky W should have won the election for the Eti-osa Federal Constituency (Lagos) of the Federal House of Representatives. What if the people who wanted the other person were more than the people who wanted Banky? If the constitution were working properly, if Banky felt like checking the votes, he probably could win but with the kind of constitution we have, that may not have happened. So, it is about priorities, political awareness and how committed our political elite are to see that something right is done. If our political elite were serious, we shouldn’t have spent the kind of money we spent on (the recent general) elections if we had adopted digital systems. If we had gone digital, with a phone, one could have voted anywhere. People are voting for Big Brother Nigeria show and other reality shows from wherever they are.
Speaking of the poor quality of teachers, do you think developing education is the sole responsibility of the government, considering the attention Nigerians pay to shows like Big Brother Naija rather than more important issues?
The issue of BBN is like medicine after death because it is already happening. It is like crying over spilt milk. Once we have missed it at the foundation, we can’t complain now because the seed has already been sown. When primary education is already messed up, what we will pass on will be bad fruits. The primary school is where the fruit is planted; then, we begin to cultivate it in secondary school, while it will be harvested in the university.
As an entertainer, who is into different businesses, which do you regard as most profitable?
Many people make a huge mistake which needs to be corrected as fast as possible. People think that it is when your name is mentioned in publicised shows that you are making a lot of money. The shows that are advertised don’t make as much money as private events. You can walk out of a private event with more millions of naira than someone whose name is frequently announced on air. The fact that you are not seeing somebody’s face being called at every public show doesn’t mean the person is not making as much money. It is not about visibility, but about financial credibility. Because you don’t see me perform every other day, unlike the younger colleagues, you conclude that I am not making so much money again. However, I probably will do a Dangote’s wedding or an Otedola event. When you see someone anchoring a show on television, what the person has is visibility. It is not how far but how well.
Do you turn down events?
Yes, I turn down events that are not up to my standard. But I could take the shows because nobody says I cannot charge N300,000 for an event. If I am in the house, nobody will give me the money for not doing anything. However, if I do a show for N300,000, I have cut into the fee range of a young up and coming comedian which will not help the young comedian. Because anytime he is trying to negotiate, they will tell him that I did the show for them for N300,000. This means I have killed that comedian’s career. So, decorum and sacrifices allow me walk out of such situations. I could walk out on a N1million show.
Have there been times you were tempted to accept some of these shows?
Why would I be tempted? I am very comfortable and I am building the industry. Also, I buy cars worth over N5million for young comedians. Beyond that, I do a lot more for them.
It’s no doubt that you were close to the former President Olusegun Obasanjo. Have you ever had any misunderstanding about a joke you made about him?
I am still close to him. There is no joke I have said about him that I have not told him personally. In fact, he has a great sense of humour. I think the only one that he took personal or misunderstood where I was coming from was when his wife passed and he had paid me an advance for her 60th birthday. So, I went to his house to see him. While I was there, I started crying, and he tried to console me saying that he knew I was close to her but I told him that I was crying for my balance. A lot of people felt that I shouldn’t have said that but I think he has a great sense of humour and he understands. However, he has done more than the balance for me.
Why do you think the Federal Government does not employ the services of comedians unlike before?
It is the (Muhammadu) Buhari regime. He is the comedian in the government; so, he does not employ any other. However, we still do lots of events. In spite of what anybody says, we make more money now than we made in the past as entertainers because the values and appreciations have grown.
Are any of your children following your steps?
No, they are not. But if they decide to, I will support them after they must have got their degrees.
How did you come up with the name Alibaba?
It is a ‘corruption’ of my baptismal name, Alleluya. It wasn’t about the Alibaba. It was that the Ali was from Alleluia; then, gradually, people added baba.
Oftentimes, you post text messages that people send to you online. Don’t you feel that they might feel offended?
Most times, when people ask me questions that I can’t address alone, I ask them for permission. However, sometimes I screen out the names of people, so that it doesn’t really hit home.
How did you meet your wife?
I met her in the banking hall when I went to open an account.
What fascinated you about her?
There was this air around her. There were other people in the bank who were relating with me but when she came, she accelerated the process of getting my accounts open and at that time, I was beginning to come into money. So, we constantly met anytime I came to the bank and I thank God for how far we have come.
What were some of the challenges you overcame in the first few years of your marriage?
A lot of impressions are cast on entertainers but it takes people who really understand personalities to filter through, and she was one of those. Not everybody is meant to understand you; there are people who can’t understand you no matter how much you try.
What do you do for fun?
I play football. I attend training as much as I can. If I don’t have an event to attend, I go for training. But when I do, I don’t go because I have to be in the right state of mind.