He needs no introduction.
If stand-up comedy in Nigeria were a country, then Ali Baba (real names Alleluya Atunyota Akporobomeriere) would be the president. And he would probably win with a landslide victory. For one, with the likes of Mohammed Danjuma, Basorge Tariah Jnr and Okey Bakassi, Ali Baba built and redesigned the landscape of contemporary Nigerian comedy. No wonder many, including his contemporaries, still call him Nigeria’s king of comedy.
For someone who was paid fifty naira for his first show in 1988 and once used to sleep at the Lagos bar beach in his early days of hustling; that took a lot of hard work and determination. Today, like he rightly said, or simply for the sake of modesty, if he were to be paid for his collections of original jokes – over 3,000 materials – he would be a billionaire several times over.
In this exclusive interview, Ali Baba, pioneer and successful entrepreneur, who also created the popular #Knock-Knock jokes (among other popular hashtags) on Twitter, takes off the hinges as he reveals himself in a refreshing and expectedly humorous light, like never before, including how he once became a fire-fighter.
SU: You have been into the comedy business for like 23 years now and it certainly must have been a journey of discovery and fulfilment. How has it been for you, your high points and low points?
ALI BABA: Well, it has been very fulfilling and what I can say is that I didn’t expect it to be like this; such a rosy and successful career. Yes, I thought that I was going to make it, but I didn’t think I was going to make it this big.
SU: Everyone knows you as Ali Baba. But when last were you called by your real names, Atunyota Alleluia Akporobomeriere?
ALI BABA: I just got back from the village, because we have a new king there. And anytime I go back there, a lot of them tease me with the name Ali Baba. But the thing is, every one of them calls me Atunyota. And some of them now call me Alleluia, which is where the (name) Ali Baba came from.
SU: If you weren’t doing stand-up comedy, what profession would you have been involved in?
ALI BABA: I would either have been a writer, an advertising practitioner or race car driver. I may be a broadcaster. But one thing I’m very sure of is that I would have been in the arts or entertainment field.
SU: With the benefit of hindsight, how do you think it would have turned out if you had followed the line of your degree – religious studies?
ALI BABA: The thing is that it was not only Christianity religion that was taught in Religious Studies. We studied Hinduism, Islam, Greek, Arabic, Taoism, African traditional religion… different religions. It helped us to understand people and how they behaved vis-à-vis their religions. Then, you also now understand people when they tell you why they don’t do this or that. So I didn’t expect that I was going to practice being a traditional, religious priest, sheikh, imam or something. I just knew that I was studying for knowledge.
SU: Comparing the past and the present, what are the things that have changed about stand-up comedy in Nigeria?
ALI BABA: Well, one is that the comedians are more daring. They are more busy and earn more now. The appreciation level of comedy has also grown. Now, they have a base to build on, unlike when we started and were trying to chart the path. Comedians are more respected now than when I started. Back then, we were fighting for survival and recognition.
SU: You are regarded as the king of contemporary Nigerian comedy, having paved the way for many others today. What kept you going that time, especially as comedy wasn’t such a lucrative and acceptable profession when you started out?
ALI BABA: I had vowed and told my dad that I was no going to fail and worked against everything that would have made me fail. I worked hard and made sure I proved people wrong, that I was on the right path. People thought that I was crazy then to have chosen to do stand-up comedy. But I knew that the appreciation I received from the university (then) meant that if I went into the larger society, I would make a lot of money. So I set out to prove people wrong.
SU: You also pioneered comedy shows on television with the now rested Ali Baba show. Are your fans going to see a rebirth of it soon or something different is already cooking?
ALI BABA: We’re working on something that is going to be like Jon Stewart rolled into David Letterman and it’s going to be wow. We’re cooking it big time. When I did Tom, Dick and Ali then, it wasn’t this big. I just did it so that people would know that I was spontaneous, because it was a live programme. Most of the time, you know a comedian is good when he does a live programme, not a recorded one where they do three or four takes. I needed to prove that point that I was spontaneous enough to do a live programme, that I could hold my own, take calls and respond to people in a funny way. And I did that. What I’m going to do next will be much bigger.
SU: Recently, your #KnockKnock jokes, among others, have also been quite popular on Twitter. Where do you get your impressive repertoire of jokes from?
ALI BABA: For anybody to survive in a market like ours, with so many competitions; you have to be dynamic, creative, original, and fresh all the time. Now all of these rolled into one meant that I had to be on my toes all the time. A lot of people say, oh we don’t hear you crack jokes or see you perform. The thing is that the places where I perform are high class ones. As such I have to step up to the plate with brand new jokes. Because I was very sure that other comedians would take these jokes afterwards and use them in more places and go on a roll. So, I had to be creative all the time. Like the #KnockKnock joke was a brain teaser loaded with humour, hidden with words and sounds. When I first started, there was so much complaint about people not getting it. You can’t blame them. Not everyone is as educated enough to know what a Knock-Knock is. But as soon as people understood what it meant, they woke up to it. But then, it was too late because I had blocked many people who said, ‘oh it was dry, it was not good’… But the people who knew how to read #KnockKnock had woken up to it and accepted it. You could crack some (Waffi) jokes and someone who is not from Warri won’t get it. You could crack a Nigerian joke and someone who is British would feel like it is dry. So it is who can relate to the joke that would get it. Somebody could crack a Hausa joke; some people may laugh while a few others wouldn’t. But that doesn’t mean the joke was not funny, it only meant that some didn’t get it. For me, I try to reinvent myself on different platforms, whether it’s Twitter, writing on my blog, Facebook comments, live on stage, motivational speaking, talking to people, one-on-one, or emceeing a show; we just change the template.
SU: You have three grown up daughters and a set of twin boys. How much has being a proud and doting father changed your perspective to life and your profession and how have you been able to balance both sides?
ALI BABA: I think my boys are the ones that I have not shown so much love. For my daughters, I’ve spoilt them rotten. And I can see my sons growing out to say that, my father did not love us like he loved our sisters. I want to make the girls know that it is possible to show them love, to expect love, you know. They need to be cared for and loved. I’m teaching my boys how to get along because they are going to work hard. They should know that not all things come for free. So, that is the education I am giving them. The girls are very good. They are beautiful and make me very proud of them. The boys challenge me a lot because every time I see myself in them and I’m like, you have to be better than this.
SU: Many people close to you know you as someone with a very large heart. Why do you think it is important for successful celebrities like you to give back to people and society?
ALI BABA: I think anybody who has succeeded need to show people the path to success. I say this all the time, that if your success has not made any other person successful, then you have failed. Whether it is buying a comedian a car, assisting him in his show, paying a house rent, giving or buying clothes, books, giving them DVDs, sharing the jokes… Like I said earlier in this interview, I don’t perform everywhere. I may earn more than they do, but I do fewer shows. What it means is that I use fewer jokes. And those who perform at every show need more jokes. So I pass it the jokes I cannot tell at some event to them and they use it. What it does is that it also grows my industry (stand-up comedy). You don’t want people to say that, ‘oh the industry is dead, there is no creativity in the industry anymore’. Look at what is happening on Twitter, people complain about repeats. People are repeating jokes, which can be bad. But the thing is that if you have new and original jokes and you keep throwing them in the pool of jokes, the comedians who can’t create some could go there, fetch, be original and fresh in some places until they find their own feet.
SU: Talking about jokes, in 2012, you set a record by cracking jokes for six straight hours and didn’t repeat any joke, while the audience wasn’t bored. How was that experience like and how did you pull it off?
ALI BABA: It wasn’t that I was set out to prove a point. It was just that I had so many jokes I wanted to tell. I’ve heard of comedians who have done 12 straight hours. The man who set the world record did 48 hours. So, if somebody could crack jokes for 48 hours and still be funny; people would come in and go out, go have a break, come back, some would go back to their hotel, sleep for four hours, come back and watch, and the guy still kept going; then I said to myself, it means this guy has so much material. And I read up where the guy said he had like about 3,000 materials. Of course, I have over 3,000 materials. So I called my guy Bunmi Davies and said ‘you know we can do this’. I showed him my collections of original jokes and he said let’s just do 400 first. For that show, I’m sure we did not get up to 150. So there is still more from where that came. It was just like a walk in the park and I was creating more jokes on stage. Some people thought I came with all the jokes that I told on stage, no. While I was there, I was making up new jokes.
SU: Going back in time, when and where was your first ever show and how much were you paid?
ALI BABA: I was paid fifty naira (N50) at my first show in 1988, at the pavilion of then Bendel State University (now Ambrose Alli University), Ekpoma. I was on stage to make up for some strip tease lady who came on stage but did not totally strip to her birthday suit. Students started complaining. So I was brought up stage.
SU: What is the weirdest thing you have ever done?
ALI BABA: (Thinks deep) Aye… The weirdest thing I’ve ever done is to run into a burning house. It was the house of the Ibrus at Apapa. It was on fire and they were talking about the door not opening, that there were things they needed to rescue and all that stuff. The fire fighters had not come out at that time. So I burst through the door and brought out some major things before they came.
SU: You weren’t worried about your life?
ALI BABA: I wasn’t. I don’t know what I was high on. This replayed itself again at Balmoral Hall (Ikeja), during the City People award ceremony. I was standing at the back waiting to do my performance and the fire started. I was there pulling down the curtains that were on fire, and one man just said, you just get out. I managed to take all the awards outside, came back again and took the sound systems. When I wanted to go back again to carry some other monitors, one man said the smoke was too much, that we should just get out and allow any (other) thing there to go to blazes.
SU: You will be remembered as a trailblazer who made a success out of stand-up comedy in Nigeria. In your own words, what would you want to be remembered for?
ALI BABA: I’d like to be remembered as a catalyst for change and development in entertainment. To be remembered as someone who came and did his best; for the jokes I created. I tell you why it is even important to be remembered as such, which was another thing that informed the six-hour event. You hear a lot of jokes now, with people re-telling them; whether it’s Akpos’ jokes or some other comedians have told and put on CDs. And people are like; oh these are the kind of jokes that show you are a comedian. And I say, that is my joke. I want people to sit back later, look through my career and say, ‘so all this stuff that we’ve been enjoying came from this man’. So, I would like to be remembered as somebody who created happiness or a pool from which a lot of people succeeded in creating happiness for others.
SU: You are friends with or have met many prominent people, including presidents, global leaders and business icons. If you were to give an award for the funniest among them, who would that be and why?
ALI BABA: The funniest among all of these guys, presidents and all, has to be OBJ (former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo), because he is someone whose sense of humour knows no bounds. Then, the next person with a great sense of humour is Tunji Alapini, a retired deputy inspector general of police. But there are several people in different light; for generosity, humour, business acumen, taste in fashion… I learnt a lot from all these people. But OBJ stands out.
SU: Many say you are a billionaire. How much is Ali Baba really worth?
ALI BABA: Let’s just say that I’m comfortable, right. But above all, it is that you know that there is no way you can say this without the Lagos State tax people asking… because Governor Fashola’s eyes are very sharp right now. So I’d just say that I am comfortable (general laughter). But I think if you calculate how much that I can make or the value of the jokes I have, and I say this without mincing words; if all my jokes were supposed to be paying money as they are used, then I should be a billionaire several times over.
SU: There was a time rumours were making rounds that you have retired from doing stand-up comedy. Have you really?
ALI BABA: No I haven’t. What I have retired from was doing every other show. I’ve now restricted myself to doing the A-class shows, the ones that are either state or federal government functions, international, multinational companies and high net individuals. You know when you retire from doing those small shows, you leave the platform for the younger ones to survive, because if you continue to do shows that are going for say 400 – 600 thousand (naira), then you stifle the market for the young ones. Because what they would say is that, if Ali Baba is taking 600 – 800 thousand (naira), then why should we pay you that kind of amount? What it does is that it just keeps those guys at a particular level of growth. But when you step up your game, they fill the void that you leave. If you don’t do 800 thousand naira shows, they would definitely look for people who would do it.
SU: Celebrities played a significant role in the last 2011 general elections in Nigeria. Do you see yourself also playing a major role leading up to the 2015 elections?
ALI BABA: Oh yes. I’m going to be on Twitter. I need to know the kind of people that want to rule us. Anyone who wants to lead us must tell us his manifesto. We must see his credentials and know his pedigree. If the person is a business man, we want to see whether he has done business well enough or is somebody who has achieved greatness clearly. We don’t want you to bring somebody from obscurity and shove him down our throat. Then the next day the guy does not perform. Some of the people ruling this country today would have been sacked or fired if they were working in a company. There are some people you wouldn’t have condoned as entry level managers or the general manager of a bank or insurance company, but they are making laws. They are governors.
SU: Yeah, I was going to mention Delta State Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan and some others who have been criticised for non-performance, when compared to the likes of Governor Babatunde Fashola or Rotimi Amaechi of Lagos and Rivers States respectively…
ALI BABA: I know. I’ve mentioned to him once, he told me he understands, what people want to see are roads fixed, potholes sorted out, drainages, and all that. So he says he wants to do things that will create new jobs. I think the biggest problem we have in the Niger Delta is jobs…
SU: Not infrastructure?
ALI BABA: The biggest problem we have is jobs. What we need is to create jobs. You know a lot of companies left during those days (of militancy). There are more unemployed people and those are the things that need to be done.
SU: In all honesty, do you think Uduaghan is doing that?
ALI BABA: I think he has plans that are growing, like the new industrial estate. I’ve spoken with him several times and I’ve said, you know what; these are the plans that you have… It’s like somebody who needs a major kidney transplant operation but tells you, oh you have to take care of this pimple and itch first. And you tell him, leave this itch first. First, what you need is to make sure your kidney transplant works and we would take care of the rashes and skin problems later. But what people want to see is that the rashes have to be taken care of. Let’s just have a good face first. I’ve gone to Warri several times and the young boys tell you, bros, na work I need (I need a job). But the big problem is that it was created long ago. A lot of them are unemployed. They didn’t go to school; the ones who went are not properly trained…
SU: You’ve obviously moved on since you separated from your ex-wife…
ALI BABA: We noticed that it was the best thing for us to do. Pat is a good person. But, what’s that word that they use, irreconcilable differences… We respected each other’s ways and said the best thing for us to just move on (separately) and still be friends. And we are still friends. We are still close.
SU: You have been re-married for almost seven years now. What attracted you to your present wife?
ALI BABA: One, she is very down to earth. She’s practical, appreciates some things that I do and contributes to them greatly. I can come up with an idea and say I want to do this and she would tell me, no that won’t work; because she’s in the banking sector and knows what can sell and what won’t. Besides that, a lot of people do not know that she read Theatre Arts as her first degree before she obtained a master’s degree in Banking and Finance. She’s put close to 15 years in banking. So her financial judgement is hardly wrong. And she was somebody who I thought understood where I was coming from and appreciated my hustle. So when my ex-wife and I parted ways, she came in. In fact, she initially refused to. But I later convinced her, because she was like, oh she doesn’t want, that a lot of water had gone under the bridge. Then I said we would reconstruct the bridge. We joke about that a lot. But she’s a very good lady; a good cook and very respectful.