I don’t belong to any gang in comedy field —Senator Comedian
There are only a few people in stand-up comedy business, who understand the craft better than Bathel Njoku, famously known as Senator Comedian. He’s witty and spontaneous. Suave and gentlemanly, his sense of humour remains his selling point, and this has earned him a handful of endorsement deals in the last few years. Days back, he was unveiled as one of the new ambassadors of Pick UP app in Lagos. The Theatre Arts graduate shares the ugly story beneath his rise to stardom, among other issues.
They call you Senator and quite a number of people seem to have no inkling about the constituency you represent. Could you tell us what brought about the name and how you have managed to stay with it for years?
Well, basically I got that name in the heat of current democracy when senators were the in thing; they were seen as representatives of the law and the people. I decided to be a representative of humour,humour; has no constituency. So, I cover everywhere. I just love to bring smiles without Ghana-must-go bags.
Maybe you will become a real senator one day? Or are you averse to politics?
Man is a political animal, which doesn’t exclude me. The fact that I am human says it all.
Coming into comedy, some people say it simply has to do with one’s talent.Some say it is not about talent but being spontaneous. In your case, what was that special thing that took you into the comedy line?
Truth is, humour is innate. It’s a talent. Some people try to learn but there’s always a difference. I never learned humour. I am natural. Then I further went ahead to study Theatre Arts at the University of Jos . This process now refined my skills to what it is today. Back in school, I was never cast for tragic roles simply because the audience will end up laughing.
The comedy business is peopled by talented individuals. Each of them makes frantic efforts to outshine one another. They come up with shows that pull crowds and make quite a reasonable amount of money from tickets and tables. Tell me, is that what true comedy is all about?
That isn’t what comedy is about. Comedy isn’t for comedy sake but for functionality sake. But in bringing this functionality to the society, it takes a lot. In a society like Nigeria where expressing your creative ideas, you would have to pay through your nose, there isn’t a choice for the artiste or comedian but to put gate takings and tables to generate money to pay bills on adverts, hall venues, taxes by government agencies, and all that. Even churches run such strategies despite your promise to receive a miracle. So you can’t totally blame the artistes. But when that becomes the major aim behind the interpretation of your art work, then it becomes commercial.
What’s your take on the comedy shows we hold on this side of the divide? What do you think about the contents and the messages comedians send out to unsuspecting audience, who take this and pass round?
Well, for every trade, there are trade dynamics. Comedy isn’t any different. Some banks will give you a loan percentage of five per cent; some will give you three per cent. The bottom line is the interest, which they protect, likewise what is obtainable in the creative industry.
But the jokes appear to be quite similar…
You can’t tell me that all contents are the same in the comedy business. There are comedians, who will tell you jokes about mosquitoes in their house, while some will tell you about the presumed dual citizenship of the president. So, it all depends. It is a perceiver and receiver mode. It is not only a Nigerian-comedian thing, it also happens in America. Different comedians interpret different things. As far as I know, there’s no universal standard to humour.
Talking about receiver’s mode, which you just mentioned. Funnybone ran into a little problem with Daddy Showkey recently over a joke the latter perceived to be a mockery of his personality and disrespectful. Showkey even vowed to ‘deal’ with him. What do you make of the scenario?
You are a very funny man same as your questions because you just made Daddy Showkey looked like a violent person. Daddy Showkey is a peaceful icon. He has got a lot of love from the streets and the society as a whole. I also know Funnybone to be a respectful and trained comedian. Daddy Showkey was not at the show, but somebody sent the video clip of the joke to him and it was also possible the person attended the show to laugh. But as it is with many Nigerians, instead of calling Funnybone to register his or her opinion, the person called Showkey’s attention to create more divide, which is why politicians see us as gullible and not ready for structural development. Comedians are supposed to be social commentators, interpreting behavioural patterns to the society for change. But at the same time, I will say this position too must not be abused. I was told Funnybone had apologised to the legend, Daddy Showkey, who as I earlier said, is a peaceful model to the young ones. He has forgiven him. Sometimes, I wonder how (former president Obasanjo) will feel over the hilarious bash Alibaba used to give him on stage, or Donald Trump at the hands of the South African comic, Trevor Noah and a number of others.
You have done well for yourself over the years and you seem to still have that special spark that puts you out there anew all the time. What have you been doing right to stay afloat?
I must say that one of the refreshing abilities for me is to understand the times. An artiste must be conscious of the times in which his or her environment is revolving. Then always seek God’s direction, because this work some no dey see am as you dey see am…so you need God.
Recently you sealed an endorsement deal with Ubi Franklin’s Pick Up, how does it feel and what are you expected to do for the company?
I think you should congratulate me first. To the glory of God, this is the second endorsement in two years. The first was Myads, an app company, which had myself and Lolo of Wazobia FM as brand ambassadors. This time, it is Ubi Franklin’s Instant Pick Up company. For those who know Franklin, you will agree with me that he’s a young man with taste, class and a creative feed above the Epiphany.
Why did Ubi Franklin pick?
His company endorsed a few of us because it feels we have the commitment that can help the company grow. Often times ambassadors just collect endorsement fees and off they go, without self commitment to the brand. For us, it isn’t about the money we were paid but we wish to see the company grow. My responsibility to the company is to bring the creative ideas and media push while spreading the word of Instant pick up to the people.
Two endorsements in two years. That’s something that would have fetched more money. Why did it take your brand this long before attracting the big jobs you have craved for years?
Endorsements really don’t mean success. There are many comics and artistes, who haven’t been endorsed but are doing extremely well. Besides, I really don’t see the race as competition. If you ask around, I am the least person, who thinks I am in a contest. Just like a colleague of mine will say ‘ Senator, you are an airbus that is usually slow to take off but heavy in content and steady in movement’.
You have succeeded in making a mark for yourself as one of the respected comedians around. But I am sure the success didn’t just happen over night. There must have been the low moments when you had to deploy different survival strategies. How did you manage to get through those trying moments?
You are definitely right. It didn’t come in one night. As they say, nothing good comes easy. Even commercial sex workers will tell you the same. To stand for road for cold, rain waiting for ghosts, ritualists, humans no easy. It’s hard work and determination that success requires. Those low moments were necessary to make you reevaluate your commitment to the trade. Those moments when you face rejection, betrayals, turn to God; He’s the only one with an explanation for that moment. Even his silence has emotional volumes.
Can you recall any day that you almost thought of moving away and facing something new?
There was a time when I was owed 10 months salary by a radio station I was working for. I almost lost it. I felt disillusioned. I was giving comedy content on radio then, but every month came up with excuses when it was time for salaries. I felt I was working with the railway, because at that time, they were the only ones being owed that much. But I was still determined to sail on. So I left the station and went all out for my street hustle. Although, I hear the station is still in the habit of owing, well that was my own phase then.
What’s your relationship with other comedians? We hear there is a quiet animosity going on. You guys seem to have a lot going on between the practitioners?
Laughs… My brother, the world is a capitalist world. You can’t be in everyone’s good book. Even Satan has his own gang, that’s why he isn’t in heaven. But healthy criticism is allowed. There’s APC, PDP, New PDP. So it is normal.
Whose clique do you belong to because they say the richer your gang, the better for you?
If you say the rich gang is making it, so what happens to the poor gang? Well, I don’t think it is as bad as people tend to paint it. Not to forget that we are humour merchants, so we still find time to joke about ourselves. For now, I am looking for which gang to join. I am gangless now.