Nollywood, Trevor Noah, and the Comedy of Basketmouth

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Basketmouth

Once, when he was mostly known as Bright Okpocha, Basketmouth might have been a skinny student lugging books nightly to a place known as Faculty. If he was the serious kind, he might have read till daybreak. But Bright probably was one of those who talked half the night and slept away the other half, returning to his room with chants of “Jack-o-meter” as he self-seriously sets aside his books for another round of sleep.

Faculty is the nickname of the Social Sciences building at the University of Benin, a place where one likes to imagine the future comedian learned a thing about converting tragedy — the state of facilities and teaching at Nigerian universities — to something resembling comedy, in the sense that everything is up for jokes. I attended the school years later and should know.

As Basketmouth, Bright once returned to UNIBEN when I was there. Students gathered at the school’s Sports Complex and gave him a rousing welcome — not necessarily because he used to be one of us. But because he was a star and that was enough.

At first he treated us to harmless jokes, and then he began yabbing the crowd, taking shots at guys who heckled as students are wont to do. For some reason, he then targeted a girl standing close to his stage. At first she tried to resist by returning his insults but nobody in a crowd wins the person with a mic. Basketmouth went on and on with jokes that — if the phrase was in currency at the time — we’d have said were body-shaming jibes of the devastating kind.

I recalled this ancient event during the uproar caused by his retweeting a rape joke four years ago. That night at UNIBEN he was anatomically and sexually merciless; surely no one in attendance that evening in Benin was surprised at his retweeting a tasteless joke years later — a joke that had been in circulation for some time. If anything, the joke may have been that it was a Basketmouth retweet not an original. The man has said worse onstage.

Thankfully he apologised if grudgingly. It is anyone’s guess what he must have really thought. Na wa. I’ve said worse on my shows, what’s the fuss? But of course, social media doesn’t just convey outrage. It amplifies it.

“Definitely,” he said later, “I’m not going to crack a joke about rape again, I shouldn’t even be saying the word. I’ve learnt my lesson, but we shouldn’t have limits…”

Was the outrage about limits or responsibility? What about his comedian colleagues? One never quite found out their thoughts about the incident. Did they think Basketmouth was treated poorly? Did they think the uproar was deserved? Do they even think? One never knows. The Nigerian comedian certainly talks but does he really think…about the social context of his work?

***

Nigerian comedy is full of modification and sometimes outright retelling. Often it feels like the offline equivalent of retweeting. Lesser talents ape superior ones; newer comedians say an older colleague stole their jokes.

For instance, the “2 things Involved” joke has been so told and retold that it is now hard to tell creator from imitator. And what does it matter? For the best comedians, originality may be prized, but even they know that confronting an audience very well aware you have come to make them laugh is tricky business and only fine presentation and a fluid delivery — be it grounded on originality or recycling — will save the set. Both of these things are bundled with other qualities, including dressing and number of celebrity friends, into what we call packaging in Nigeria. And packaging can be so effective it requires little talent to drive the brand. Case in point: AY Makun.

If talent and packaging can be taken as the two most important qualities for a comedian to possess or cultivate, then we can identify the leading comedian of this generation:

In terms of packaging, Basketmouth is in second place; AY is in first place. This is because of the relative reach and popularity of both their yearly shows as well as AY’s success in the movies. (More on this later.) Basketmouth is also second place in terms of talent; as it stands no other comedian of their rank rivals Bovi’s ability.

While this is admittedly as unscientific as it gets, it does mean that overall, Basketmouth is Nigeria’s foremost comedian.

***

The best jokes in a crowded hall function like someone else’s deliberately tickling fingers in your side: an awareness of its purpose does not forestall laughter. Bad ones come with the futility of an auto-tickle. Basketmouth has quite remarkable fingers. He possesses a quality not much discussed in Nigerian comic circles: intelligence. You could say every comedian is intelligent but Basketmouth has or has cultivated the urbane kind and retained his knowledge of the average Nigerian sensibility. What this means practically is that he can entertain a large section of the Nigerian populace with knowledge of English or pidgin.

He once made a joke about a man visiting his fiancée’s house and meeting her sister nude and welcoming. The man dashes out of the house and runs into the rest of his fiancée’s family applauding his heroic self-denial. It was a test he passed. The family would never know their hero came out intending to grab a condom from his car.

Basketmouth made the joke, fully spelling out that last part. But that bit of the joke as it exists on some western website long before Basketmouth’s version is coded as a “Moral of the Story”. All Basketmouth had done was simplify the ending for his audience.

The first time I heard him say that joke I wondered if it was condescension. Was the simplification really necessary? But after watching some decent Nigerian movies flail at the box office and decent Nigerian musicians relocating abroad, I’m not so certain that Basketmouth wasn’t on to something. Sure there will always be Nigerians who get any joke or culture product, but are they in sufficient numbers? Will they all pay?

Popular Nigerian jokes do not use punchlines as western jokes do. A lot of Nigerian comedy is physical — not so much cerebral as it is visceral. And let’s face it, comedy is only partly brilliance. Comedy is what works, what makes the most people laugh, in a given culture. The reason some comedies travel better than others is because some cultures — chiefly American — exerts such might past its original borders.

Thus Basketmouth never quite succeeded in mainstream Nollywood because his comedy is more language-based than physical. He works with Nigerian behaviour and never resorts to bodily contortions in the manner of, say, Dauda who was a hit years ago with Nollywood.

Some of Nollywood’s early comedy were of the drunken physical sort, as seen in films as dated as Ikuku and more recently with the bloated buffoonery of Mr. Ibu and Victor Osuagwu. Even such language-based acts like Nkem Owoh and, to some extent Klink Da Drunk, had and have as starting point the physical transformations imposed by drunkenness. In fact, until the upper crust comedies started to become a fad, when has most of Nollywood’s comedy come from a well-dressed character without a potbelly?

Arguably, in recent times, the first real attempt at a fully language-based comedy in Nollywood was Basorge Tariah Jnr’s My Guy. Not long ago, Ali Baba, one of the actors in that film, said it didn’t do very well commercially. Apparently, its sequel My Guy 2 sank and did so quietly.

Newer comedy films, like Michelle Dede’s Flower Girl borrow from Hollywood, very nearly becoming a spoof of such Hollywood fare as any of the Julia Roberts and Meg Ryan vehicles of the 1990s. Flower Girl was a hit with French audiences when it showed at Nollywood Week Paris, and why not? They were familiar with its antics.

You have to imagine that one reason The Wedding Party and Royal Hibiscus Hotel (which I reviewed here and here) showed at the Toronto International Film Festival was because the festival wanted its audience to see what a Nigerian version of a romcom looks like. It is difficult to think of either film showing at the official selection of such auteur-driven festivals like the Rotterdam Film Festival or any of the big three—Cannes, Berlin, and Venice.

In a sense, Basketmouth’s success is a blend of the same impulses that guide those newer comedies: his own comedic talent and his talent at bending the western to the Nigerian. It is great for making money, local money that is. The Nigerian audience loves to appear sophisticated and Basketmouth provides a shortcut to western sophistication, but it will be difficult outside as all he’ll satisfy is their curiosity. Like Nollywood, Basketmouth, too, might go to Toronto — but the big players in the west are likely to be unconvinced.

This is one reason Basketmouth is judged inferior to Trevor Noah. There are other factors — like South Africa’s white and black constitution and Noah’s racial background — which play into who gets what at the culture centre that is the US, but broadly speaking, Basketmouth’s comedy is more restricted geographically than Noah’s.

While no one wants to hear that her favourite is a local champion, it is clear that Basketmouth will get more laughs out of a Nigerian audience than Noah would. Noah, however, will get equal, if not more revenue. And that’s not just because he’s a global figure now but because the upper-class will part with more money for the South African. His jokes are for them. When Noah made a joke about school kids amazed at a working escalator, everybody may laugh but the privileged will be laughing at the poor. What is there for the poor to laugh at?

That said, Basketmouth’s jokes also work with the upper-class but he hasn’t quite made as many of the high and mighty laugh as Ali Baba in his heydays did. Still Basketmouth’s audience can afford tickets to live events at Eko Hotel and Suites. And he must be seen live to appreciate his talent.

Once he ended a show by interrogating the closing of other comedians, subtly chastising the audience for their love of closure — inadvertently alluding to the somewhat romantic relationship between audience and comedian. Laughter, after all, is prized in dating.

“Many comedians,” he said, “like to end with a big joke….but me, I can end anytime I like.” With that he dropped the mic and walked off stage. So good was the gag that the crowd burst into applause, but only after a brief silence.

For chutzpah or genius or for both — it was hard to tell — that technique was effective. It was honest, it was critical, it was funny; it was the stuff of high comedy, the type delivered with a knowing — the equivalent of a friend digging you in the rib. But it was also unoriginal. It turns out that the idea was taken from an American stand-up routine. And on occasion, he does allude to his sources. “Chris Rock no dey use cordless mic,” he said as he adjusted a microphone cord at the 2017 Lord of the Ribs show. “I say make I catch up.” At the same event he made a joke about shaking a woman instead of hitting her. “Shaking no be violence,” he said. That idea of shaking a woman to avoid domestic violence charges is also from Chris Rock.

That night, Basketmouth and his guests made several jokes about women, so much so that a line from notes I took reads: “Women were the unofficial victims of the night — as strippers, girlfriends, prostitutes, and wives.” It was tempting to connect the display to that UNIBEN night years ago but it is a case of the wider misogyny of comedy, which in many climes operates as a boys’ club. Women only appear on stage as the butt of jokes.

In any case, a woman made one positive appearance at the event. I thank my wife, Basketmouth said as he closed the show. Considering the many jokes told more than a decade apart at the University of Benin and then at Eko Hotel, it was right that at least one woman gets gratitude. If only because Basketmouth seems to be saying that there can be nothing like Nigerian comedy without sacrificing women.

***

A visual connection between the man from the University of Benin and the star comedian showed up online some time ago. A skinny, drably dressed young man was on the left and the same man teleported into a snazzy suit for one of his shows appeared on the right. A mischievous glint in his eyes links the photos: underneath the latter sophistication is that young man finding his way, from books and the rigours of an impoverished academic life to traversing the harsh spotlight of fame, making faux pas like the rape joke and, hopefully, learning from his mistakes. A subtly perceptible stubborn streak links both photos too.

At Basketmouth’s next show, guests will be hoping for some of that mischief in his eyes, a little stubbornness in his stance, and jokes they won’t be too aghast to laugh at. May they find all three.

Nigeria’s most acclaimed writer-reviewer. Business: www.criticsandbylines.com.

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