Nigerian comedian and father of ethical comedy , Ajibola Adebayo popularly known as Holy Mallam, speaks on the Nigerian comedy industry in this interview with NEWTON RAY UKWUOMA.
It took so long to see you. What has been keeping you so busy?
I’ve been engaging business. You know, it takes 10 years to build a brand. I’ve been doing comedy for 14 years now. The brand has given me a platform to diversify. So, I’m trying to diversify. Now, I do musical equipment importation. I have a school where I coach entrepreneurs how to strategically build brands and sustain a brand. I have learnt a lot from my mentors. I think it is time to let others learn from me.
How would you evaluate your progress after 14 years of doing professional comedy?
I see myself basically as someone who has been privileged to make a mark. We started gospel comedy in 2000. We realised that it was seen as a religious brand. We had to play into the market need. We changed it to ethical comedy to make the brand more professional. It has worked. We have been invited to perform for corporate bodies, individuals and churches as well. Looking back, I would say we have made some giant strides.
You use a lot of ‘we’?
Yes. I use ‘we’ because I have a company with staff who come up with plans and strategy for the brand.
Looking at the comedy industry in Nigeria; what strategic vacuum does ethical comedy fill?
Ethical comedy is the only way out as far as I am concerned. It’s about the only kind of comedy that makes sense. This is because it cuts across all ages and audiences. I studied Communication Arts. One of the things I learnt which helped build my career is ethics. The ethics of a profession are the principles that guide it. It sets a borderline that we must not cross. It stipulates what is acceptable in a profession. I understood this before I started comedy. And it has helped me. Ethical comedy is an acceptable and non-vulgar comedy. Ethical comedy does not only cut across all spectra; it’s also relevant everywhere, unlike the others.
Are you saying you came into the industry fully aware of the diversities and made a choice?
How do you make the distinction between ethical and unethical comedy?
Insulting people, ‘yabbing’ them and doing vulgar jokes are, to me, totally unacceptable. Nevertheless, you may find some people who appreciate them. I have a right to do what works for me. This is what works for me.
Is there any authorised body that censors the materials comedians release?
No, I cannot tell you there is such a body. The best way is for one to censor oneself. I cannot tell you there is a body that governs what is ethical or what is not; but if you watch the audience, you can tell when they are at home with a particular joke or not.
We also hear that you are pulling young comedians into your camp. Are you also into mentoring?
I don’t have a camp; but I would say I am doing my best in that department. Those who are sincere enough to take notes and accept the truth and those who would like to move away from the convention may save the industry. Yes, I have been able to train quite a few talents. I have a school, Glee Academy, where we teach MCs and comedians to be professional and ethical. There are 11 courses. I take one of the courses myself – Professionalism and Originality. You have to be original and professional. A lot of events out there are for corporate clients. One does not have to go there to insult people including expatriates. I prefer to see my profession beyond the local arena. One can be invited to work abroad. An unprofessional comedian can be an embarrassment to our country. I believe that a true comedian should make people laugh without anyone regretting ever attending the event.
How would you define the word ‘wit’?
‘Wit’ is humour. It might be funny and it might also have a very negative effect on a few members of the audience or the audience entirely. People react to funny remarks differently. While some may decide to laugh it off, others take negative comments personally. But I want to believe, speaking from an ethical standpoint, that good humour should carry everyone along in such a way that no one laughs at the other person’s expense. It is said that in every niche, there is a market; and in every market, there is a niche. I saw all of that before I decided to do things differently. I also tell people that there is nothing as good as becoming the pioneer of what you find yourself doing. I am a pioneer of gospel comedy, or what has been modified as ethical comedy. The term ethical comedy is just to give it a corporate, not religious, face. However, the content is one and the same thing. We do corporate as well as church events.
Can you tell us the side effects of unethical humour?
We have heard instances where a sensitive issue was turned into jokes and it left sour taste in every mouth. It was not a good experience. This is just a fragment of what uncultured jokes can do. I do not (rule out) a situation where, just like some songs are not allowed to hit the air waves, some comedians are not allowed to release materials. It’s happening gradually. Some event planners are now becoming sensitive to the kind of MC and comedians they invite. You have seen cases where comedians are beaten blue black by an offended member of the audience. There are countless backlashes of vulgar jokes. If allowed to spread, it’s going to have a negative effect on the society. And if I had my way, I would say no to unethical comedy. I want to believe we run a sane society. Vulgarity should not be allowed to spread. Vulgar jokes pollute society.
In other words, you call unethical comedians pollutants?
No; don’t quote me. If it’s vulgar, it is vulgar.
Would you call yourself a corporate comedian?
Initially I was seen as a comedian. That was what I thought I was. In life, two key things happen to us: we grow and develop. Over the years, I’ve grown beyond the level of a comedian. When I started, I was really hungry for more. I wanted to have and know more. People still call me a comedian, but the truth is I am a businessman. Comedians have been known to diversify into other things. Some sing, act, dance or do business. In my case, I not only do business, I have also come to understand that I was born to be a speaker – to inspire people in Nigeria and also in Africa. I’ve come to discover that as my main calling on earth. However, every good speaker must have good sense of humour. It helps you to sustain the attention. I noticed that comedy is just a trivial aspect of speaking. Just about three years ago, I discovered that I was meant to be a public speaker, not just a comedian. Comedy gave me a platform. It’s an accessory for my main calling. Now, I devote my time to speaking to young people. They are our leaders, and it is our duty to equip them with the right information about leadership. I do that. I do business and I do corporate events as MC. I feel better when I do corporate events.
How did you discover yourself?
I was a drummer in my church then. I had fellow instrumentalists around me, who laughed at anything I said. I presumed I made them laugh a lot. I did not know I would become a comedian until Kennedy, one of our instrumentalists, told me very casually, “you can do this. You can make people laugh.” Then we used to have Christian comedians come to our church, the likes of Blow, Ultimate Mallam, Boy O Boy, and so on, for our monthly programme called Hosanna Night. It used to be fun. After some persuasion from my friends (because I used to be a very shy person), I enrolled as a comedian that night alongside Ultimate Mallam (now Mr Patrick). The time allotted for comedy was 10 minutes. After the first comedian used up eight minutes, I had two minutes left. I never had any training. I didn’t know exactly what to do when I got on stage. But I was able to make them laugh. That was the singular motivation for me – that I was able to make them laugh that night really encouraged me. That was the motivation that nudged me on till today.
Give us one of your best jokes?
My jokes are spontaneous; I need an audience. We are not doing any jokes now.