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Published On: Fri, Mar 8th, 2013

Warri, City Rocking with Laughter

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Warri Comedian, Ali Baba
In oil-rich Warri, raw humour walks the streets day and night. Even in times of crisis, the entire city seems to depend on the ingenuity of a few young, dashing and witty young stand-up comedians to keep it from slipping into total darkness.
Every month, these young men gather at N0 1, Eki Street in the Ugboroke quarters, under the aegis of the Comedians Guild of Nigeria, to discuss the best new ways to keep other residents of the city doubling over with laughter.

“This is the only job that most of us have ever known. Comedy is serious business in this part of the country. We eat, drink, sleep and dream comedy,” says Alegbe Baba (real name, Benson Ohajiaka), who is the founding president of the CGN in Delta State.
At the last count, more than 20 members of the Guild are resident in Warri, Asaba and Benin City and plying their trade there. The more popular ones include Alegbe, Brother Kome, I-Go-Save, MC Obakpororo, MC Breakfast, Shakara, Young Chief, Ehis Baba, Apostle Paul, Great Chief Mususu and Ikono de Richest Imbecile.
For many years, home-grown Warri comedians have consistently dominated the comedy scene in Nigeria and won attention from numerous fans across the country. They include the Grand Czar of comedy, Ali Baba, Gordons, Basorge Tariah, I-Go-Die, Basketmouth and Alarm Blow.
At the 2012 edition of the Nigeria’s Got Talent reality TV show, a comedian from the oil city, MC Pin code, emerged third runner-up, thus reinforcing the general belief that comedy is Warri’s real export.
MC Breakfast (real name is Tom Itoro), who is also a freelance presenter with the local radio station, describes comedy as an irrepressible aspect of the people’s culture.
“Warri is not only the home of comedy, it is the foundation of comedy in Nigeria. Some of us grew up experiencing and embracing it,” he says.
Breakfast adds that humour is evident in the manner of speech of the residents and in their modes of interaction. “When two Warri residents engage in a conversation, it is usually laced with drama and humour. This is obvious in the way they speak or say things, in pronunciation and gestures,” he says.
The fact that comedy is mostly delivered in the local variety of Pidgin English also accounts for its easy adaptability. It is a culture among stand-up Warri-bred comedians, no doubt.
“It is like telling a joke in your own native dialect. The purpose is to effectively get your jokes or messages across to the audience in the language that they understand best. In my opinion, such language is comedy,” Breakfast adds.
Another factor, known as yabis or polite insult, which is frequently deployed in everyday conversation among the residents of the city, has also contributed to the spread of comedy in Warri.
“The average Warri resident is a natural comedian. The everyday living in the city can make a visitor laugh without ceasing,” MC Obakpororo, who claims to be funding his education with the proceeds from comedy, says.
Warri, the comedians agree, is the best training ground for aspiring comedians because of the peculiar challenges. A very popular stand-up comedian was recently shooed out of a comedy show by the audience. They were fed up with his dry jokes and decided to chase him out. This can only happen in Warri.
“The audience in Warri is a difficult one. If you can satisfy them, then you will succeed anywhere else,” says Alegbe Baba.
Driven by poor remuneration, in comparison to their colleagues in other parts of the country, and lack of investments in comedy, as well as lack of attention from the media, some of the comedians have expressed the desire to seek the proverbial Golden Fleece elsewhere.
But Alegbe warns that an exodus from the ‘mainland’ may alter Warri’s status as the original home of comedy in Nigeria.
“We want to live well off our earnings as comedians. Gone are the days when comedy was viewed as a mere pastime,” he says.
At the peak of the Warri Crisis of 1997-99, which rubbed off negatively on the entertainment scene in the city, many comedians were forced to leave the city and take up residence in other parts of the country.
“I was virtually the only comedian left in Warri. We don’t wish for a repeat of those difficult,” Alegbe declares.
Recalling how difficult it was for most members of the present generation of Warri comedians in the beginning, he continues, “When we started it wasn’t what one could count on as a profession. Most of us took it up as a hobby. It was something we didn’t want to stop doing because of the satisfaction that we derived from it. It wasn’t about the money in it. If it was the money we got, we would have quit the stage a long time ago.
“Most of us who were comedians at the time were still in school and we were able to sponsor our education with the little money we earned. When we were starting out as stand-up comics, we would attend events to find out the latest gossips in town and what suitable materials to use for our jokes.
“We struggled to keep up a good appearance at all times. Aware that success partly depends on the kind of image we cut before our audiences, we had to make some efforts to look good. But we could only afford fairly used clothes and shoes sold by the roadside in those days.”
Prest Hotel, a popular leisure spot in the heart of Benin City, served as a launch pad for many of the present generation of comedians. It was a watering hole of a sort for some of the best known comedians in the country today, including the likes of Gandoki, Baba Kome, I-Go-Die and I-Go-Save.
Alegbe acknowledged that the hotel afforded the ‘boys’ the opportunity to reach out, beyond Warri, to fans in other parts of the country. “We were holding our rehearsals in the hotel, away from Warri. At the time, we actually had a contract with the management. We performed in that hotel, three days in a week. For all our trouble what we were paid was a paltry N800,” he adds.
Alegbe got his breakthrough in 2000 after performing in a comedy event in Ekpoma. It was titled ‘Shine your eyes 2000’. Recalling that event, he says, “I was invited to perform by the organisers. In the middle of my performance, suddenly the lights went out. The natural thing to do would have been to walk away. But I stayed and continued to thrill the audience. Can you imagine that I managed to hold the audience spell-bound for more than an hour? It was unthinkable, but I did it.
“After the show, one of the organisers, Akin Joe, who happened to be a member of Shell Club in Warri, invited me to perform in another comedy event at the club. Afterwards, I was appointed the resident stand-up comedian of the club. The contracted lasted eight years.”
The monthly Comedy/Music event in Shell Club was another watering hole for comedians in Warri. It helped the growth of comedy in the city and encouraged aspiring comedians to hone their skills. But there were snags.
Since everybody wanted to ‘tear’ or impress their audiences, there was keen rivalry among the comedians, which often led them to ‘steal’ or recycle other people’s jokes.
Alegbe describes this as a reflection of a shared ambition, which is to succeed where others have failed. “When I face a large audience I ‘m always inspired to give my best. I want to stand out as the best performer. Sometimes, this could mean ‘stealing’ jokes created by other comedians,” he says.
Apart from the monthly event organised by Shell, other projects, such as the popular ‘Night of a Thousand Laughs’ and ‘Made inWarri’ comedy shows, promote the quality of comedy produced in that part of the country. Gordon is one of the products of ‘Made in Warri’.

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