Humour merchant, Okechukwu Mc Anhony Onyegbule, otherwise known as Okey Bakassi, needs no introduction in the Nigerian entertainment industry. Raised in Port Harcourt and a graduate of the Rivers State University of Science and Technology (RSUST), he has come a long way in the Nigerian
entertainment industry. This Engineer-turned-comedian’s professionalism has shown spontaneity and the ability to adapt comic materials to suit specific events, and that has clearly distinguished him in the movie and showbiz industry. Since he joined the industry in 1993, the ace comedian has brought laughter to many movie buffs through his comic roles. In this interview with FUNMI ELUGBAJU, the actor cum comedian spoke on various issues bordering on the entertainment industry in Nigeria, how he was appointed as the Special Assistant to the Governor on Entertainment in Imo State and his plans for the future. Excerpts:
We know your real name is Okechukwu Mc Anhony Onyegbule. How did you come to be popularly known as Okey Bakassi?
Okey Bakasi was gotten at a time I was using materials from the Bakasi crisis for my jokes. Initially my stage name was Okey and people remembered me as the Okey that gave them the joke on Bakasi issue and then it metamorphosed into Okey Bakasi.
Can you give us an insight into your background?
Okey Bakasi is an Agricultural Engineer. I graduated from Rivers State University of Science and Technology (RSUST). I am happily married with three kids - two girls and a boy. I am a Christian and presently I am the Senior Special Assistant to the Governor of Imo State on Entertainment.
How did you get your appointment as the Senior Special Assistant to the Governor of Imo State on Entertainment?
My appointment was divine in the sense that I was at a function that the governor was present at and an issue was being raised on a particular matter. I made my humble submission on the way forward. He figured I had the experience to impact on the entertainment industry and that was it. Don’t forget that at Imo State we pride ourselves as one f the city with the highest number of celebrities and we also see ourselves as the origin of the entertainment industry. The governor felt that it would be very important to have an office that would oversee it and that was where I came in. So, I would say authoritatively that my appointment was divine.
What difference have you made in the entertainment industry since you were appointed Special Assistant to the Governor?
You can’t be actively involved in the entertainment industry and also be actively involved in the public affairs business. One has to make room for the other to flourish. So, for now I am in the service of the government and the people of Imo State which is my primary assignment, and once in a while when I get the chance to, I also do entertainment. I shot a movie not too long ago in South Africa which is not out yet. I also did a couple of concerts in South Africa and in London - that is when time permits me to. There are events I handle in the states. In Imo we have the end of year concert and we also have the wonderlit concert which is usually held to attract tourist to the state.
Why did your show, Laughter Fiesta, come to an end?
I had to put Laughter Fiesta on hold, it’s not like we have stopped it and this was solely because to put together a show, a high class show, it requires a lot of work and consultation. You would agree with me what I do now will not allow me to put in that kind of energy and I would rather not do a show than to do a follow follow show that everyone is doing. This is because at a time in the business every concert looks like the other. What is different is the names. So, it’s just different names and the same kind of show. If you are not bringing anything new to the game then you had better just settle down and do it properly. So, we have been long in the business to know when something is wrong in the business. You see that suddenly everyone is doing concerts, which is very beautiful because the industry has to be vibrant but we are saying while everybody is doing the show I am doing something new; let it not look like we are recycling the same show. For now, Laughter Fiesta is resting and when the time comes for me to do it again we will come out with something bigger that people will be glad to be associated with and copy.
Given your new status, do you still keep in touch with your colleagues in the entertainment industry?
Of course, we meet once in a while at concerts and events. Anytime they come to the East sometimes they stop by to spend some time with me. So, everything is pretty okay between myself and my colleagues. I know someday, some of them will end up in positions like mine where they can also make their contribution.
How did you get yourself involved in showbiz in spite of your Science background?
I think it has always been a thing of passion. In as much as I majored in Sciences in school I had always been involved in the Arts. While I was in the campus I was actively involved in theatre, drama and all that. I didn’t set out to do showbiz as a profession, it’s just that in the course of my NYSC I got involved in a drama troupe for Lagos State; from there I was in Fortune, the defunct NTA soap opera. I was enjoying it because it was about doing what gives you joy though at that time it wasn’t paying me well. However, I looked at it as something that I loved doing because once you put passion and dedication to anything you are doing in life it will definitely pay off. Hardwork was my watchward and I kept at it with faith and it paid off.
How was it like crossing from movie to the stand up comedy scene?
I have not left movie acting really and I have not left one for the other. But because of my new assignment as the Senor Special Assistant to the Governor, I have not been actively involved in any movie. Movie production takes time, it takes minimum of two weeks out of your job and which employer will allow you to leave every now and then to go and shoot movies. It’s close to impossible while standup comedy is something that we do for two hours or less. So, in terms of time consumption, standup comedy doesn’t take too much of your time unlike in the movies. It is easier for you to combine standup comedy to a lot of other things but once in a while when I am on leave I go for productions and do my own bit. In terms of time management, standup comedy has been more fulfilling. That is why the attention is more on standup comedy as against movie production.
Are you satisfied with the level the profession is at the moment?
No, of course not. There are lots of chances for improvement but one of the challenges the industry is facing at the moment is the economic meltdown because people can only encourage entertainment when they have enough to spare. A man who does not have food at home will think twice before he buys an extra ticket for a concert; and people don’t usually go to concerts alone, they like to go to concerts accompanied with brothers, sisters, wife or friends and at least that way they have company and can talk about the show together. In a situation like this you find out that people are being constrained to go to shows because of the economic meltdown but beyond that most of the upcoming acts are not working hard enough. What they really do now is to sit at home, buy all the DVD tapes of all the concerts that have been done way back in 1994, sit back and watch them, rehearse them and come and deliver. For me as a comedian when I go to comedy shows you can hardly find anybody telling me any joke I have not heard before. The audience will really enjoy it because it’s not their work and they are probably hearing it for the first time. But for you that have been around for a very long time it’s not new to you. The funny thing is that some of the materials I hear them do that people are cracking up crazily for I have stopped using them in the early 1990’s because in my head they are too old to be used now but funny enough the young generation use it and the new generation that have not heard it, you find them reeling in laughter and I am usually surprised. I then ask myself this question: Are people still laughing at this material? I think the upcoming ones should really work very hard and bring fresh ideas so that we too can copy them.
What are the qualities of a good actor?
A very good actor must be able to diversify; you must be fluent in whatever you are doing; you must be passionate about acting; you must be able to convince people that you are doing something good. When you sit up, you are acting, when you stand up, you are acting. Whatever you are doing, you are acting. So, people will not see it as acting, but as reality. You must also be focused.
Is it easy as comedians to make people laugh?
Standup comedy is tougher than singing and acting. It is unarguably the toughest platform because there is no backup singer or back up anything. A musician can come and repeat the same song over and over and people will just love him; a comedian does not have that luxury of doing one joke for ever, so it is a very tough platform. A beautiful and well-dressed musician can easily come and steal your attention without singing much, a band and a DJ can also keep you going for minutes without interruption but a comedian has to be funny from the beginning to the end of the show otherwise he will be booed. So, he has to continue with the mood of the people and that’s why it’s a very tough act.
How do you get your jokes?
I get my jokes from inspirations. By inspiration I mean everyday happenings because there is humour everywhere. There is humour in the church, in the market, at your work place, along the road. If you just take a Molue drive or a commercial bus drive from Lagos to the East you will get what to talk about. It’s basically from everyday happenings. Also ideas can be gotten from the internet because it’s a reservoir of knowledge. You can also go there and see what is happening in other countries; look at the funny side of it and add them all up.
Can you recall the height of your career?
I have had those kinds of moments. I have quite a number of them and it is difficult to place any particular one. There is a concert I have done in Ghana, their own version of 1000 Laughs; I think all my appearance there have been very good. That is probably why they keep inviting me all the time. I have also had some impressive performances at London as well. I was also outstanding at Julius Agwu’s Crack Your Ribs concert. I think for the past two or three weeks in a row now I have done shows that when I finish I have been very happy with myself. I have also had a couple of others in Nigeria too. I can’t remember now considering the fact that I have been long in the business now and most time people expect that he is finished and he is done, he has not been around and he definitely has to perform.
Can you share some of your childhood memories with us?
I have lots of them because I am an old man now. I grew up at a time when there was even more innocence than now. I grew up at a time when there was no mobile telephone and so people didn’t lie much. With the invention of the GSM phone everyone is a liar. Back then when you are home you are home and vice versa. Television viewing was not 24 hours. People had times to read their books. In contrast now, even as much as the world is getting more and more civilised and it’s a global village we were more human back then, every neighborhood was a small community of friends, brothers and sisters. People knew themselves by their names and they were one big family, but now you might not even know your next door neighbour because you have high walls between yourselves. You meet in church and you find out that both of you are next door neighbours because you never get to see yourselves in the neighborhood. You need the neighborhood children to play games and generally have fun. When you all go out together you fight for each other because if anybody finds them in trouble everyone comes to their aid but these days everyone is minding his or her business. So, we are less human now and we are mere robots. We are controlled now by telecommunication and DVD. Those were my childhood memories. I really relished them, kids were usually indoors or outdoors, indoors being at home when your parents are around; in school, in the presence of your teachers and outdoors when you are playing games in the company of your friend. But these days everybody is indoors. It’s either you are in school or you are at home. That is probably why we all have all kinds of wickedness now, it is why people can afford to hurt each other without thinking about it. That is because you hardly know them because if you know someone it will be difficult for you to hurt the person. That was when you can send your kids to go down the street and buy something for a visitor. Now, people even find it difficult to send their kids to tell the gateman to lock the gate. This is because we have become so disconnected from each other and the more we continue to quarantine ourselves we will continue to kill our talent. How do we interact with people to see the humour and the material. Have you noticed that you don’t find very talented people in very rich environment, everybody is behind their fence? Most comedians grow up in neighbourhoods where they interacted freely with themselves.
Who discovered your talent?
I won’t attribute that to anybody in particular because right from secondary school my friends used to find me funny. My first experience was in secondary school when I was opportuned to perform in front of a large audience and friends were like, I should come and entertain them. I was reported to the Social Prefect and I was compelled to perform in front of the whole school. It was tough for me but I did and people just liked me. So, when I got into the university gradually it started evolving and by the time I graduated I was a known name