Gbenga Adeyinka is a household name in Nigeria’s comedy industry. He tells Aishat Jimoh how growing up as a young boy influenced his career, his encounters with armed robbers and the state of comedy in the country What is new about you?
I have a couple of new programmes that I’m doing; they will soon start on Africa Magic Yoruba and English. Before the end of this year, I should do more but basically, what I’m doing is a continuous process of building the brand and allowing the world to know that Nigerians have got talent.
Having studied English in the university, don’t you think you should have been a teacher or lecturer instead of a comedian?
The good thing about English is that you can do anything you want to do. I think English makes you more versatile than you can ever be. Fine, I would have loved to be a teacher or lecturer, a politician; I would have loved to be so many things, but I guess comedy is what God wants me to do.
I learnt that back in your school days, when your mates were busy reading or doing assignments, all you did was to crack jokes. Were you preparing for the future then, or it was just a pastime?
I just liked to be mischievous then. You know, I like to disturb then and most times, they would tell me, ‘Shut up and stop disturbing us because you still end up passing while we’ll fail.’ So, I think I just have this natural flair to make people laugh, to create excitement, to have fun but I never knew I was going to end up as a professional comedian. When I read your newspaper two weeks ago, one oba (king) said he ran away when they told him he was going to be an oba, I just laughed.
What was your growing up like?
I grew up with my grandmother and because I was rascally, one of the South-West rascals to be precise, whenever my uncles came from America, they would say, ‘Stop spoiling this boy, bring him over and let us re-shape his life.’ So, I go with them but after showing them ‘pepper,’ they always returned me to my grandmother. But there was this uncle, who kind of shaped my life because even if I was doing anything wrong, he would say, ‘Gbenga, I’m giving you the benefit of doubt’ and I never stopped to wonder what the benefit of the doubt really was. I didn’t know that he was training me; he really wanted me to be an engineer. In fact, he made me to repeat Form Three. He said if I didn’t come between first position and 10th, I would repeat. The first term, I thought he was joking, I managed to place 17th; second term, I came 22nd. So, he took me to school and told my principal that we had both agreed that if I don’t come between the first and 10th position, that I would repeat. And the principal asked me if it was true, but I couldn’t tell him that the man that was feeding me was lying. So, I said it was true. That was when I knew he was serious. I was very popular in my school, so I started to study hard in order to avoid repeating the class. Eventually, I got the 10th position but my uncle still made me repeat that class; he said he didn’t ask me to be the 10th position. I have this sister who was always failing. There was a time I had 49 per cent and she scored zero. I was happy and told her on our way home that they would beat the hell out of her, but to my surprise, I was the one that was beaten because they felt since I have been scoring 80 per cent, why should I get below that?
God blessed me with a retentive memory. I didn’t have notes or anything. After, I realised I still had to do external exams, I became more serious. I wrote my WASCE in my ‘second’ Form Three and I passed seven papers out of nine. Then, I got admission to study law at the Lagos State University, Ojo, but the school didn’t have hostel accommodation. My uncle didn’t like the idea at all. He took me to the Ikeja Magistrate’s Court and started pointing to some funny looking people, saying ‘that one is a lawyer. You want to be like him?’ I didn’t know it was only the lawyers that were not successful he was showing me.
So, I just went for my A-Levels and didn’t go to LASU. One day, I went to the University of Lagos (Akoka) for the matriculation of one of my friends in secondary school. We watched a play called JAMBITOS. I decided I must come to this school and that I will be a member of the theatre group because there was one role in the drama, the role of Smart. He was a playboy and all the girls were all over him. I also said, I must play this role. Unfortunately, I realised Unilag did not have Theatre Arts when I wanted to fill my JAMB form. So, I chose English, but all my dreams came through because I was in Theatre 15 and I played the Smart role twice.
Were you ever employed after graduation?
After I graduated, I was employed by my uncle at Sparklight Engineering, but he always told me that he couldn’t pay me more than he was paying his engineers since I’m not a professional. I was his corporate affairs manager and doing publicity for their projects. Then, I moved to an advertising agency, but something about entertainment kept dragging me. So, I started my children’s entertainment outfit. Eventually, I started comedy. I came across Ali Baba, and Funmi Davies of MITV. She used to do a programme and she invited Akin Akindele and I to do her comedy segment. That was how I started receiving calls from people saying they liked my comedy. At a time, some actually called me and said, ‘How much do you charge?’ I was like wow, money dey inside this thing? If so, that is what I want to do, but in the beginning, it was not easy.
Are you saying the love of money forced you into comedy?
Well, let’s say that.
You can as well agree to what people say that most comedians were rascals when growing up?
Yes o! I think if I wasn’t rascally when I was growing up, I may not have known the things that I know. I come from a middle class family: my grandmother was the Iyalaje of Ijaye Kukudi in Abeokuta. She was the Iyamokun of Gbagura. So, I had this sheltered upbringing. In fact, they would not let you go out, but I would want to go out to play football; to mix with the boys around and I think all those things I learnt with my rascality made me streetwise. I grew up in Surulere in Akerele, where we had a lot of people from different tribes. Mixing with them gave me my working knowledge of Hausa, Igbo, Calabar. I learnt all the dialects because my friends were young people from those tribes. At a point, they had to buy a grinding machine in the house because of me. Whenever they sent me to go and grind pepper, I would abandon it somewhere on the field and start playing football. And at times, after playing, the pepper would have disappeared; I won’t know that they have come to carry it from home after having waited for me for so long. And when I would get home, I would start crying, telling them that I fell inside the gutter on my way to grind the pepper and that all the pepper had poured inside the gutter, not knowing that the pepper had even become stew. They would beat the living daylight out of me. If you are not rascally, if you do not experience the street, your brand of comedy might not be that appealing or original.
Some people think that most Nigerian comedians are not funny. What makes you different?
Well, what makes me different is that I am me, I’m versatile. I can walk in different areas; I can walk in Mushin or Aso Rock. I can do a political gathering and I can work in church. Basically, I do comparative comedy; I don’t abuse and I don’t believe that Pidgin is comedy, even though some people think that once you speak Pidgin, you are funny. I’m versatile, mature, witty and creative, that is what stands me out.
Is it true that you hated comedians when you used to be a DJ because you thought they didn’t have money?
I know it is Ali Baba that must have told you this. Then, I was a children’s party entertainer and we had DJ services. In those days, Ali Baba was like a front liner for comedy and I was doing my small children’s party entertainment and making money alone to keep for myself. One day, I went to a bank and Ali Baba came to tell jokes and I was there too. He was using this car, a Jetta. So, when we were going, he started the car, but the light did not come on, he had to come down from the car to use his hand to hit the bonnet very hard before the light came up. And then he said to me, ‘You know you should be a comedian,’ I replied him by saying, ‘God forbid!’ I think it was also borne out of the fact that I knew my siblings, my uncle will say, ‘After sending you to the best schools, you now want to become Baba Sala, Olorun maje!’ (God forbid!).
So, what was their reaction afterwards?
Eventually, they didn’t want me to do it. They felt it was just a waste of time and that I was being lazy. They even said if I wanted a job anywhere in this country, they have enough connections to get me one. But when they realised it was something I wanted to do and also that I was getting successful at it, they gave me all the support I needed.
How do you combine comedy with family life?
Like every other father, I thank God I still spend quality time with my family and I sit down with my children and tell jokes. Most of my jokes were even stolen from my children. But because I’m hardly at home, I still try to be a strong father figure, although their mother is always with them. My son who is supposed to go to bed at nine might still be awake watching an Arsenal match and because we both support the same team, if the mother comes around to say, ‘Oya, go to bed,’ I tell her to leave us to watch football. But my daughter, who I had threatened to stop paying her school fees, seems to like Manchester United because whenever they win, she starts to jubilate and I told her, someone from Manchester United will start paying your school fees.
What about your mother?
I wanted to travel with her to the US, but I didn’t do it before she died. Out of all her siblings, she was the only one that didn’t go to the US and I wanted to do that for her. Also, I wanted to throw a big party for her. She was in a coma for six months and I told God that if she came out of that coma, I would throw her a big party that the world would know that she had a son. She came out of the coma; she started walking even though the doctor said she might never work. But she had to go to UCH for check ups; she eventually died.
You were thin before you got married. What are you doing to your weight?
If you notice, I have even lost some weight. My New Year resolution is actually to lose weight. Every morning, I do sit ups. When I started, it was hell. I started with 10 but now, I do 70. Before the end of this month, I will move on to 100.
Tell us your experience with armed robbers.
What armed robbers in Nigeria taught me is that if things are going well, you just have to be calm and careful and not be extravagant. The scariest part of my life was when armed robbers came to my house in Ikorodu. It was about 4 am when eight of them came with cutting machines, cut the fence and all were armed; six men and two women. I realised that it was just God. You know, nobody keeps money at home but luckily, my car was still new then and I had little money at home. So, they took them with my wife’s jewellery. One of the girls saw me and asked, ‘Are you that comedian?’ I said, ‘Yes,’ and she told the rest that they should leave. Another one said, ‘He has called Gani Adams, please, let’s go.’ At another time, I was going along the old toll gate and my tyre bumped into something. Suddenly, I was surrounded by them and they shouted, ‘Come out, come out.’ I told them to take it easy. Then one of them said, ‘Hey shine shine bobo na u? You don chop star money finish, see your big tommy.’ They collected my phones and gave me my sim cards. They said, ‘We dey enjoy you, we dey feel your jokes my brother.’ They didn’t rough handle me.