After 19 years of entertaining people, Alleluyah Akpobome has earned himself the title of Doyen of Comedy. Thirsty for novelty in the comedy business, and expecting himself to join the league of some of the world’s most respected and influential comedians of all times, the man from Warri has his eyes on higher levels of fame and prestige, even in retirement.

Ali Baba came to Lagos with a caricature portmanteau and slept on the Bar Beach, several nightclubs and even a lock up shop. Now, with fame and fortunes beyond his imagination, he is looking at leaving something behind for others to feast on. Reporter, Gbenga Bada spoke with him.

You are hardly seen as much as before on stage, why was this so?

Some years back, I resolved that I would be killing the comedy industry if I continue to appear at every comedy and stage shows, just because everybody wants me to anchor or perform for him or her. It means that I would be depriving the younger colleagues the chance to grow, by not only depriving him or her of income, but also reducing the fee that the comedian should be charging per show, because the organisers would say if Ali Baba can collect this amount, who are you to want to collect the same fee? I have learnt to do fewer events for more money, and sometimes, those shows that are not advertised pay more. It is not that I just don’t want to participate in these shows but I want it to grow, and how can it grow if my colleagues are not growing or if I am not encouraging up and coming colleagues. I started out with friends and colleagues like Yibo Koko, late Mohammed Danjuma, Basorge Tariah, Okey Bakassi and others, and it would be sad to note that in my bid to survive in life or in the industry, I also destroyed it by taking every show that comes my way. It’s not that I don’t want to, but I shouldn’t, and besides, it’s ethically wrong.

Why did it take you three years to stage another comedy show after Chair Offer?

I rarely do events; the last I did was in 2005 called the Chair offer. Not that I don’t like doing events but the energy and logistics that go into it do not give commensurate benefit. So, if you are a comedian and gets to do shows frequently, within a month, you would probably have made eight times what might you get from your own show from the ones you are invited to. Aside that, I can’t have a show when other colleagues are having theirs, because for them, it’s like stepping up. They need to grow, and I can’t about myself having been in the business for a while. So, most of the times, I have allowed my colleagues to do shows because I don’t want it to clash with mine. Then again, you find out that the profit margin is always very low. Next year, I would have been 20 years as a stand up comedian. So, the show I am having is like a Semi final to my final show.

Why did you opt for this trinity – He, Them and I?

What I am trying to do with this show is to showcase people that have distinguished themselves in their fields, and those that have grown with me on this job. That is why you have Yibo Koko, Okey Bakassi, Basorge Tariah, Patrick Doyle and Alarm Bloo and others as Them, that is those that have come a long way with me, while He, has only D’Banj, who has been able to distinguish himself and made a good name for himself in the Nigerian entertainment industry and I, which is simply me alone. I had at first wanted Bill Cosby to be the He, because he’s someone that has done so well for himself in the comedy business and whom I respect so much but I felt, if I had done that, who would I have as the special person when I would be saying goodbye to active stand up comedy? Before I leave, I am trying to show my colleagues how shows should be packaged. There are so many rules in comedy that people don’t follow anymore. The line between being funny and being offensive is so thin, you may thread and slip it is important to maintain the balance, and I am showing my colleagues how it should be done.

Are you saying your colleagues are not doing shows the way it should be done?

No. All I’m saying is that there are rules to be followed as a stand up comedian, which some of my colleagues are not following or strictly adhering to, and it’s not good for the profession. Aside that, there are rooms for improvement and that is what I intend doing with this show, so that they can improve more on their game and step it up. I would be quitting very soon, but I intend to continually advice and make colleagues and the industry grow. What I am doing is an eye opener to how they can make more money and do better shows. Some of my colleagues complain so much about not making profits after every show and they just lament, so I want to show them how they should go about their dealings to get a better result.

Why the choice of D’Banj as He?

If you check statistics, you’d discover that D’Banj has been the most played artiste for a while now. D’Banj is also like the highest award-winning artiste. I wanted to get people who have befitted from the entertainment industry and D’Banj is one of them. He would be performing at the show nearly for free, because I am giving him only transport fare and he has agreed. He is a must see artiste, and nearly everybody wants to see his charisma and all his stagecraft and I’m sure if we have to count five top Nigerian musicians right now, D’Banj would be on top. The first show is intended to give back to the society big time with D’Banj giving people a full dose of his Koko wonder, and if we get good sponsors we might as well do the first show for free. It depends on the sponsors and the attending negotiation. We will also have the command performance, which will be attended by invitees and would be an A-class comedy show.

You just said there’s a thin line between being offensive and being funny. Wasn’t this similar to what caused the alleged rift between you and ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo?

I still enjoy a good relationship with Baba till date and I have never been out of favour with him. I can call him now if you want. You see, some people just use Panadol for other people’s headache, and that is one thing I have learnt on my job. The first thing is to have a good relationship with these people before using such punch line on them. Most times, I tell Baba the jokes about him even before I render them publicly, and whenever I render them in his presence, he already knows the punch line and laughs it off. There was a time I did a joke about Chief Alex Akinyele, comparing him with Jim Nwobodo as minister of sports. After rendering the joke, one of Chief Akinyele’s aides came and warned me not to disrespect his boss or render such jokes again and I said okay. But, when the man himself saw me, he simply repeated the joke and we laughed over it. When I told him about his aide he simply shrugged him off and literarily compelled me to do more. The rumour that Baba was angry with me is false. It was just some of his aides who was over acting in his absence and nothing more. Be that as it may, I do not encourage my colleagues, who have no relationship with these people to render such jokes, because it might be embarrassing for them. Like the one that happened when a colleague of mine rendered a joke about Baba and the former President publicly declared that he had never met the dude and that the incident happened between himself and Ali Baba. So, there is a thin line between being funny and being offensive, but when you have a relationship with these people, it’s easier to do a punch line on them because you might have at one time or the other said it to them personally.

You are one of the highest paid stand up comedians and masters of ceremony in the country today. It is even said that you even collect millions for shows. How much do you really charge for shows?

The lowest I charge is free, because I have even paid for artiste to perform at some shows before. This is because there are times I am called to do an event for somebody, but I have another event that is juicier and what I do is since you are insisting, I would get you another MC to do this event and pay for it. Immediately you’d know that the person only wants something cheap and not really your services. By so doing, you would have saved yourself the agony of losing the juicy job. If you have a product launch, I could do between N1million and N1.5million, but if it were out of town, I would charge between N1.5million and N2million. This is probably a standard I want to maintain, but it could be more.

But there are backbiting and some of your colleagues don’t take a uniform fee?

If somebody pays you N40,000 at initial engagement, it would be hard to increase your fee and you also prevent other colleagues from getting that much or more. It’s best for you to think of other colleagues when charging, because it is only when you miss a show that you realise how important you are to the show. Charge as much as you can, though, you shouldn’t be too high. Be considerate, but don’t belittle yourself or other colleagues by charging too low. We have sacrificed for others when we started. It is only when you get appreciated that you can help build the industry.

How would you know whether you are appreciated or not by the client?

I would give you an example. A man called me up to do an event for him for a price and I told him that I couldn’t do it for that price. But he began to beg, and even employed his wife to beg me. It was after that that I agreed, and I was paid by his company. Months later, one of the directors in his company wanted to celebrate his 70th birthday. He just called me up and said, ‘Ali, I have instructed them to raise a cheque for you to be at the event for me’, but I said we have not discussed the price. Then he told me he learnt that the company paid me certain amount, and that he has raised the same amount for his own event. The man now later called me and pleaded that I should understand that he is a director and that I should do it for the price. And I told him that it’s a shame for me to tell him to his face that he is a disappointment, and he felt insulted and that was it. We have a mutual friend who intervened. After that, I simply knew that the first man didn’t appreciate my services, because if he had appreciated me, he would have told his director the exact amount I told him that I usually charge. It also means if it were to be any of my younger colleagues, they would even pay less and say after all, Ali doesn’t even take that much. Every wristwatch says the time but there’s difference in their aesthetics and what they portray.

Tell us more about the brand Ali Baba

My clients are people who are not fascinated by all these endorsement deals and they don’t even watch the TV that well to feel me. My kind of audience are people who enjoy me most when I render jokes for them on a stage and they laugh so well that they can relate with whatever I have to tell them. They are the kind of people I have grown to make my audience. Not that I don’t like the endorsement deals, but I just don’t clamour for them like you are making it sound. If it comes, I would definitely get it done. I once did some, but to be factual with you, my kind of commodity is not the one that needs much advertisement because the crowd would ask for it, even without adverts or endorsements. It’s like medicines for catarrh and cough. We have several adverts but have you seen any advert on Actifed on your TV? Is it still not the most preferred medicine for these things? That is how you can easily understand my kind of brand.

What can you say about the talks about you rolling with women who are far richer than you?

I’m not bothered about such talks because you need to see the kind of shows and events that I get to make you know that I make my own money and I don’t live on any woman. I would give you an instance. A client called me up and said whenever he asks for discount from me I refuse, and that he has been fighting on my behalf. He said and I quote, ‘Do you know that my wife and her friends saw you on TV and they started talking of how you go around dating women that are richer than you for their money. I simply showed my wife what we paid for the last show you did for us. So next time give me discount oh.’ People like that know what I am worth and what I have been able to work hard to get. It’s not my fault that my taste in women is rich, and there’s nothing I can do about that. I mean, that is my own taste of women and everybody has his or her own taste. I have never been bothered and I won’t be bothered a bit. I know what I’m worth and what the good Lord has done for me.

Would it be right to say you are successful and wealthy?

If I deny the goodness of God in my life I would be calling for His anger. God has done so well for me. I mean I am someone who came to Lagos determined to make it better than my father, and to become a man of own. I came to Lagos in 1988 with a caricature kind of luggage. I call it caricature because it was made of paper and I can’t remember how many times I slept in nightclubs, Bar Beach and even in a lock up shop owned by my friend Giant Ajanloko. I had no place to keep my clothes and what I did was leave them with my washman, who I still use till date, and I go there daily to change my clothes. I started gradually and the good Lord showed me His grace. I now live well, have several clothes, own cars and live in a good home in Lekki. So, the good Lord has been good to me. You see, in terms of wealth, I am rich in the Lord and all I will be going after is in the Lord’s vineyard.

Are there any regrets?

I won’t really say I have regrets, but my saddest moments were when we lost Mohammed Danjuma and Abagana. I felt we could have prevented their death one way or another. But we thank God that they impacted on some lives and we are grateful that they existed in our time.

What about XQZ Moi and the demolition issue?

Well, XQZ Moi is doing fine. What happened is that we lost some part of our property to the Lagos State Government when they started the construction of the road that went through the back of XQZ Moi, but we have been able to resolve all that and all we are waiting for is the completion of the work. When that happens, we will be back in business full swing, only that we would have lost some meters of our land.