By EzechiÂ Onyerionwu
For those who have been disheartened by the continuous decline of the Nigerian theater tradition, the advent of an avant-garde alternative in the emergent stand-up comedy culture has hugely compensated for a truly sad loss.
This feeling of loss is completely understandable because in the hey day of the Nigerian theater institution, there was hardly a more potent form of social criticism, or a more colourful medium of cultural exhibition, or even a more subtle vehicle for satire. Today the artistic media that has undisputedly inherited these and more laudable responsibilities of the theater is stand-up comedy.
It is however to the credit of the many characteristics which both genres share that an overlap-free transition has been guaranteed. First, like the core dramatic theater, stand-up comedy is essentially a stage art. Secondly in the process of performance, both forms accommodate the aesthetics of presentation in the form of visuals and histrionics. Thirdly, both artistic media recognize to a large extent the premium on immediacy and spontaneity.
Fourthly, music and dance are adjunct artistic phenomena to both arts of the theater. Fifthly, if our dramatic theater has produced world-renowned icons in the mould of the Ola Rotimis, the Femi Osofisans and even a Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka, our stand up comedy has also produced performers of international significance such as Ali Baba, Okey Bakassi, Basket Mouth, I Go Die, Mike Ogolosinger etc. Perhaps the most notable distinctions between the two art forms are that unlike in theater drama, stand-up comedy does not have the luxury of generic divisions (tragedy, co
medy and tragedy-comedy etc), and the discrepancies emanating from structural, dramatic personae and point-of-view variables.
It is also instructive to note that apart from theater, stand-up comedy has gleaned a lot of inspiration from ancient and modern performance arts. Obviously, folk story-telling forms in terms of narratives of various categories, in their performer-audience schema, have an overwhelming influence in the emergence of Nigerian stand up comedy. The contribution of the master of ceremony (MC) phenomenon, probably the most vital factor in the rise of American stand-up comedy, cannot be over-emphasized in the Nigerian case. Also central are the classical idea of rhetoric, as propounded by scholars like Aristotle and traditional Nigerian sense of oratory as highlighted in the works of writers of cultural consciousness such as Chinua Achebe.
Though it flaunts the strict posture of an entertainment art, with little or no functional intentions, stand-up comedy hides behind this ludicrous coat to perform the social role more than admirably. Sourcing raw materials from every imaginable aspect of Nigerian life, and dissecting them with a knife dipped in the light-hearted fluid of comedy, the instructional import of its assertions never escapes the alert mind of the sensitive Nigerian.
From Nigerian politics and all its laughable indignities, to the palpable financial situation of the average Nigerian, and to the curious behavioural patterns and value system of the Nigerian peoples, the Nigerian stand up comedians as conscientized and sensitized individuals in their own rights open chapters and chapters of the chequered existence of one of the most talked about of world nations, not only to their countrymen but also to the insatiate outside world.
Thus when Ali Baba tells a joke about Nigerian senators and Ghana-must-go bags; Malik, about the lies of the ruling class; Basket Mouth, about the politics of plane crashes; Okey Bakassi, about social and financial insecurity in Nigeria; Mike Ogolosinger, about civil unrest and the activities of militants in the Niger-Delta region, etc., they are demonstrating the fact of the artists role as a voice of reason in a society in dire need of direction.
Surely, stand-up comedy has ably defended its claim to being one of the most effective anesthesia to the pains, sorrows, fears, disappointments, frustrations, worries and uncertainties of the average Nigerian. To many Nigerians who were on the verge of going psychiatric as a result of the infernal socio-political woes of their fatherland, it is a most welcome development how these talented artists have recycled those same inglorious materials of their follies to become catalysts to the restoration of their sanity.
On the other hand, the assertions of these artists may not always have a social undertone. On many occasions it is something close to â€˜humour for humourâ€™s sakeâ€™. In Nigeria today, you must be a piece of wood to successfully resist the temptation to the pool of laughter when Klint the Drunk does his drunkardâ€™s jig; when A.Y. creatively but flawlessly mimics Pastors Chris Oyakhilome, Chris Okotie and T. B. Joshua; when Julius Agwu switches on the musi-comedy delight; when A.Y. and T.A. lashes out at Nigerian musicians; when Gandoki draws a distinction between Abuja, Lagos and Port Harcourt and Warri young men and women; when Gordon lectures you on alternative ways of checking yourself for mouth odour, etc.
Humour of various types and shades remain the most characteristic instrument, and in fact, foundation of stand-up comedy in Nigeria and elsewhere. From the assertions of these mostly young Nigerian men drawn from almost all sections of the Nigerian nation, it is apparent that humour can be ground out of everything Nigerian. It is also crystal clear that being a successful stand-up comedian in Nigeria imposes the prerequisite of multi-varied talent. That is why almost every Nigerian stand-up comedian is at the same time an excellent dancer, a consummate singer, a polyglot, an actor, a poet, etc. In appreciating the art of the Nigerian stand-up comedian, one has to acknowledge the hardwork and training that compliment the talent.
As both creative and performance artist, the Nigerian stand-up comedian knows that he should be as concerned with the dynamics of delivery as he is with the conception of his material.
In addition, the Nigerian stand-up comedian as a custodian of the idea of total art understands the simple logic that effective art subscribes to an orderly, acceptable and functional arrangement, which not only speaks volumes of the artistâ€™s sense of organization and structure, but also penchant for meaning. Thus hardly is any other artist more besaddled with the heavy onus of total art than the stand-up comedian. The Nigerian stand-up comedy artist has also proved to be a researcher par- excellence, who not only has to know cultures, psychologies, societies, religions, histories, etc, but also subjects himself to the tedious chore of fitting into all these, and fashioning out an appropriate module of presentation.
The Nigerian stand-up comedy remains a hugely important appurtenance of the artistic renaissance occasioned by the return to a democratic system of government. Irrespective of reservations from several quarters about the truly democratic quality of our leadership, it has at least provided our stand-up comedians the ambience to say it as it is, as well as how they want to say it without fear of molestation or intimidation. This art-friendly environment accounts for a bulk of any credit for artistic courage and bravery we want to ascribe to our performers. This is in spite of the fact that our darling art certainly has to do with a considerable degree of censorship, as it regrettably appears that some artists are throwing modesty to the winds to utilize foul and vulgar language. Also the tendency to embarrass top government functionaries and occupiers of public office should be adjusted to tally with the dictates of decency.
Finally with the establishment and success of the Nite of a Thousand Laughs series among other outlets for the stand-up comedy genre, I believe something substantial has been recovered from the Nigerian theater going tradition which has received deathblows over the past number of years, and which lies in tatters as far as the conventional theater drama is concerned. And with the impressive inter-disciplinary bonds stand-up comedy has been able to foster, theatergoers are guaranteed an artistic capsule that serves a wide range of audiences and purposes. An additional tonic is the promise that the genre radiates, having gained even the patronage of the international audience.