Okay, did you know there’s a technique to comedy and that anyone could learnt it? Well yes, there is. And if you’d like to acquire the identikit for comedy, you could simply go to school to learn the artform—how to write funny; how to speak funny; how to act funny; how to do stand-up comedy. Did Bovi Ugboma, Nigeria’s prince of comedy, go to any of those schools? Hold on; we will get to that.
Did you know that on Udemy, the online train-at-your-own-pace site, there are more than 15 courses on comedy? Oh yes, there are. I took one of them. There, you learn, for instance, that a joke essentially has two parts. The setup and the punch. They used to call it the punchline but these days, the punch is just… the punch. Why? Because it doesn’t have to be a line anymore. It could be a smirk, a wink, a deadpan stare, a cough, a twist, silence, anything.
That said, should you choose to sit through the several hours of any of these lessons, I must warn you that there are no guarantees that you would spontaneously metamorphose into a wit. What you’d at least learn is that, apart from the setup and punch, the elements of comedy also include invectives, insult, exaggeration, understatement, and the twist, which some people prefer to call the surprise.
Surprising. This is the adjective for Bovi’s perennially ascendant career. It was a shock that in 2007, Bovi first role as a comic would be on a TV sitcom. The show, called Extended Family, was about a family of five who brought the wife’s problematic nephew from the village to live with them in Lagos. Bovi played that nephew, Onoriode.
There were loose parallels between Bovi and his onscreen counterpart. Like Onoriode, Bovi was born and raised in Benin, southern Nigerian. Bovi was also notorious for being quite the naughty youngster, forcing his parents to pull him from two secondary schools one after the other before he finally completed that part of his education at a third. He would eventually study Theatre Arts at the Delta State University. When he came to Lagos, it was for a change of scenery and personal growth, just like his character in Extended Family.
In each episode of the show, Onoriode and his sidekick, the husband’s nephew Imabong, would make up hare-brained schemes to defraud their three female cousins. To gauge how beloved the sitcom Extended Family was is to read the comments section under each episode, as they’re now uploaded to YouTube. And it was such a shocker to learn during the initial run of the programme that it was created and produced by Bovi, a total unknown.
Besides, TV and scripted content is what you rise to after doing the rounds of the stand-up concerts and clubs. Not the other way round. And not the one you produce yourself. Evidence of that is in several other funny men and women who, having attained fame doing stand-up and social media skits are now executing their expansion plans, into sitcoms and movies. If you’d like some names, here we go: Basketmouth. He did just that—stand-up comedy, then TV.
A senior veteran of the industry and leader of the third generation of Nigerian comedians, Basketmouth, real name Bright Okpocha, emerged as the most successful member of the third generation of Nigerian comics. Some say as Trevor Noah is to South Africa, Basketmouth is to Nigeria. Mr Okpocha’s cohort arrived after Ali Baba (Atunyota Alleluya Akpobome), champion of the second generation, post-Independence, and became the receiver of everyone’s tip of the hat as the Nigeria’s godfather of comedy. But TV, for Basketmouth, came after he’d conquered the mic and stool, home and abroad.
Which makes Bovi’s path quite noteworthy. After his unprecedented success on TV, he then went the rookie way, breaking into stand-up via the king-making platform of the mid 90s and 2020s, Nite of a Thousand Laughs.
The concert, created by film producer Opa Williams in 1995, was the largest stage for established regulars and up-and-comers, to put on a show. The first time Bovi took that stage with his observational material and improvisations, he totally killed. And, as they say on the circuits, he’s never bombed since.
In a review for ThisDay newspaper, the entertainment reporter, Azuka Ogujioba, writes about one of Bovi’s shows: “Our ribs hurt because we laughed so hard; every joke was on point.” For the show in question, it was reported that the producers paid Bovi N20million, an unusually high number for a one-man special in 2017.
“Comedy comes to me naturally,” Bovi, 41, once said in an interview. “One thing I do know is, right from when I was a child, I always wanted to be an entertainer. I guess, either my persistence paid off or by nature this is what God wanted for me but I think it’s more of the latter.”
However, as much as his sprezzatura might further support the notion that he is simply one of those geniuses who wake up each day with a new bit on their lips, there is copious evidence that there’s craft at play.
Take his conversational cadence, for example. It was the wind in the sail of his solo one-hour live concert, Man on Fire, through its four editions, from 2013 to 2019. This delivery style, though, couldn’t have been better practised in aid of his conceptual framing and intertwined topical jokes. It is the hallmark of a pro who invests intellectual currency in conceptualising his stories and then puts some time in the writing and testing of those material before integrating them into a routine. And speaking of the joke and scene writing, it just so happens that TV, from where Bovi’s career took off, is just the place to hone that skill.
Right now, Bovi has reembraced his first love. In 2019, he returned to sitcoms with Back to School, a YouTube series about a group of older students (one of whom is played by Bovi) who over estimate their own importance and thus continually cause friction in their secondary school. He also produces and stars in another YouTube series, Banana Republic; and in 2020, his movie It’s Her Day premiered on Netflix to mostly positive reviews.
Like any other creative, however, Bovi hasn’t gone without a knock or two here and there for the content of his scripted shows. But while some of them appear like a collection of sketches strung together by a common group of actors—similar to an anthology series with nearly invisible character arcs, what he at times gets skewered for is the type of stories he tells. About It’s Her Day, one reviewer writes that, “It is the worst love story ever told,” and that, “I felt socially awkward when I watched this film.”
Well, it’s art. One man’s hit is often another man’s miss. What’s undeniable, however, is that a mould has been created by Bovi with which the coming set of comedic artistes build their own career. Yes, Nigeria is a country awash with side-splitting stereotypes, habits, and legends, the next level of the art is above a simple transliteration of those quirks—as several emerging comedians currently do online and on stage. (Think of the one billion African Father parodies you’ve seen).
To be like Bovi, one must include a twist, context, delivery to create a well-founded system that achieves a laugh a minute score of about 2.5. This is how, as some of us irremediably fail out of comedy school, he continues to teach class.
This article first appeared in The Guardian (Nigeria) on 30 January 2021