THE GENTLEMAN OF COMEDY

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TUNDE ADEWALE (TEE A)

If anyone had told him, he would come this far, he would have laughed in the person’s face. Not from doubt, but a genuine concern that it was too much to ask for. Yes, he wanted to be a comedian, but to think that it would open so many other doors of opportunity? He didn’t know that in the beginning. Twenty years on, Nseobong
Okon-Ekong reports that popular comedian, Tunde Adewale, better known as, Tee A, has not only done well for himself, he has held the door open for others to walk in and climb the podium of fame and fortune

When he arrived the Ikeja, Lagos-based hotel, I was already neck-deep in conversation with a former federal legislator. I stood to shake hands with him and introduced him to the man I was talking with – who recognised him immediately anyway. I excused myself to finish what we were saying and he quietly took a newspaper and got busy reading it. Knowing he had kept me waiting for a while and more out of his good natured self, he did not complain. A few staff of the hotel and other guests who recognised him as well came over either to pose for photographs with him or exchange small banter. As I finished my conversation, he stood up as well and requested we have the interview in a more exclusive part of the hotel that would not be immediately accessible to all and sundry. We were not very successful with keeping him away from acknowledging greetings.

This type of outward show of friendship, even to people you barely know (even if they have a face that is recognised in the public), may have contributed to the world famous happy mien attributed to the average Nigerian. Not a few were surprised a couple of years ago when it emerged that Nigerians were categorised as the happiest people on earth.

Could this mean that famous comedian, Tunde Adewale, who is better known as Tee A and his colleagues who are in the business of making people laugh have an easy job? This assumption is not far from the truth. The average Nigerian always finds a reason to laugh and smile. No matter how serious or critical the situation may be, the Nigerian looks for the homorous window to let off steam. While it may not be a conscious attitude, it may be argued that the Nigerian society is a happy-go-lucky one, with many justifying their lighthearted disposition with the often touted lingo, ‘I no fit kill myself.’
Tee A summed it up thus; “nothing weighs down the Nigerian. He has a natural tendency to pick himself, dust himself and move on.

I think that’s what really made them say that. The fact that you have a community of such people in the audience also helps. Of course, there are different types of audiences, but by and large, a receptive audience is what every artiste prays for. You have some audiences that are very stiff, those are the ones that are always within the four walls of an office, they don’t watch television, they are very shrewd accountants, oil and gas people – their life is basically about reading. However, I think majority of Nigerians are happy-go-lucky people. That helps because when you are working, you are able to feed off the energy of the crowd.”

Like many entertainers, TeeA is not often as lucky as he wishes. Sometimes he is faced with an audience of the stiff and the unsmiling. At such times, he draws from his bank of creativity. His experience and years of professionalism come to play. For a good number of years, he had adopted an unwritten rule of accepting corporate engagements, majorly.

Working in that domain, he has since come to understand the concern of the human resources and/or public relations managers. Therefore, he takes it seriously when he gets a brief that describes the potential audience as ‘unfriendly’ and urges him to find ways to break them and carry them along without being offensive. For this type of audience, he finds himself using similar skills as an adept suitor, trying to win the heart of a beautiful damsel. He puts his best foot forward with light matters like paying compliment to an item of dressing they are wearing. He does not just throw jokes at them.

He courts them. Like a skilled pugilist, he has to study and go around them in circles, looking for the opportunity to tap into their mood and psyche. The jokes, at such instances, must be spontaneous, drawn more from things and situations they can relate to in their immediate environment. It could be a table cloth that is not sitting well, the decor or what the next person is wearing. The connect is immediate. Once they are hooked with their attention and totally riveted to the performer, it is considered safe to go back to the prearranged material.

Perhaps, working among the calculated and the studious has brought out his many good sides. For instance, he has written a book, which in part speaks to tons of requests by persons who desire a career in comedy. Titled ‘Life of an MC’, TeeA discloses, without giving much away that the brief is the most important thing a performer must understand when signing up for a job. In TeeA’s estimation, the comedian must personalise the script by researching into the client’s background, whether it is a company or an individual. Automatically, this influences the kind of jokes. You don’t start talking about the bad economy if you are hired by a company that has just retrenched 300 workers or not made profit in three years. With that kind of background, the jokes should be spurn around the positive.

Tee A doesn’t think Nigerian comedians deserve a knock for repeating jokes. He said the phenomenon is global and not restricted to Nigeria. “If you can create jokes, they are yours forever. The fact that you used it last year doesn’t mean you can’t use it today. It happens globally. However, why it often looks fresh before audiences is that they don’t deliver the same material in the same way. There’s always a fresh twist to it. So that’s what a couple of us have also learnt. You may have heard me say a joke, but it will be different from how I started it yesterday.”

The peculiarity of the Nigerian environment does not encourage the pursuit of intellectual property rights on jokes. The situation becomes more worrisome with the non-existence of a formal association of comedians. Nigerian comedians may be closely knit, but they lack the official capacity to institute certain guidelines and a platform to redress real or perceived wrongs. Disclosing what has become the norm among comedians, Tee A said, “I don’t have a problem with you using my material. There are jokes I created 10 or 15 years ago. There are jokes that Ali Baba did 20 years ago.

I see younger comedians use it with reckless abandon without giving any credit. There’s a professional way of giving credit without it being obvious that it is somebody else’s material. It’s as simple as saying ‘like my good friend Ali Baba will say’. You’ve stylishly acknowledged the person even without your audience knowing. You just don’t take ownership, that’s what most of us frown at. It’s even better for you to create your own material rather than feeding off someone else’s. The truth is that you will never ever be able to deliver someone else’s material like the original creator.”

ttempt to distinguish between a comedian and an MC. Describing himself as one of the lucky few with the distinction of straddling both vocations, he enthused. “I started as a stand-up comedian, and I realised that at a point in time they just call me to an event to do five or 10 minutes joke, and then the MC takes over. I enjoyed it initially but I thought this MC thing, I can do it as well. The MC just throws jabs and jokes to lighten up an event not necessarily to perform stand-up. I knew I could do the work of an MC. I could work on TV and radio; so why do I limit myself. Even friends and families will just call me up for jokes at a wedding or end of the year party, but they reserve the role of MC to another person. I began to give serious thought to why I should go to an to perform jokes of between 10 or 15 minutes.

I was convinced I could actually do both, I just had to charge a bit more. A couple of us have been able to marry the two successfully but some prefer stand-up and there is absolutely no problem with that. Others don’t even want to be seen as a comedian. They just want to be known as MCs. They will tell you if they do any joke it’s a bonus. There are different levels for everyone but I am comfortable being a comedian and an MC. The basic difference is that a comedian entertains at any given time in the course of an event, while an MC just controls the flow of an event. He is not obliged to entertain.”

TeeA thinks while an enterprising and creative MC may hold his own as a comedian, it may be a difficult challenge for some comedians to work as MC. “I devoted a chapter to this in my book. We have the classic emcees and the MC/comedian. The classic emcees ensure that the event runs as intended. If there is any lapse during the programme, the best that they will do is invite the band, to take care of that timing or rearrange the programme. But a comedian/MC knows that he can actually get away with five minutes of jokes. That’s what an MC/comedian does. If anything goes wrong at any point in time, he is there to save the day. There is never a dull moment with an MC/comedian.”

Making jokes about people with disability, women and institutions like the police have become a staple with comedians, TeeA’s position on this is on the side of his professional integrity. He began his explanation with the meaning of comedy. “Comedy is a humorous reflection of events in a society. The police, men, women, religious bodies are all part of the society. You can’t take these things out. It’s like telling a filmmaker don’t put police in your film or a writer not to write about police even if they are at the checkpoints and their roles play a critical part of the novel.

These things are an integral part of the society. If the comedian is going to mirror the society, he is definitely going to talk about them. Having said that, there are issues that are sensitive and it takes an experienced hand to know that some things are off-limits. For instance, for a long time, they used to call me the gentleman of comedy because I don’t do vulgar jokes. I don’t do jokes about disability. It’s my nature. But the people that do dirty jokes, it doesn’t mean they are vulgar in nature but they are just bringing out a representation of the society that some of us are not comfortable to voice out. It’s not as if we are not even comfortable hearing it, we like it but because of society, we act like we don’t.

We share it among ourselves on the phone. I do not touch some things that border on human nature. For instance, jokes on fat people, it’s off-limit for me because there is a thin line between being funny and being a nuisance. A good comedian must learn how not to cross that line because what is funny to one might rub off badly on other. Time and experience will teach you which materials to use. In the past, when a comedian says he saw two imbeciles fighting, people will laugh but today, you can’t get on stage and mention the word imbecile.

You might have people who are termed special, you don’t call them imbecile. Those are the kind of materials that are off-limit as much as it might be funny, it is a personal pain that some people might be going through. I think we should all be sensitive; not only comedians, writers, actors, musicians. These type of portrayal doesn’t go down with some people who have these challenges. For institutions like police, if they are doing good, the materials will bear a positive slant. When it’s negative, they should also learn to take it.”

The comedy sector of the Nigerian entertainment industry has grown in leaps and bounds in the last few years. TeeA attributes it to two reasons. The first factor for this growth is the love and acceptance of the Nigerian audience. The second thing is the labour of the pioneers. “I did ‘Tee-A Live and Naked’ for eight straight years from 2000. I did it in Lagos, Abuja and London. If I didn’t do that for eight years, who knows, some other comedians may not have been inspired.

Some of us have paid our dues in the industry. Ali Baba started like five or six years before me. People like Uncle Patrick Doyle blazed the trail with Friday Night Live. Then Uncle Soni Irabor, on the Sunday Show, there was a bit of humour in it. Then Ali Baba went on to do Tom, Dick and Ali on AIT. I mean these are the people who paved the way for people like me and also inspired others. The work that we did as pioneers and the acceptance that the society has given to us is responsible for the love and appreciation that comedians are getting today. When I started, I only knew two comedians: the late Danjuma Mohammed and Ali Baba.”

Comedy has grown so big that it now appears to have overshadowed music. Times were when musicians headlined a show and sought the participation of comedians. The table has since turned. Now, comedians rule at shows, bringing musicians as an appendage on their shows. And it all began with TeeA. “When I set out to do ‘Tee-A Live and Naked’, it was basically, a one-man show. I invited the Plantashun Boiz to play, even they didn’t show up on that day.

The thought was this: If you are doing a two-hour set, you need a break. So you fill that break with music. The performance was always divided into stand-up and drama. I’ll do the stand-up for one hour and then go and change, while the artist is performing. After his performance, we will come back and do the skit-myself, Princess and MC Abbey and that was the show. But later on, I found out that people desired more music, so I guess that’s what the other comedians also saw. It now became who is the music headliner on your show, rather than let’s go and watch comedy for the sake of comedy. I believe we shouldn’t lose our heads, because it has a positive and negative side.

I think we are gradually cheating the audience from having the full dose of their money worth of our own creativity at our own shows. People should go home after a one-man show with different thoughts in their heads. But these days what we find is that people come to your show and they leave without even talking about you, they are discussing people who came to perform at your show. That is one thing that we urgently need to address. If we are going to do stand-up shows, we should do stand-up shows, and if we are doing variety shows, we should let people know.”

When it comes to the question of whether he has mentored anyone, TeeA waxes philosophical, “The thing with me about mentorship is that I only bring few people close to me for training. But a lot of people come to me and say I’m their mentor that they are inspired from just watching me on stage. They spoke about this on the day of the anniversary. A lot of people have come and gone. For instance, Princess and MC Abbey, they were on stage at my 20th anniversary and they talked about the first time I brought them to be part of ‘TymeOut with Tee-A’, the direction I gave to them, that they didn’t know they would be able to do it.

But I saw something in them. I reasoned that if I work with them, the characters will actually be good materials to stand up on their own. For six or 10 years, they were doing the show and they built careers for themselves based on that ‘TymeOut with Tee-A’ character. I’m not one to take creditsfor things like that. If they didn’t mention it, I won’t say so. In terms of mentorship, I will say once my work is able to inspire you, I’m okay with that.”

With his new book, TeeA now has the distinction of being the second comedian, after Julius Agwu, to write a book. While Agwu’s work may be considered a personal Odyssey, TeeA enters the realm of intellectual discourse; taking on themes and topics and dissecting them in a manner that can provoke further conversation. “I get an awful lot of requests for internship from young comedians. I tell them watch me and how I work.

Some of them suggest they follow me around. You are not a ‘boy-boy’, you are your own man. You can do this. I try to explain to them, some think that they should get close to me. But how many of them can I possibly reach? What they need is not mentorship.
It’s not that they don’t even have jokes, they do, they just believe they need to come under the wings of someone who will be able to show them how to deal with their audience and how to get their own share of the market. That’s why I said I can’t literally train everybody but if I put my thoughts together in a book, everybody can have it and know my own thoughts. I’m just using the book to start a conversation. Another comedian can pick up from where I stop.”

Unlike a couple of comedians who have jumped into movies, TeeA has only played cameos in one or two movies. As a strong believer in facing one’s area of competence and comfort, he prefers to progress sure-footedly. For a long time, he did just stand-ups. Now he has added emceeing and television production. “Movies have never been near my horizon. I don’t have the time to stay on a location for one or two weeks. I’m too busy for that. Right now my focus is to build my own personal television productions, apart from ‘TymeOut with Tee-A’, I want to have other shows on TV on the platform of my company, First Class Entertainment.”

For his industriousness, a few members of his family have nicknamed him, ‘Chukwudi’, an Igbo name that speaks to the intensity with which he pursues his goals. “ I love business, turning money around. I have also been able to do that, even with my business. All my production equipment, lights, cameras, I bought them with the money from comedy. I’m intrigued by business. I still hope to start a completely new business soon, away from entertainment.”