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Comedian AY is most primed for one more comedy stage

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As you know, the road to Instagram fame and fortune is paved with crushed bits of trial and error. Sometimes when you try, you inevitably find yourself in error. And what do you do in that case? You try again, of course. Until something clicks.

For the reigning champions of IG sketch comedy— Mr Macaroni (Debo Adebayo), Taaooma (Maryam Apaokagi), and Broda Shaggi (Samuel Perry)— it took several months of testing an assortment of characters before the current ones made a splash and began hauling in the cash. The success of these three actors has become a culmination to which many others in the game can relate. You could call it paying your dues or you could call it experimentation, but it all comes down to the same thing: figuring out what will connect with the audience and buy you financial independence.

When you think of this financial independence for comedians, you know who obviously comes to mind? Comedian AY. He figured this thing out rather quickly.

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Unlike many artists, AY (Ayo Makun) saw, much earlier in his career, how his business of comedy could be built both on the pipe and platform models. Pipe: you sell directly to a customer, e.g., corporate clients and concertgoers. Platform: you build a stage where other comedians can sell their goods while you also reach those same corporate clients and concertgoers.

His yearly AY Live concert, staged consistently every Easter in multiple Nigerian cities, is a bigger discovery arena for many comedians— stand-up, skits, and musi-comedians — and AY, 49, relishes the benefit to be a player and manager— a creator and a businessman — at the same time. His work ethic and eye for the dough is why he may be compared to Kevin Hart, who in 2019 was the highest paid comedian in the world.

When critics call AY “more of a businessman than a comedian”, they mean to be derisive. But are they? Isn’t it a huge, rare compliment to acknowledge a creator’s fortitude to rise beyond the traditional artist’s dilemma, the struggle between commerce and art? AY’s mastery of his own structure is now at the point that it not only profits himself, but others as well. For instance, he does have five comedic movies on Netflix.

However, the same system hack that produced AY Live needs to be adapted to the art form itself. Scientification — creating a system that can be studied and replicated. To do this in stand-up, it will mean this: understand the rules of joke writing, commit several hours to practice, appreciate what it requires to hone a tight five, and test the material repeatedly before a real audience. (If only he shoots his concerts for TV viewing, Bovi Ugboma may be the only Nigerian comedian who currently practices this way.)

While it’s indeed a matter of immense pride to be able to claim spontaneity, like veteran comics Okey Bakassi (Okechukwu Onyegbule) and I Go Dye (Francis Agoda), spontaneity is to comedy what black magic is to medicine. Sometimes it kills, sometimes it just bombs. Which is why it pays to create a process.

You hear the Americans talk about this process all the time, perhaps because, as Dave Chappelle said, “stand-up comedy is an incredibly American genre.” And while there may not be a ‘comprehensive, definitive history of stand-up comedy in America,” the last three generations of practitioners — signposted by Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, and Chappelle — show that a method has emerged to the madness, the reason Mr Chappelle could command $20 million for one stand-up special on Netflix.

In his acceptance speech for the Mark Twain Prize in 2019, one of Chappelle’s big reveals was that he trained himself at some point by imitating Tony Woods. And Kevin Hart has named Keith Robinson as his own pre-fame inspiration. Every one of these men, though born with a natural funny bone in their bodies, still took up to five years to learn the tricks of cadence, premises and setups, counterpoints, and punchlines.

When, for instance, a joke doesn’t work, says Chris Rock, “it’s not working because the audience does not understand the premise.”

And, says Dave Chappelle, “[comedians] are nowadays expected to speak with the precision of attorneys and politicians.”

So, why all the trouble with stand-up, you say? It’s simple. It’s popular now more than ever and, predictably, there’s more money to be made. As comedic films are now booming in Nollywood, what with Netflix and the other streaming services looking for African content, to not participate on the global stand-up stage is to leave millions of dollars on the table.

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Apart from the direct cash deposit a comedian may receive from Netflix, the platform has also become an introduction to the rest of the world. As Barry Katz, a producer of specials, has said, “There are now 200 comedians who can sell out a show at the Wilbur Theatre because of the Netflix specials they’ve done. Only a select handful of comics are getting that huge money from Netflix. For most comedians, the special is a commercial for their business.”

Yvonne Orji’s HBO special is, expectedly, a brilliant showcase for Nigerian artistry— and with such other Africans as Trevor Noah and Loyiso Gola already posting their own specials on Netflix, the door is now wide open for homegrown Nigerians to step-up, too.

To get though, though, they may need to nail the process of comedy sets and staging for TV. This happens to be a challenge, and a monumental opportunity, but considering everything said to this point, AY does know a thing or two about building a system of opportunities from everyone’s challenges, especially in this comedy business.

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