Allure Cover: Okey Onyegbule – Life of A funny man
By Rita Okoye
Born Okechukwu Anthony Onyegbule, over 50 years ago, the River State University Engineering Graduate, turned comedian is better known as Okey Bakassi. In the last 25 years, he has graced the stage delivering his craft and entertaining Nigerians home and abroad.
Last year when the father of three turned 50, he marked the milestone by publishing a book Memoirs of an African Comedian. The book not only chronicles his journey so far in the entertainment industry, it is a beautiful collection of eclectic moments and experiences that have helped to define the life of an all round entertainer, one lived in pursuit of happiness.
In this interview, he talks about his life in comedy.
You wrote a book, “The Memoirs of an African Comedian.” to mark your 50th birthday, what was the inspiration?
My book was inspired to tell my own story my own way. One of the mistakes our ancestors made in Africa, was to pass their stories from generations to generations through oral tradition. This meant that if the custodian of such story dies, the story would be completely lost. So, it’s important that we as Africans begin to document our stories. You never can tell whose life it would change or transform.
So, the book was inspired by my desire to tell my own story gradually. Half a century articulated. Hopefully, if God keeps us, the Volume 2 would be the next chapter of my life.
You are 51 now, what was special about turning fifty that you had to mark it with a book?
Fifty is a milestone, half a century is not a small number. I didn’t want to celebrate or throw random parties, so when I turned 50 last year, I decided I was going to make it special. My wife, friends and family encouraged me to go ahead. They told me I can’t continue shying away from throwing parties, it’s a milestone. We used my 50th birthday to show gratitude to God, and to say thank you to friends and family members who had supported me this 50 years of my life. To make it special, I had to plan my book release to coincide with my 50th birthday so that my guests would take home a piece of my history.
As an Engineer, looking back, would say you made the right choice by venturing into the entertainment industry?
Yes, I made the right choice going into the entertainment industry, because in life, you have to consider what matters to you. For me, its happiness. I would have also been successful if I had chosen to practice Engineering. I know from time that God has destined me to succeed. I work hard, believe in God and I’m a good person. There’s no way God would take me on any part and let me fail.
Entertaining is one of the things that I do that gives me the most joy, and at the same time helps me make a living. I’m grateful that I made that decision to switch from Engineering to Showbiz. God has blessed me by it, and has also used me to bless people.
As at the time you came into the industry, comedy wasn’t paying so well, what kept you there?
I was driven by the passion and love for it. Entertainment made me happy. It wasn’t really about the money or prospect of making so much money because, it wasn’t really paying then. So, I just loved the feeling I got doing it. I loved the fact that what I was doing in some ways brought people joy. So, those were the considerations and I’m glad doing it passionately, doing it well, paid off.
Now, there are many comedians in the industry, as one of the veterans, do you feel challenged?
Yes, there are many comedians in the industry but not enough to service one hundred and eighty million Nigerians. You can still see that there’s still opportunity for everyone. You can see that the sky is very big for all the birds to fly. I like the fact that there are more comedians coming into the game because without more comedians coming in, we won’t have an industry. An industry can’t just be made up by few people practicing this craft. A whole new generation of young people need to come into the business, so that the business would flourish. There would be a new generation that would replace the older ones. It brings a lot of freshness, vibrancy, competition. If there’s no competition, there won’t be improvement. The only thing I encourage them to do, is to work harder so that we would have a robust industry that we all can be proud to say we are part of.
What aspect of your life did you document in your book that will serve as a lesson to younger comedians?
What I did in my book was to tell my story as far back as I can remember it. And in telling the stories, I tried as much as possible to capture the Good, the Bad and the Ugly if any. So, I didn’t want to leave out anything. Mind you, a book cannot contain 50 years of my life. It’s very tough. I don’t see how that would be possible unless you write volumes. But in writing my book, I had to look at the high points that would capture the very essence of who I am, and would help those reading to understand what my journey has been, and would inspire the younger generations to understand that they can make things happen for themselves. When you read my story, you would see that no matter how difficult the challenges may be in the beginning, you can always overcome. There’s light at the end of the tunnel.
Now that we have COVID-19, events are not forthcoming, what should comedians be doing? Would you suggest they start hosting online shows like AY did on Easter Sunday?
COVID-19 has really changed life the way we used to know it. A lot of things about life has changed because of COVID-19. Even when they get a vaccine or cure, it would be difficult for things to go back the way they used to be. Showbiz is one of the most impacted by the corona virus, because our business thrives on people getting together, having fun together. I think we are one of the worst hit sectors.
As human being we are resilient, we have to dig deep, find ways to survive. Fortunately, in our life time, there’s the internet, there’s online. All of the things would be happening online. We have to find alternative ways to take our crafts to the audience. Hopefully, the normalcy would return. It’s something that every entertainer would suffer for a while. We have to buckle up and think out of the box to earn a living.
Fans see you as a comedian, how does your wife and kids see you and how do they react to your jokes?
My fans see me a comedian, I guess it’s the way they are supposed to see me. They are meant to see me as an entertainer, as a movie actor, comedian, because that’s the aspect of me that they are more used to and can easily relate to it. But my wife and kids see me differently. My wife of course, sees me as her husband, kids see me as their father. At home, I’m more of a family man, fun-loving, love to play with my family. We share lots of jokes. It’s always a happy moment around the house. Every family would normally have their own challenges, it can’t be rosy all the time, even roses have thorns. Generally, we are a happy family that loves to laugh a lot.
How hard is it being a husband and father from a distance?
Not living with the family here in Nigeria is a very tough challenge for me and my family. Who wouldn’t want to see his wife and children everyday after work at least. But unfortunately, we live in two different parts of the world. I have to run on schedule, work, work, take a break and go spend time with family. We have done that for a couple of years now. It has been very difficult, but we thank God for his mercies that at least, we are able. My family understands why we have to run that kind of program or shift because of the goals that we set for ourselves. We are gradually accomplishing them, it’s tough but with God on our side we would overcome. Very soon, we would all be together and this back and forth won’t happen anymore.
I wish we had a Nigeria of our dreams; where everyone would live up their full potentials.
Unfortunately, those who have handled the country, have not done a wonderful job of managing the country. So, we have more Nigerians going Abroad to find greener pastures. We have to survive and find balance. Hopefully, one day this country can make a turn and we can bring all our people here or most of our people, then families wouldn’t have to be separated.
Many fans have the impression that any time they meet you, you should be met funny. Are there times when fans have provoked you when you couldn’t meet this expectation?
Fans would always have their expectations of what they want a celebrity to be, but I don’t see myself different from any professional; Lawyer, doctor, people on the medical business, banker, they all go to work,come back and they are still family people like everyone else. That’s how I see myself. I am a professional. I go to work do my work, come back home to a normal life. The expectation of fans would not govern how I live my life. I do my job professionally to the best of my ability and once my job is done, I live my life as a human being. I can’t use my entire life to please fans or anybody. Even our Saviour, Jesus Christ, didn’t please the world. So, we would do our best professionally, show our fans same love that they show us and most importantly, live our lives the way we are meant to.
As a seasoned comedian, what are the major challenges at the moment?
One of the challenges I face is loss of freedom. There are certain things I want to do but can’t do because people would always feel like they have a stake in your life, and that you are answerable to them because of the role you have played in their lives, courtesy of your appearances on TV.
So, you walk into a restaurant to eat sometimes you have to answer a few questions like, “do you also come to places like this to eat?” We are all human; if it’s good for you, then it’s good for me too. So, people would always have expectations. It is really a challenge to be in front of the cameras and still have your freedom. Sometimes, we wish we could do stuffs and not get noticed because once you become a celebrity,you have lost your privacy. You can’t go back to having privacy anymore.
What blunder should a comedian not commit?
One of the blunder a comedian shouldn’t commit, is to see the platform that we occupy as an avenue to insult or undermine people. It is a thin line trying to make jokes out of circumstance and insulting people or disrespecting people. In as much as we like to make light of some societal things or sometimes, create satire; draw attention in a very funny way, comedians should be very mindful. There’s always a thin line there. We should be mindful not to cross those lines because sometimes, people may not forgive and forget especially when they feel disrespected.
Is image important to a comedian, in terms of dressing?
Image is not just important to a comedian but to every entertainer because in entertainment, what we also sell apart from our crafts is credibility. I see credibility as part of your image. I know you are talking about image in terms of dress sense. I think it’s important that you present yourself the way you want to be addressed. Your appearance should be a reflection of who you want people to see you as. How you want to project yourself is how you present yourself and if you’re comfortable with that, so be it.
For me, I think the way one carries himself matters because you are also a role model. So you should set positive examples for the next generation.
Life after 50, what don’t you do any more and what do you do more?
I’m grateful to God that by October, I will be 51. So, these days, I am beginning to value rest more and pay more attention to my physical well-being. I want to be young enough to walk my daughters down the aisle and be with my grandchildren. My integrity has always been very important to me, I guard it more jealously as I become older.
All these days of my life, I have put in so much work and I have tried to keep my integrity intact, so I can’t mess it up at this point. My name is so important, I don’t want anything to tarnish it. I’m more careful, selective with the company that I keep. It’s very important. People who don’t add value can stay as acquaintances or fans. When I say people who don’t add value, it’s not about money, there are people whose company you keep that would destroy what you have built for years, so I’m very mindful of that.
For inspiration who do you admire and why?
I admire people who are successful and yet humble. I respect people who value God in their lives; men who are accomplished and do worship their God. They give to the society and stay humble about it. I get inspired by people who are successful and modest because that’s the kind of person I am. What’s there to brag about? We are in this planet by the mercy of God.
Share with us a bad day on stage?
It’s difficult for an artist to finish a career and not have a bad day on stage. When I say bad day, I don’t necessarily mean outrageously bad. There are days you leave stage and by my own standard, I’m feeling like, I didn’t get to where I wanted to. So, you leave a bit disappointed. Over the years, I have observed my crafts and there are certain things I have made mental note of. If I go for events there are certain atmosphere that helps me do best and I encourage the organizers of the event and maybe support them to make sure that kind of atmosphere exist. So, that one can give optimum value. For instance, I go to your event and the level of organization is shabby and very badly done, if I can make it better I do my best, so that it doesn’t affect my performance because nothing ruins it like an event that’s poorly put together.
When your jokes fail to amuse, how do you handle it?
You need to understand that it’s not just stand up comedy that I do, I act movies, host events, I am Radio and TV presenter and there are lots of stuffs I do. Let’s say when I’m on the microphone doing a stand up comedy, for me particularly, it t’s not every material that I want people to laugh at and roll on the floor. Sometimes, just knowing that I have their total attention is a good place. I like to hold the attention of the audience from the beginning of my performance till the end; they don’t have to necessarily roll on the floor with everything that comes out of my mouth. But just to know that they are paying attention to what I’m saying is important because, the way I deliver my material, they may not hit you immediately. Some are gist that you need to take away, process them and then it hits you. You won’t be able to process carefully if you don’t pay attention. Getting the attention of my audience is more important than laughing. If they are not laughing or crying, it doesn’t mean they are not connecting. Paying attention is good enough as long as you leave the stage and you know your job has been properly done.