PROFILE: The gift and grace of being AY Makun

by Wilfred Okiche

Meet Nigeria’s funniest man at the moment – whether you like him or not

Every Easter Sunday, Lagos shuts down for AY Makun.

Literally.

Since 2010, Easter Sundays have never been the same again as all roads in the state lead to the Eko Hotel & Suites; venue of AY Live, perhaps Nigeria’s biggest comedy show.

To attend one of the shows is to understand fully the impact of AY Live on the culture. The crowd, endless and stretching for miles begins to throng the venue hours before show time, as seats can be notoriously hard to secure.

Like many Nigerian events of its kind, the show suffers from huge organisational and technical lapses. They almost always start hours behind schedule. No matter that they have been doing this for 10 years now, AY and his team still find themselves overwhelmed by the crowd, such that every year, Eko Hotel’s 6,000 capacity hall is stretched beyond capacity and hundreds of people are forced to watch the show entirely on their feet.

But they keep coming back for more.

Why?

ay-makun2Business, man

Probably because when it comes to capturing the zeitgeist, appropriating it, skewering it, then (and this is the most important part of the mix – for him) monetising it, no other comedian comes close to touching AY.

Ali Baba will always be king, Julius Agwu and Bovi are more naturally gifted and Basketmouth has locked down the corporates. But its AY who has found the sweet-spot: the consumer market, that growing corner of any business that enables you lock in the consumer, retain that connection and scale in a way no other model can. In the way that businesses pray more assiduously to own.

When people come to see AY, they don’t come just come to see the comedian perform, they recognise that they are buying into a brand and the business, and the business comes with a brand promise, and that brand promise always delivers – highflying acts that are always the biggest draws at that moment, many of them ultimately more entertaining than AY himself; in comedy, film and music.

AY himself would be first to admit, – and he has said so in countless interviews – that he is far from the funniest act in comedy. His success lies in his formats.

AY Live plays like a stage version of NBC’s Saturday Night Live, attracting the biggest and trendiest names in entertainment to do the heavy lifting in terms of engaging the crowd. Eschewing the traditional stand-up routine, the jokes are ripped straight from the headlines and the culture and performers are usually chosen on the strength of their trending currency.

At this year’s event, a live sketch Na so we see am, written and produced by AY had guest performers (Falz, Chigul, Princess) mining the #Olajumoke discovery that swept the nation and outside it and the dramatic P-Square near-split. The year before, held weeks after the general elections that ushered in a new government, the skit lection Results, was a spot on recreation of the announcement of the presidential election results with AY playing umpire, Professor Attahiru Jega, and viral moments ensuing for days.

And in 2013, the musical highlight was not Olamide, Iyanya or Timaya, even though they all had hit singles playing to the crowd at the time. Actress Tonto Dikeh vacuumed the entire buzz towards her corner when she decided she would be staging the first live performances of her horrendous singles Hi and It’s Ova at AY Live.

Moments like this make AY and his brand a cultural touchstone.

In 2007, only the show’s second year, because of the sheer amount of people that turned up, organisers had to create a second show to accommodate the crowd.

The show has also expanded into Abuja, Asaba and across the seas to London.

Made in Warri

A native of Ifon, Ose Local Government in Ondo state, AY might as well hail from Warri in Delta state like his alter ego Akpos, responsible for generating countless laughs his entire career.

The Warri origins of Akpos can be traced to the nine years AY spent at the Delta State University Abraka studying Theatre Arts. A man about campus, he hustled as a show promoter, organising beauty pageants and social events. According to AY, his holding company, Corporate World Entertainment, which powers all his many creative offshoots, was started during this period.

Having spent such a long time in school for what would ordinarily have been a four-year course, AY had naturalised as a Warri boy, adopting the nuances and shades of the average Warri citizen and its national wise-guy stereotype. This would be come in handy when he moved to Lagos and found he needed an identity to stand out from the pack of wannabe funny men.

In Lagos, AY worked for a spell as personal assistant to Nigeria’s King of Comedy, Ali Baba – himself on the arduous task of monetising his brand and making the business of comedy viable.

While working with Ali Baba, AY would happen on the various comic acts that came around. He fancied himself as good if not better than most of them.

He credits Ali Baba with giving him the opportunity to test his material on audiences as opening act. ‘’I wasn’t part of the people who started comedy in Nigeria,” he recalls. “But I was working with someone who did all the magic from way back… the general package, the market, the branding, I learnt from Ali Baba.’’

Gradually, AY began to find his feet. But it wasn’t until he started impersonating Reverend Chris Okotie – pop star turned televangelist and Pastor of the Household of God Church – famous for his highfalutin speak that he began to get the right notices.

a-trip-to-jamaicaKing of all media

From then, it all became a blur.

AY launched a metastatic spread that would see inroads in print, stage, television and online, all at the same time.

AY Live started in 2006 and became an instant favourite. His give back project, the monthly Open Mic Comedy Challenge, is famous for launching the careers of established acts like Seyi Law, Emeka Smith and Elenu, all regulars at AY Live.

AY Show, another audience favourite hit TV screens in a big way. Applying the same tried and true formula of various skits with several recurring characters and inviting some of his famous friends, AY Show remains memorable for segments like the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.

Then AY commenced on work AY’s Crib, the 30 minutes sitcom co-starring Alexx Ekubo, Ushbebe and Venita Akpofure that he stars in and shares credits as writer, producer and director. The quality was ambiguous, but found its audience and is syndicated on cable and terrestrial.

And, while his contemporaries were comfortable in their traditional spaces, AY envisaged the future and began to invest in the Internet.

His YouTube Channel, home to hundreds of original and lifted content, is one of the most visited in the country with well over 230,000 subscribers. For a Nigerian channel, that number is beyond formidable. In the battle for views and clicks, only 6-year-old Emmanuella is doing more business than AY.

Then, in 2014, he made his biggest move yet. AY became a movie star.

He had conquered stage, he had conquered the small screen – there apparently was only one place left to go.

He tested the waters with a well received, if halting, supporting turn in Omoni Oboli’s Being Mrs Elliot. And when he had figured it out, he struck out on his own – and, as usual, it had to be big.

The result? 30 Days in Atlanta.

For 30 Days in Atlanta, AY did not deviate from the formula that brought him fame and fortune. A mischievous Warri bred character called Akpos finds himself in Atlanta and is soon set up for a series of side splitting running gags that lead nowhere in particular.

Borrowing from every fish out of water project ever made, AY legitimised his quest with some of Nollywood’s finest performers (Ramsey Nouah, Richard Mofe-Damijo, Mercy Johnson), a slice of B-List Hollywood (Lynn Whitfield, Vivica A. Fox) and managed to squeezed multiple laughs out of a tired genre.

Audiences responded – and like no other in Nigerian history. In spite of middling reviews, by the time he was done with his huge media campaign, the film had made N137 million in box office receipts, making Atlanta the highest grossing Nollywood film ever, according to the Guinness Book of World Records in 2015s.

A sequel, A Trip to Jamaica landed in September this year. At the time of filing this piece, it is already on track to beat Atlanta’s record.

Whatever the film lacked in genuine laughs (and it lacked a lot), AY made up for in aggressive publicity.

Few people can promote a product like AY. He deployed his network of celebrity friends (Don Jazzy, Tekno) with a bottomless pit of social capital to kick it off. He put together a novelty football match between ex-international players of Nigeria and Jamaica. And for the premiere, he and co-star Funke Akindele arrived the venue like Hollywood’s movie stars – in a White Lamborghini Huracan.

It may have received even worse reviews than its predecessor, but according to AY’s camp, Jamaica is already the highest grossing film of 2016 – its N80 million take in just 10 days surpassing the N67 million cleaned by Omoni Oboli’s Wives on Strike.

Gift and Grace

AY has always played up his success as coming from a higher power, but he has always been there to give a determined, aggressive helping hand.

Among industry practitioners, no one has a bad word to say about AY, because he goes out of his way to cultivate friendships and nurture them. The star-studded cast of 30 Days in Atlanta made it to set mostly because of previous relationships that existed between the actors and the businessman.

He takes this same quality on stage. He refuses to offend even a single person.

In 2012, the duo of Kenny Ogungbe and Dayo Adeneye expressed their distaste about an AY joke (he berated them for going all the way to the Grammys only to interview their own act Jaywon at some obscure location). AY swung into action immediately, writing a long-winded letter of apology to the Kennis Music bosses on Facebook.

About a month later, he was apologising to actor, Tonto Dikeh. She had expressed her displeasure at the title of a parody video he uploaded of his daughter Michelle singing Dikeh’s infamous single, Hi.

Months later, Dikeh was performing the song at AY Live and also joining AY to record some sketches.

2014 was the turn of Nollywood bad boy Jim Iyke. An AY skit that referenced his deliverance at the hands of Prophet TB Joshua not at all impressed him. He vented on Twitter, labelling the comedian “classless”.

AY’s response was swift. “I’m sorry about it,” he told HipHop World Magazine. “It wasn’t designed to be detrimental in any way but if you see it that way, bro. I got nothing but love for you… I’m not classless and I know you know that.”

Iyke soon tweeted a response – all was forgiven.

This has far reaching implications in Nigerian show business where the lack of a proper structure means that many business deals are made simply in good faith.

Now, celebrities see AY as one of their own – unlikely to humiliate them with mean spirit jokes, while fans relate to him as yet another humble celebrity. He wins both ways.

But it’s not just about celebrities. It’s the way AY sees the world.

Fast forward to 2015 and the Internet was up in arms after the video surfaced of the Election Results stage play at AY Live where MC Shakara made a joke about Boko Haram victims. A blogger, Steve Amaza published a scathing criticism of AY and his show.

@KING_AMAZ I saw your write up on the Boko Haram joke by @MCSHAKARA,” he immediately replied. “We are sorry for cracking a joke around such a sensitive issue in the north.”

In an appearance on Straight Talk with Kadaria Ahmed, AY struggled to explain the constant capitulation, squared against Hollywood’s idea of the comedian as something of the nation’s conscience – holding up a mirror to society no matter whose ox is gored.

His speech was incoherent, but his meaning was very clear. ‘’Sometimes you strike a balance,” he finally managed to say. “For everybody to just move forward.’’

It is the Nigerian way and he plays the game, with grace.

ay-makun3Destination: Legend

The AY brand can best be summarised in one word: grace.

For grace is the final thread that ties all of the above together. It is the same element that takes a man and elevates him above his peers.

You can look at it his way, which is to sum it up as God’s grace. You can look at it in his very character, where everything appears to come with ease because it’s him or because he knows just where to go. Or you can look at it as karma, where a man who has too been to too many (‘’We can’t tell our success story without mentioning AY’s name,’’ Ajebo, a beneficiary says on behalf many others) has no choice but to receive goodness in return.

And all of these while critics, including this one, have hollered themselves hoarse about an ambiguous level of talent.

Indeed, to those pesky naysayers who keep pointing out his shortage of genuine comic timing, the famously thin-skinned AY continues to have the last word.

‘’Whatever I’ve achieved in life,” he has said, with vehemence, on his Instagram page. “If being dry has brought all of that to me as a brand… I wanna remain dry all my life.’’

You heard the man. Now put some respect on his name.

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