Bright Okpocha, the ace comedian who is populalry known as Basketmouth, tells TOFARATI IGE about his career, the comedy industry and other issues
What has been your experience making the sitcom, ‘Flatmates’?
One of the first issues we faced at the beginning had to do with stories. When we started the project, they (Multichoice) hired writers but they could not tell our stories for us. They were Nigerians but they were not sitcom writers; they were more of drama writers, so we struggled initially. After some time, I said it could not continue that way and we needed to restructure. So, we changed everything and the stories changed. They (executive producers) cut me some slack and I appreciate them for that because it was not something they normally did.
In terms of production, we shoot every day. It is practically like a 9-5 job. Sometimes, the availability of the actors could be an issue because it is almost impossible to catch these guys, especially during festive periods (when they have other engagements). So, our timing has to be 100 per cent structured. Availability was our problem but we have been able to work around that. So far so good, it has been an amazing experience. We are enjoying the process. Members of the cast and crew are now like a family, and everything flows fluidly.
Currently, we don’t have any challenges because we have been able to perfect our stories. We have also introduced new characters because we don’t want it to be monotonous.
You are known more as a comedian but here you are wearing the hat of a TV producer. Did that stretch you creatively?
When one is a comedian, one writes jokes, and some of them could be series because of how long they are. About 15 years ago, I looked at some of them and felt they could be made into films, so I started tilting towards that angle. I looked at American comedians such as Martin Lawrence, Chris Rock and Eddie Murphy, who have moved from being just comedians to actors and television producers.
There is nothing that limits a comedian. So, it was quite convenient for me to do because I was already tilting towards that angle.
A lot of people know me as a stand-up comedian but I do many other things, including music. To be honest, I enjoy the process, as it gives me the liberty to play with my creativity. For instance, when one is telling a joke on stage, one relies on the audience to picture it and bring it to life in their minds. But when it is TV, it is one that would bring the visuals to life.
It does not feel any different being a TV producer and comedian because I still do both at the same time. But, it’s more fun being a producer.
Your sitcom is aired on GOTV. From your perspective, how has the company benefited Nigerian content makers in terms of pushing them to be more creative and giving them a platform to showcase their works?
Many years ago, there was a time we used to wait till 4pm to watch TV and at midnight, the station would close. Back then, anytime there was a TV show, it would be produced by the Nigerian Television Authority. At that time, we neither had many options nor the time to showcase all the things we were blessed with as an artistic nation. But now, most TV stations work round the clock. So what is left is content.
When it comes to content, most people do not have the resources. They still need a TV house. Most independent TV houses don’t have the resources to fund their in-house productions. So, what GOTV did was to encourage producers, whether they were doing movies or TV series, by giving them a platform to showcase their works. I think what they have done is extremely beautiful because GOTV caters to a lower income market. However, they still give the same thing premium cable would have given them. I think it is a brilliant move. With what they have done, they have also created job opportunities for many people.
What inspired the show, ‘Papa Benji’?
It was inspired by old television programmes such as Village Headmaster, Bassey and Company and New Masquerade. Those were the shows I grew up watching and they had a lot of educational contents in them. Those shows were stopped a long time ago and I feel there are no replacements for them. I’m not trying to run down anybody with that statement. Those shows used to focus on particular topics and educate people. I felt I needed to create something like that that would talk about the ills of society.
About four years ago, I was thinking of creating something that would fill the vacuum left by those shows. Papa Benji is an actual pepper soup spot in Kirikiri Town, Apapa, Lagos, where I used to live. When I used to go there to buy pepper soup for my dad or neighbours, I would see elderly men playing different board games and talking. While waiting to be served pepper soup, I would be laughing and entertained, and that stuck in my head. I did not even know it was in my head until I started thinking of creating something.
I felt I needed to create a programme centred on a pepper soup joint. I also decided to name it after the original pepper soup joint that inspired it. I did not want to do it on TV because a lot of people outside Nigeria had been complaining that they could not watch Flatmates. I then decided that if I was going to create another sitcom, it would be online— on YouTube. I knew I needed to create a show through which positive messages can be passed and one would educate younger ones on ills in society.
Anybody who watches the show would realise that most of the topics are about the government, families and kids. We used the first season to introduce most of the characters, so in the second season, we would focus on topical issues.
You mentioned that in creating ‘Papa Benji’, you were inspired by some old TV shows that shaped your childhood. Beyond entertainment, how do you intend to shape people’s world view with the show?
So far, we have introduced two characters that are professors on the show. We did that because of the issue of sex-for-grades happening in the country.
The same thing applies with family issues. We want to focus on certain social ills. I’m trying to make my space a bit different, with no toxicity, just full blown entertainment. That is why we are intentional about making all our shows to have messages. I got inspired by those ahead of us, so I’m hoping that I will inspire other people to create more things. There are some (unusual) things in our society that have become normal and we are trying to shed light on some of those things. Viewers would start noticing more of that from the second season.
Back in the day, when family members had issues, they would settle them among themselves. But now, people take such things to social media, discussing family issues with strangers. I feel that is wrong. I am totally against bringing family matters to social media because at the end of the day, there are kids that would be bullied based on those things.
You started your entertainment career as a rapper. For ‘Yabasi’, the Extended Play album which doubled as the soundtrack of ‘Papa Benji’, you were able to do a bit of music. How was the experience putting it all together?
It was amazing. I always knew Nigerian musicians were talented but it was different seeing them in action. It gave me a new level of respect and appreciation for them. If only our leaders know about half of the talents we have in this country, they would get their acts right. There is nothing stopping Nigeria from being a global leader in terms of music. We spent three weeks to create that album and I was blown away from the creation of the beats down to the backup vocals.
The kind of music we created in that EP was totally different from the typical Nigerian album. One of the reasons was because it was my introductory album. I was very intentional about the kind of message I wanted to pass across. I made sure that there were no swear words in it. Papa Benji is a family sitcom, so the sound track had to have a family feel.
You seem to be spontaneous on stage. How much planning goes into your performances?
I am spontaneous on stage and in my work but at the same time, there is a lot of planning that goes into it. Without planning, one can get lost. I have a team and when I create ideas, I’m not the only person that executes them. I call everyone to the table and we share opinions.
Some things are orchestrated but if one does not have the ability to be spontaneous, one could get thrown off balance if things don’t go according to plan. But, if one is spontaneous, one can easily improvise.
The COVID-19 pandemic hit the events industry hard as shows didn’t hold. How were you able to cope as a stand-up comedian?
When the pandemic started, I was touring the United Kingdom. Before the lockdown was declared, I remember announcing on stage on February 13, 2020, that that was likely going to be my last show for that year.
I told my team that I did not want to travel anymore; that I wanted to be in Nigeria to create content. So, I cancelled all my tours. When everywhere was locked down, it didn’t affect me because I had already started planning something else. Instead of doing a comedy show, I started doing a virtual event called Sunday Night Laughs and we did that for about 13 weeks, even during the pandemic. While the world was practically on lockdown, I was busy doing my thing and I was getting sponsors to fund projects. To be honest, I was busy working during the pandemic.
How would you describe yourself as a father?
Every time I get home, whether I just left the house even three hours ago, my kids are always excited to see me. That means I am doing something right. Even when I go to pick up my daughter from school every day, she is always excited. And, it’s not just with my kids; even my nephews and nieces react that way. I can say I’m one of the best dads in the world.
How much of Basketmouth, the comedian, do your children get to see?
They don’t see Basketmouth at all. The only person they see is Bright Okpocha, their father. The only time they experience Basketmouth is when we go out and people want to take pictures with me. They (my children) don’t really come to my shows, and even if they do, they stay in a hotel because of the kind of ‘rubbish’ I say on stage some times.
However, there are times an element of Basketmouth pops out and I see them laughing so hard. I try as much as possible to separate myself from my work before entering the house.
When you are not busy, how do you unwind?
I love watching movies. Sometimes, I watch the same movies over and again, especially if the director is great. I am particular about what I watch. I love dark-themed movies.
Also, I don’t mess with my family time.
Source: The PUNCH