The merchant of comedy
Opa Williams’s claim that there couldn’t have been comedy in Nigeria without him may be self-praise. You may even consider it immodest. But the fact is acknowledged in the industry that he played a significant role in popularizing comedy and making it the booming business that it is today. You won’t be wrong if you call him merchant of comedy.
If it is agreed that his baby, Nite of a Thousand Laughs, was the springboard that launched the careers of some of the biggest names in the industry, then there is some element of truth in that claim. The irony of it all is that Williams is not a comedian, but he owned a platform that not only brought comedians to limelight, but also took Nigerian comedy to other parts of the world.
Williams started Nite of a Thousand Laughs in 1995 when stand-up comedy was alien to this part of the world. Before then, Nigerians had been used to seeing the likes of Papy Luwe, Jaguar, Awada Kerikeri, on television. People who could be described as comedians were merely appendages to parties, a sort of side attraction. A naturally funny person, Williams noticed that each time he attended parties with his friends, he was always referred to as “that funny guy”. An idea came to him that he could make some money making people laugh.
He may have been “that funny guy”. But that did not make him a comedian. He was honest enough to recognize and admit his limitations, unlike many that would venture into areas for which they know they are not natural suited. If he couldn’t earn a living by making people laugh, he could do so by bringing together people who could make others laugh. Then came the idea of Nite of a Thousand Laughs.
For 16 years, Williams put together the annual show that comedy lovers in Nigeria always looked forward to, because of the variety it presented them, not only in terms of the number of comedians it hosted, but also from the plethora of jokes with which they were fed. The show served as platform for the discovery of many of today’s stars, like Basket Mouth, Julius the Genius Agwu, I Go Dye, etc.
The show assumed an international dimension when Williams took it beyond the shores of Nigeria to entertain audiences in different parts of Africa, as well as London and Ireland. In a way, he singlehandedly exported Nigerian comedy to other parts of the world.
Such was the popularity and success of Nite of a Thousand Laughs that comedians, including those who came to limelight on its platform, began to clone the show, organizing its replica using their own names – parodies of the original. The result was a repetition of the same show with increasing regularity, with the fee-paying public being shortchanged, since the motive was money, not entertainment, as Williams designed it. Comedy lovers paid to watch the same shows organized under different names, and listen to the same jokes from the same comedians. The shows became “see-one-see-all”.
Williams decided he would not be part of the scheme, and promptly rested his Nite of a Thousand Laughs, for fear it might lose its credibility.
Williams’s entry into the world of entertainment was not in the area of comedy. A graduate of the University of Miami, Florida, in the United States, he announced his entry into showbiz in 1991, one year after completing his national youth service programme, with a musical show at the Badagry Beach. The show featured The Mandators, Evi Edna Ogoli, and other notable musicians of that time. He got his fingers burnt at the show, but also learnt his lessons.
Being unfamiliar with the Badagry terrain, he had used what he thought was the only gate to the venue of the show, through which people were expected to pass after paying the gate fee, unaware of the many other entrances that existed. To his utter shock, he noticed, midway into the event, that there were more people in attendance than were reflected in ticket sales. They came in through the unmanned entrances.
Williams, who sees himself as a mass communicator, has been involved in almost all areas of entertainment, including television production, movie production, live production, stage production and script writing. He wrote his first script, what could pass for a movie script, when he was in form three in secondary school, between 1974 and 1975. He didn’t realize the worth of the script until he attended a classmate’s birthday, at which the celebrant brought it out and read to the hearing of all present.
A native of Isoko North Local Government Area of Delta State, Williams caught public attention as a playwright when his play won the first prize at the then Bendel Festival of Arts and Culture.
He has been involved in many of the soaps that ran on television, as well as some of the home videos that were quite popular in the early days of Nollywood.
After resting Nite of a Thousand Laughs, Williams entered into a partnership with the Radio Africa Group, a media group with a network of radio and television stations, as well as newspapers spread across East Africa, in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia, among other nations. The partnership saw Williams take Idols West Africa, the local franchise of American Idols, to that part of Africa.