In this interview with Olamide Famuwagun, popular Nigerian comedian, Helen Paul, sheds light on some of the challenges plaguing the stand-up comedy industry
Your academic achievements have been praised by Nigerians. How were you able to overcome the challenges you encountered in the process of achieving this feat?
My university stay was a marathon, not a sprint. I’m not the smartest, smartest, or brightest scholar in the world, I’m just a passionate, committed, persistent, and determined person who hardly takes no for an answer. So to answer this question I had to start with my survival strategy. Of course, any college journey comes with a lot of challenges – there were times when I wondered if I was ready for what I had gotten myself into. There were times when I double-checked my sanity. You must be adept at independent research; you have to listen to rejection. My academic journey has been loaded with all of this and more. But, while some may call it providence or luck or the alignment of the stars, I would say that I simply approach any daunting task with a winning mindset.
As a comedian with extensive knowledge in academia, what is your opinion of the comedy industry in Nigeria?
There are different sides to the comedy industry. For example, there’s stand-up comedy, sitcoms, and the now popular type of comedy in sketch form. While there are challenges common to all of these types and mediums of comedy, each is also plagued by its own unique challenges. The world has moved on a lot lately, a while ago you weren’t considered to have had a true cinematic experience without visiting a cinema to see actors perform live on a stage and then came the big screen and home entertainment where you either watched studio produced movies in a theater or on your home entertainment system via movie streaming services like Netflix, Prime Video, etc. If you were used to going to the movies back then, you would conclude that the new culture of watching mostly studio-produced films is killing the skills you pick up from stage performance. With studio productions, all your flaws are edited out and covered up. You tend to be a little lazy in memorizing and delivering your lines. When you apply that to comedy, you’ll find that stand-up comedy culture is dying.
Why do you think stand-up comedy culture is dying?
Nowadays, people rely more on filters and editing metrics to create content. While there are benefits to these stunts and effects, the effect is that content creators don’t master the art of stage performance. It’s a completely different ball game. This could pose a risk that comedy fans will lose interest and develop lethargy for stand-up comedy. The thrill of buying tickets and driving to a comedy event could be lost. Why would anyone want to lose sleep over a comedy show when they could just watch it from the comfort of their home on a mammoth-sized curved TV with surround sound stereo speakers?
Do you think sketch makers capitalizing on the online market pose a significant threat to stand-up comedy?
Yes and no. Yes, because as mentioned earlier, if fans reach a level where they get more of their thrills from filters and effects, they might as well be entertained and amused by these sketches from the comfort of their homes. However, the answer is also no, as some people are die-hard fans of stand-up comedy. Sketchers and comedians have different skill sets and excel differently in their respective fields. It takes years of practice and honing your skills to stand in front of a crowd and perform. It takes a skit creator an idea and some attention to detail to shoot a skit and promote it online. With all the sense of modesty, I dare say that a stand-up comedian can be able to excel in the skit-making business armed with a good idea and the right team. But it would take years of practice for a skit maker to get on stage and move a crowd.
What inspired you to move to the United States and how did you keep your acting career alive?
My move to the United States was divinely orchestrated. This is because I have been recommended as eligible for a category of professionals with special abilities in a chosen field. I also had ideas about reproducing my work with an academy I set up in Nigeria for young aspiring artists. I dream of telling the story of Africans and African Americans through the lens. I want to take our form of entertainment, especially black-oriented entertainment, to the ends of the earth. And yes, I keep my comedy alive. I’ve performed in concerts and comedy shows in parts of the United States. And when I get the chance, I continue to host shows and perform at events in Nigeria. I am still connected to my roots.
Do you see yourself returning home one day to use your acquired knowledge to improve the lives of Nigerians who were instrumental in your growth process before you moved?
As I said earlier, I stay connected to my roots. I am still contributing and will continue to contribute to the development of Nigeria, being where I broke out as an artist. Whether I intend to return is not something I haven’t thought about. I am also at home in the United States. I will continue to contribute to the growth and development of any home God has provided for me. It is a mission given by God.