Rising Comedian Layiwasabi Aims for Universal Humour

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Every profession has its stereotypes, some true, some spurious bullshit. Doctors have an illegible longhand—true. Engineers, made uptight by logic, are incapable of spontaneous fun—bullshit. And entertainers—Afrobeats songbirds, dancers, comedians—read at most two books a year, none of them Elizabethan literature. If that’s generally the case it doesn’t apply to Layiwasabi, who’s probably the only Nigerian comic alive to have a Shakespeare’s line pencilled on his Instagram bio—“The world is your oyster” from Merry Wives of Windsor. “Reading influences your mental constructs. I’ve read a chunk of Chimamanda Adichie,” Layi tells me, his voice the wise, omniscient timbre of the Inimitable Jeeves’. He sounds nothing like the twenty-year-old that he is (he turns twenty-one in July). “I’ve read some Soyinka but found him difficult to grasp. I read everything, for their fine use of words and not just their convincing plots. I don’t read romance novels though.” 

Layi, whose real name is Isaac Ayomide Olayiwola, hails from Osogbo in Osun State, an important tie-dye production centre and the hometown of the Nigerian dramatist Duro Ladipo. Layi has lived all his life in the ancient Yoruba city, along with his younger brother and doting mother. The latter he acknowledges as his humour’s genetic source, the supplier of his comedy chromosome. “Growing up, my mom was my closest friend. She’s the funniest in her circle of friends.” A dramatic pause, then he drops the punchline: “But I’m funnier than her”. 

His father passed away when he was “barely two”, his nurturing falling to his mother and an extended family comprising uncles, aunts and grandparents. He describes his childhood as “quiet” and “without adventure”, the natural consequence of keeping friends of a number that can fit into a toddler’s palms, friends without a picaresque streak, the sort who didn’t get you into trouble with the grownups or make you break a dozen bones while playing some daredevil prepubertal game. Layi’s childhood, floating along an anodyne milky way, orbited two planets: family and church. “My mother was really into church back then. Redeemed Christian Church of God.”

When you hold up that biographical confession against his corpus things start to add up, his Christian heritage a constant presence in many of his skits. In one of his most popular gags Layi parodies the hammy acting and deus-ex-machina resolutions of those Mount Zion movies that amused nearly every Nigerian Christian home from the 80s to the early 2000s, morality soap operas written, directed and acted in by any number of the famed Bamiloye family. In another skit Layi, using the POV technique common to online comedy, imagines how working for a Nigerian employer with Jesus’s preternatural powers would look like. Recall the sentence kicking off this piece was about occupational stereotypes? Well, many would say you should fear Nigerian employers today and Vlad the Impaler next Friday. It was, frankly, the obvious point Layi was making in the skit, a point many got and appreciated with apropos laughing-face emojis. Naturally, there were those who failed to find any humour in it—they congressed in Layi’s Twitter comment section and accused him of mocking their Christian faith. Naturally, he has a most apt riposte: “Sensitivity”, the Inimitable Layi says, “is an enemy of comedy”. He should also have tossed in that line from Heath Ledger’s Joker: “Why so serious?”

He tells me his mother is why his formal education has moved at a swift pace. Entering Bowen University as a gangly fifteen-year-old still unsure of what to make of his body’s pubertal revolutions, Layi studied Law, the irony being that it’s a sober discipline, whereas he now makes a living huckstering facetiousness. He is currently serving out his National Youth Service Corps tenure in Ibadan, some seventy-something kilometres away from his native Osun. We may glean from a sentence he tweeted in May this year how his time in Ibadan has thus far been: “NYSC is after my existence on this blue terrestrial ball”. 

He does have a way with words, a likely concomitant of his reading “some Soyinka” and “a chunk of Adichie”. For evidence, inspect his Twitter page, where pop culture occurrences are stylised into shiny one-liners. When at this year’s Oscars one comedian made a now-infamous alopecia gag, Layi tweeted in the comedian’s defence: “the joke slapped actually, so did Will.” Then there are the self-consciously cheesy puns written in the likeness of Josh2funny’s Don’t Leave Me wisecracks: “If Elon Musk and Bill Gates’ children got married, their money go Elon-Gate,” tweeted Layi. Perhaps that’s why he’s followed on social media by some of the country’s most acclaimed phrase-makers, the novelist Lola Shoneyin (surprise: Wole Soyinka’s daughter-in-law), the art critic Molara Wood, and that journalist, Fisayo Soyombo, who became famous after a Spy Kid escapade in one Nigerian correctional facility. Layi thinks these word merchants are enthralled because “writers are heavy on attention to detail, and the acting in my skits captures the small details”.  

As the culture critic Oris Aigbokhaevbolo rightly inferred in one piece, much of Nigerian comedy is physical, not verbal. Nigerian comics rely less on the setup-and-punchline method or witty inversions of phrase, and more on how best they can deliver their lines, and how funny they can look, walk, and contort their faces while doing so. Sabinus tries to look funny while being funny—he wears a tie as short as a lynx cat’s tail and then there’s the sheer ridiculousness of wearing the same blue shirt all year long. Trevor Noah, on the other hand, doesn’t trouble himself with looking funny: His words do all the heavy lifting. Layi does some physical comedy, too, like when he wears the kind of comically outsized coat you expect to see on those peripatetic Jehovah Witness evangelists, who are rich in heavenly terms but broke in every earthly sense. More physical comedy is evidenced in the times he uses the approximation of an item for comic effect (a cannibalising form in which the Ikorodu Bois are masters), using a remote control as stand-in for a smartphone in one skit. And then there’s the occasional transvestism when Layi is playing a woman’s role, his head crowned with a wig so dishevelled it looks like its previous owner, wearing it, had headbutted the Juggernaut. 

Yet Layi’s comedy thrives mostly for his facility with words and his acting skills, the former lending his skits a kind of bookish mien, the latter affording it complexity while telling you his time in Nollywood is not very far off. He describes himself as an introvert—“a gift and a curse”, he calls it—and his comedy reflects the sonic minimalism typical of an introvert’s private life: There are no exuberant sound effects, no canned whoops of “Funke!” or “Apostle will hear of this”. All he’s got are his words, mostly voiced sotto voce, and a talent for mimicry that puts him in the same esteemed district as Woody Allen’s Zelig. In one skit he mimics a Yoruba movie trope in which a wealthy male protagonist chances on an ex-lover who jilted him in his days of material lack. Layi inhabits the role so masterfully you’d think he studied the actors Odunlade Adekoya and Lateef Adedimeji, rather than Law in university. 

“Comedy has been on for me even before I had an interest in acting. Growing up I watched a lot of A Night of a Thousand Laughs, and retold the jokes I heard from the show.” There’s an unmissable pride and nostalgia in Layi’s voice as he narrates his origin story—picture a wizened Bruce Wayne, now down with rheumatoid arthritis, monologuing to the newest Robin: “The first time I picked up the cowl and skulked about Gotham…” The first time Layi skulked about a microphone in an effort to make people laugh, he was in JSS2, during his secondary school’s talent show. “I signed up for stand-up comedy and formed a drama group called The Emerald Star, a group I headed until SS3. Our performance during the talent show was the highlight of the night. It was during those days I knew I was meant for this. I felt very alive, very ‘me’ when I was on stage and during rehearsals.” 

The American essayist E.B. White once likened the analysis of humour to the dissection of a frog: few people are interested in it, White concludes, and the frog dies of it. Layi learnt the principles of comedy in the most sensible and natural way: by simply observing the frog, and for a very long time. In that time he picked up some comic heroes along the way, a Godhead comprising Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, and Bovi. He admires Chappelle for being able to “say a striking truth with humour, without fear of those who oppose his views”. Rock first charmed him with his loosely autobiographical sitcom Everybody Hates Chris, and because “his jokes, even when absurd, are grounded in some form of logic”. We discuss the incident at this year’s Oscars which was previously alluded to in this piece, where the actor Will Smith slapped Chris Rock in the face after the latter made a joke about Jada Pinkett, Smith’s wife. Layi thinks it’s futile trying to sanitise comedy because it’s impossible to please everyone at the same time, someone somewhere will get offended no matter what. “I was surprised to see a lot of Nigerians on Will Smith’s side, as though people have been harbouring resentment towards comedians. They say certain lines must not be crossed, but it’s not practical. Not everyone will find the same things funny or offensive.” A concession bookends his response: “At the same time there can be things that are outrightly disrespectful which comedians should avoid”.  

“Stand-up is the scariest part of comedy,” Layi discloses. It’s also a comedic genre he’s never attempted in any professional capacity, having conducted most of his gags online, across Twitter, Instagram and TikTok, three platforms in which he’s managed to snatch up nearly 150,000 followers. “I think it [stand-up] is still the most fulfilling for every comedian, to be able to fill up seats and watch your audience lose it. Stand-up would come when I feel like I’m prepared for it.” He passes the same remark about kicking off his career in Nollywood, saying he’d enter it when he feels ready, but confirms that he’s been “getting calls here and there” as regards acting gigs. 

Layi aims for universal comedy, the sort without geopolitical limitations. “Not to sound conceited but I think I understand humour to that extent. You know, to be able to do it on a universal scale. I’m not very sure Nigerians enjoy universal humour as much as they do niched humour. For now I’m trying to garner an audience here, so it’ll be a springboard to where I’m trying to reach.” In truth, humour can never be universal. Not even the small room of moneyed humanity at the Dolby Theatre during this year’s Oscars ceremony could agree on what passes for acceptable humour. At any rate, we mustn’t begrudge a man his ambitions. If Layi wants to make the whole world laugh, we must spare him our remonstrances. I doubt he can even be talked out of it. For proof I point you to a tweet dated April 18 2022 in which, channelling Burna Boy in Sungba, Layi’s self-confidence burns so brightly your optician would advice against direct observation: “After thorough self-evaluation, theoretical and empirical research, I realised that my problem is I too sabi.” 

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