The show is like a gem hiding from view. But those who have discovered it on Youtube or on SaharaTV swear by it and have made it a cult classic. The Dr. Njakiri Damages Show celebrated its 100th episode last month.
Started two years ago on SaharaTV, Dr. Damages Show describes itself as “a weekly satirical online television show that airs every Saturday on SaharaTV. The show takes a caustic look at recent stories in politics and pop culture in Nigeria and around Africa.”
Dr. Damages is hosted by Rudolf Okonkwo, columnist for Sahareporters.com and a veteran of the Nigerian media. Mr. Okonkwo wrote for Classic Magazine and Nigeria Daily Mail newspaper before he left Nigeria during the General Babangida era. So why comedy and why now?
“Nigerian news used to elevate my blood pressure,” Mr. Okonkwo says. “To stay alive I decided to make fun of the news. To make sure that Nigeria does not kill you, you need to have a sense of humour about our human condition.”
He continued. “If you count when I was in college, I have spent the last twenty years commenting on Nigeria,” he says. “I have seen enough of our history repeating itself with escalating consequences. Even in my commentaries, I have caught myself repeating what I have said before. In my search for a new way to present old issues, I jumped into comedy. I have not gone away from journalism. I am still a commentator. I still follow the news and comment on them. Though the format may have changed, the primary goal is still the same. I try to do what Martin Luther King Jr. prescribed- “discomfort the comfortable and comfort the discomforted.”
Recorded in the New York City studios of SaharaTV, the show makes caricature of political leaders in Africa, especially Nigeria’s president.
I consider our inability in Africa to hold people charged with the affairs of our nations accountable as our greatest failing as citizens,” Mr. Okonkwo says. “The problem is that you cannot hold the people you worship accountable. The goal of Dr. Damages show is to nibble that worshiping culture now in the stratosphere until it gets down to ground level. The pedestal where we placed these leaders now is so high that they cannot see the people they were elected to serve. If you cannot see your constituency, you cannot possibly cater to their needs.”
The columnist, who still writes his popular “Correct Me If I’m Right” column at Saharareporters seems to have found a new avenue to express his frustration with the pace of political change in Nigeria.
“Nigeria is a failed nation that works for the very people who has failed it,” Mr. Okonkwo muses. “It stays that way because there are no natural consequences for their high crimes and misdemeanour. There are no forfeitures. The eternal damnation that various religions prescribe is virtual and unproven to many of these characters. Everything visible in their immediate environment reinforces their bad behaviors. As an individual, I have no power to impose any sanction. The only power that I have is the power to make fun of them. If it helps to make them reflect, I have excelled. If it only reduces their ego, my job is done.”
What Dr. Damages does cannot possibly be done in Nigeria of the 90s when military dictatorship dominated the political space. Is Dr. Damages taking advantage of the new democratic space in Nigeria and is he abusing it?
“The final stage of democracy is when we are free to laugh at the people who rule us,” Mr. Okonkwo says. “Nothing will humanize them more. Obviously, death hasn’t. But I am sure that what death cannot do, mockery will.”
An engineer by training, Mr. Okonkwo later obtained an MFA in Professional and Creative Writing at Western Connecticut State University. But he acknowledged that he did not set out to be a comedian and he still does not consider himself one. He feels he is just filling a gap until the professionals stop pursuing rats while their houses are on fire.
“Our real comedians pick on the vulnerable in our society,” Mr. Okonkwo laments. “It disgusts me when they make fun of the disable and the disadvantaged but not the people who in some cases created and are perpetuating the conditions that placed those people in their situation. One of my hopes is that Dr. Damages will inspire these comedians to gradually direct their jokes at the comfortable. Right now, I know that is where their money is coming from. But the essence of comedy is not just to make money. If you are not transforming your society in the process, you are dishonoring the craft.”
On his craft, he says, “What I do is simply to polish the truth so that anyone can see it from anywhere. In some cases I stretch the truth to make sure it reaches people far from it. In all cases, the foundation of my material is always based on the truth.”
Dr. Damages show is in the tradition of a typical American late night talk show. Some have called him the Jon Stewart of Nigeria. Others have called him the David Letterman of Nigeria. “I’m a student of all those late night show,” Dr. Damages says. “My day is not over until I have watched the late night shows.”
As satire, the show indirectly appeals to the sensibilities of the viewers. “Satire depends on people being able to use their tongue to count their teeth,” Mr. Okonkwo says. “So to follow what Dr. Damages does and enjoy it, you need to have a tongue that can move. Definitely, if you don’t follow the news you will most likely be lost. Usually you will be lost at the punch line. And that can be very frustrating because up till that point you have invested heavily only to be denied the reward of a happy ending.”
Dr. Damages show’s format begins with a swipe at New York City, the home base of the show. Then it takes a swipe at America, typically Washington and the President. From there it picks an international story, his favorite being the Pope. It may touch an African country and then settles on Nigeria, its primary interest.
“It has not always been like that,” Dr. Damages says. “It was shaped that way when Nigerians at home who are unaware of the late night culture in America began to grumble that I make fun of Nigerian political leaders because I live in America. They argued that I would not be able to make fun of American leaders like President Obama and still be allowed to live in America. So this format I have now is an answer to them.”
“I stay away from talking about tragedies,” Dr. Damages says. “If it cannot be made fun of, it is not for me. Other than that, I have no untouchables.”
Dr. Damages show is known to make fun of men of God and that has been one of the main sources of criticism of the show.
“The religious leaders are not untouchables to me,” Dr. Damages says. “My thing is, once you are a public figure and you wield great power and great influence, you are a fair game. I’m willing to take the abuse that comes with picking on religious leaders. These men reach millions of people. If I can influence them in any little way, I can influence millions of people indirectly.”
Dr. Damages’ most viewed video, now at over 600,000 views on Youtube was the parody about Bishop David Oyedepo slapping a woman in church. In the parody video, Mr. Oyedepo is shown slapping President Goodluck Jonathan. The video divided Nigerians as many felt it was disrespectful of the president and the man of God while others found it hilarious.
“That it was a hit really surprised us,” Dr. Damages says. “It was the quickest skits that I ever written. I guess it was effective because it captured the interaction between the church and the state and the folly in expecting too much from a president who has no pedigree to back expectations.”
“People were very angry when we had the president sitting in the toilet,” he said about another controversial clip that made mockery of President Jonathan’s no show at the podium for a speech at the 50th anniversary of the founding of the African Union in Addis Ababa. “They said we have crossed the line. They called us names. They cursed us. But I tell you, two things that I know will never happen again in Nigeria. One is that a president will never miss his or her slot to speak at an international event. The other one is that no high profile church leader will slap a poor church member in public. Now if I do not achieve anything else, I’m satisfied with those two.”
He concluded. “As a reflex action, you can repress what makes you mad. Some people tune out from Nigeria for that simple reason. But you cannot forget what makes you laugh. And that is what I’m counting on. I hope to get people to laugh and retain things that would otherwise be painful. And I hope that eventually, a heart full of laughter will one day demand that something be done to improve the lots of the common man.”
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