The popular online political satire show, Dr. Damages, reaches its 200th episode next week. PREMIUM TIMES spoke with the host, Rudolf Okonkwo, about his motivation, his alter ego, Dr. Damages, and the future of the show. This funny interview is a must read.
Premium Times: You are a trained engineer, you also worked as a reporter for several years and are still a columnist. You have published several works of fiction, yet today you’re best known, at least by the younger generation, as a satirist. It even gets harder to classify you as you’re training to be a psychologist, or are you done with school now? How would you describe yourself?
Rudolf Okonkwo: I know that may sound weird to Africans at home but it is a common experience of Africans abroad. For many of us, once you leave your homeland, you are nobody. You studied nothing. You essentially become whatever will bring the money to pay your bills, feed your family, and give you leftover to feed and pay the bills for the extended family at home. Whatever the career is, the day that career is no longer taking care of business, you switch. You go where you hear there is money to pay the bills.
My own madness has been different, though. I moved away from Engineering right after I wrote my final examinations at the Federal University of Technology, Akure, FUTA. I used my NYSC time to work my way into the media after five years of writing for FUTA Press Club. And I have essentially been part of the media even when I am pushing trucks in London or pushing wheelbarrows in America.
Where I am now is part of that ongoing transition and self-discovery. I’m always looking for new ways to reach new audience. I have done commentary for over 20 years straight. I needed a new way to dance to the same old song and I found it in satire.
Deep down, though, I’ll prefer to be a novelist more than anything else. But for now, the urgency of rescuing Nigeria requires that I play my little part in the most direct and impactful way than I can writing fiction. Satire is working for me today.
I also took classes in psychology to understand mankind the more. It helps me to empathize with certain characters we see on Nigeria’s socio-political landscape. People who would naturally make others mad earn my sympathy as mere actors playing their roles as objects of caricature.
From the little I learned in psychology, I can tell you that there are a lot of people in authority in Nigeria and Africa who have serious psychological problems that have remained undiagnosed. Some probably have developmental disabilities while others developed mental illness along the way. Sadly, I’m not qualified to diagnose them but I do feel their pain.
Jokes apart, I’m not talking about people their mothers and fathers did not hug. I’m not talking about people who are deficient in some areas and are doing everything to overcompensate. Those ones are nickel and dime. I’m talking about people who need to see certified psychotherapists. These candidates for serious therapy are today sitting on the table and making decisions for Nigeria. If you want to get to the bottom of the greed, the injustice, and man’s inhumanity to man in our society, you have to outline the psychological profiles of our men and women in authority. They cover every conceivable spectrum ever imagined.
PT: The time you spent on your show has grown from under 10 minutes when you started in 2011 to over 30 minutes per episode. Also you have over 100,000 subscribers on Youtube and some of your episodes have been watched close to a million times. Here we are today talking about the 200th episode. When you first started did you plan for the show to get this popular?
Rudolf Okonkwo: You don’t plan for such things. You just go out there and give it your best. If what you do resonates with the audience or the show finds its audience, it survives. If not, it goes the way of other shows that didn’t make it. In fact, if anyone had told me that four years after, I would still be doing Dr. Damages Show, I would have said to the person, “for-real, get-outta-here-mehn.”
I’m still here because some people are still watching. They are the ones who keep me going. Viewers continue to demand that we increase the duration of the show and some even want us to do the show five times a week. Incidentally, that was the original format. That we have not expanded it is because we lack the resources to do so. Before we can increase it to more than once a week, we need more resources. When we have that, then we will expand it to include guest interviews and street trivial.
PT: The name of your show, Dr. Damages, what was the inspiration for the name?
Rudolf Okonkwo: The name was my pen name at Federal University of Technology, Akure, FUTA, Press Club. When I joined the press club and everyone was writing under a pen name, I had to choose one for myself. The most famous writer when I joined was Dr. Who. I thought of all the nicknames people in my secondary school had and the one that stood out was one guy called Damages. So, I added Dr. to it and became Dr. Damages. When website message boards became popular in 1999-2000, I used it to write on various Nigerian message boards. So it was a no brainer that it became the name of the show. Its deeper meaning of course is that this doctor’s work entails destroying things that cause illness. Dr. Damages is like chemotherapy. It kills cancer by damaging the cells. So Dr. Damages believes that diagnosis may entail opening up the body, breaking bones, to get to the thing in the marrow that wrecks the brain.
PT: You always wear a funny stethoscope, with a hammer on one end, around your neck on the show. This must be some kind of symbolism. Tell us about it?
Rudolf Okonkwo: That stethoscope captures the work of the doctor. It is the tool he uses to knock things into shape. It can feel the doctor’s patients and can also knock together a crooked bone or a runaway muscle. Right there you have no doubt that this is not your grandfather’s doctor. The business of identifying foolishness, stupidity and shortcomings requires a different diagnostic tool.
PT: Many readers would find it hard to align the “seriousness” of your column, “Correct Me If I’m Right” to the playful satirist on Dr. Damages. How do you manage the switch from a serious columnist to the playful Dr. Damages?
Rudolf Okonkwo: I have a button, I think it is called compartmentalization button 2A, that I switch off and on. Just kidding. You see, there are things I cannot write on my column. But once I put on the hat and the gown and the stethoscope as Dr. Damages, I can say anything. In a way Dr. Damages is my alter ego. In the column I watch the news and tell the news. In Dr. Damages Show, I show the news. I do it by ridiculing the human follies with the hope of changing the attitude of the participants.
PT: “Our real comedians pick on the vulnerable in our society. It disgusts me when they make fun of the disabled 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,” you told Premium Times during the celebration of the 100th episode of your show. How uncomfortable do you think your show has made politicians and other comfortable public figures? What kind of feedback did you get from them or those close to them?
Rudolf Okonkwo: I cannot claim that the show has changed much of the behaviour of public figures, especially politicians. But I know that they are very conscious of the fact that someone is watching them and that whatever they say or do could be used to lampoon them. I’ll give you an example: when former President Jonathan went to Kano to campaign a few days after the Nyanya, Abuja, bus station bombing that killed dozens of Nigerians, we searched for a video of President Jonathan dancing on the podium. We saw the picture but nowhere did we see the video. And we knew there were videos because several TV cameras were there. No TV station uploaded that clip. I doubt that it was purely coincidental. I believe someone “begged’ for the clip not to be shown on TV or even uploaded on Youtube. If we had it, we would have played it again and again and again. It would have been as big as Mrs. Patience Jonathan’s famous outburst “Na only you waka come.”
Another good example was after President Jonathan failed to speak at the 2013 African Union meeting in Ethiopia, we made a parody of it. We simply imagined what could have made the president miss his speaking slot. What we noticed afterward was that each time the president travelled and there was a change in plan, his media office would be the one sending out press releases to explain. They started to give a damn.
They could no longer afford to leave Nigerians in the dark because there were people willing to fill in the gap.
As for feedback, I haven’t heard from government officials themselves about anything that I do. I don’t expect to hear from them. I’m not their friend and I don’t wish to be their friend. But in casual conversations with people who work for the government, I know they are watching. Former government officials also confirm that the people in government are watching. Again, I don’t expect them to come out and say that they watch. Dr. Damages is like marijuana- an illegal substance that people use but will never acknowledge.
Yeah! That’s a good example. If you ever get them to acknowledge it, they will say the kind of thing U.S President Bill Clinton said, “I tried marijuana and didn’t like it and didn’t inhale.” I’ve heard people say they watched Dr. Damages Show but did not enjoy it. And they watched it again, just to see if they would learn to enjoy it.
PT: You have been less critical of Buhari on the show like you were of other presidents like Obasanjo and Jonathan, for instance. Is this because you believe he needs some time to settle down or because you believe he is the right leader for Nigeria?
Rudolf Okonkwo: For Buhari, we are presently giving him the space to define himself. Not honeymoon per say, but just a space to tell us who he will become because he is now a democratically elected president. It may not tally with what we knew he was before he was elected. We don’t want to jump the gun and then discover that we misread him. We actually gave Jonathan the same space. If you remember, when he came in he had a great deal of goodwill from Nigerians. It did not take time before he squandered it. Jonathan created his own narrative. We only illuminated it. Buhari will also create his. Until he appoints his ministers, we cannot say for sure what that dominant narrative would be. But we will be here waiting patiently. We are not going anywhere. We will keep watching him and we will eventually capture the vibe he gives out. In his first 100 days, one narrative that took hold in public discourse is one of Baba Go Slow. He neutralized it when he embraced it and suggested that he would rather go slow and steady than be in a haste and mess up. The other narrative out there is the one called the body language narrative. Is Buhari’s government a government of body language for body language by body language? We shall see. One thing that we can be sure of is that Buhari will have his own share of missteps. And when he does, we will be there to make fun of it. We just hope that his supporters will understand when the time comes because we are beginning to notice the sign that they think their man is beyond reproach. Some are beginning to say that any attempt to criticize Buhari amounts to a disrespect of the presidency. To them, I say, in the eternal voice of Goodluck Jonathan, “That’s not correct.”
The Jonathanians once made the same argument. If we enjoyed it when it was Jonathan, we should be able to enjoy it when it is Buhari. In another way, from the perspective of a comedian, Goodluck Jonathan is like George W. Bush while Buhari is like Barack Obama. At first, American comedians did not know what to do with Obama. He was boring, aloof and somehow hard to lampoon because he hardly made mistakes. But with time, Obama defined himself. Now, everyone is having a field day making fun of Obama- his big ears, his tendency to bottle his anger, his naivety in hoping to get his enemies to like him. The satirist humanizes the greatest of our heroes. It is our job. It is our unique assignment. We remind the heroes that they are humans too, else whatever made them great gets into their heads and destroys them.
PT: You also said you started satirizing U.S. politicians as a response to those who accuse you of hiding in America to throw jabs at Nigerian and African politicians. Has your show been able to attract any serious attention in the U.S. due to its focus on a US politician?
Rudolf Okonkwo: Zero impact! Dr. Damages does not even appear on the comedy radar anywhere in America. And that is not surprising because it isn’t our goal. Americans have so many great comedians that they do not need an African transplant to poke his nose into their affairs. Wait a minute! What am I saying? South African comic, Trevor Noah, is taking over Comedy Central’s popular political satire, The Daily Show, this month. So it is possible that in the future that may happen. But that approach of satirizing U.S. politicians achieved our first goal. In the last 18 months, nobody has said to us, ‘you cannot say about Obama this kind of thing you are saying about our president.’ People in Africa are beginning to see that it is not a taboo or an abomination to laugh at people in authority. Poking fun at people in authority is the final stage of democracy.
PT: Let’s talk about financial gratification. That may not be the aim at the beginning but with all the views and subscribers of your show you must be smiling anytime you get a bank alert. How financially rewarding has Dr. Damages been?
Rudolf Okonkwo: The subscription you see on SaharaTV Youtube is for all the shows and videos the platform has and not just for Dr. Damages Show. The platform has several great shows like the insanely popular Keeping It Real with Adeola. There are shows like The Gist, Nne and Ike, Africa in the City, and the now rested Inside The Diaspora. In terms of financial rewards, viewership does not translate into money in the bank the way some who are outside the industry see it. Even those who get millions of views each week, and we are very far from that, are not making a killing as people think. The truth is that we do this as service to our people. That’s our drive. Muhammad Ali said that service is the rent we pay for our room on earth. If it is about money, if that is my drive, I will get into what will make me friends with big politicians, pastors, and profiteering businessmen. If money is my drive, I will not be making fun of Bishops who misbehave, governors who speak from both sides of their mouths, musicians who have exaggerated sense of importance and Olumba Olumba who has refused to accept that one Olumba is enough. In fact, if it is about money, I will immediately change the name of the Show from Dr. Damages Show to Dr. Teddy Bear Show or Dr. Good Samaritan Show or something less intimidating. To answer your question in concrete terms, in a way that Nigerians will like it, I’m still driving the 2001 Toyota Camry that I was driving when I started the Show some four years ago. And it isn’t because I’m modest and just wanted to drive it. Nope! It has become a running joke at SaharaTV office. If I’m late for a meeting or a shoot, before I say my reason, everyone will chorus the reason for me, “my car broke down again.” But it’s okay. There is God! And He is watching Sowore! I must say that there are intrinsic things you get that are more rewarding than money. When someone writes to say that you lessened his or her stress with your show, that you made him or her smile, that is enough for now… until it is time to send the kids to college.
PT: What do you think the future holds for your show? Do you dream of a time when it grows big enough to be broadcast on television stations in Nigeria? How big do you think the show would be during its 400th episode? Or do you think the show is at its peak?
Rudolf Okonkwo: Great question. We have plans. We hope to make the show a full show as I said before. We hope to integrate interviews and maybe a studio band and more skits. We have plans, starting next year, to take the act on the road. We may even come to Nigeria to shoot some episodes of the show. The opportunities are endless. It all depends on the resources that are available to us. About coming on a TV station near you, that discussion is ongoing. Some TV stations in Nigeria have made enquiries. But as you can see, Dr. Damages Show is not a dance you can embark on with snuff in your hands. But I believe something will happen in due course. I’m hopeful that by the end of this year one of these pastors and prophets who see vision will see something and say something. For people who complain to us that they don’t have enough data in Nigeria to watch the 30 something plus minute show, I say, don’t despair. We are working on it. And prophet T.B. Joshua is praying for us.
PT: Also the show is built around you. Do you have a protégé that is understudying you, whom you plan to take over from you when you become too old to face the camera or even someone to stand in for you if you’re indisposed or unavailable?
Rudolf Okonkwo: Wait, what have you heard? Did you speak with Prophet T. B. Joshua before coming here? No? Don’t tell me you have been talking to my doctors? That is against the Federal Character law section 419. The truth is that the show is too young to start talking about protégé and take over plan. I know that the General Overseers of most of our churches are positioning their children to take over when they die. So recently, my 8-year-old son started his own Youtube channel.
He has made over two dozen videos and is getting dozens of views. That was when I said to myself, that is your protégé right there. If Bishop Oyedepo can position his son to take over the Winner’s Chapel when he dies, why not Dr. Damages? All that I need now is to explain to my son why a man who spent billions of tax payers money to build a hospital that he called a first class hospital in Akwa Ibom had to travel to London for treatment as soon as his car was involved in an minor accident. Once my boy gets that, he will take over Dr. Damages Show.