Benjamin Bello: A Real Character

August 22, 2021

Photo Credit

Benjamin Bello

Interview by

Valerie Lopez

Article by

Richard Goodwin

2021 Summer Vacation Series

Destination - London, England

The world is in the midst of a host of debuts, including the blinding sight of faces that haven’t seen true sunlight for many months, poking out of doors and taking the cautious first steps back into the great outside.
It’s only fitting that we debut something of our own for the podcast: the 2021 Summer Vacation Series. While we’re in no way on vacation, the theme speaks more to that most summer-y of concepts, traveling to new places near and far. Many of our guests are local to Austin, but during the pandemic we had the honor of “hosting” comics from around the world on our Isolation Comedy series, and the Vacation Series is our way of bringing them back for the full Comedy Wham interview treatment.

If this summer has been about anything beyond viruses, I think it's safe to say that the topic of Presidents has been front and center. I suppose last summer as well, and the one before that, and...well. So it's fitting that this week's guest entered our comedic sphere playing the leader of a nation, albeit a fictional one.

Nigerian-born Benjamin Bello (née President Obonjo of the Lafta Republic , in character) marched into the room (well, a closet) for his first show on our 2020 Isolation Comedy series, and his commanding presence is one befitting both a politician and a comedian. It's impressive for someone coming into comedy at the ripe age of 45, relatively late in industry norms.

Bello has memories of being funny, even noting that his father commented that he liked to bring his son along "because he made him laugh". It wasn't until long after his move to the UK that his sense of "being naturally funny" started to solidify into a concept he could apply as a profession. I'll do my best to refrain from saying "unorthodox" when referring to his move into formal comedic work, but it's hard to avoid when so many of his experiences stem from stories that start along the lines of "have you ever been to a Nigerian wedding?".

It was at said weddings that a younger Bello, in the role of emcee, both realized his joy, and was told by guests how unique it was to have the crowd rolling with laughter at an often-formal event. He now had the motivations and seeds to begin shaping his love of being funny into something cohesive. That phase started around 2011, but it wasn't until 2016 when, after advancing in his first comedy competition, when he realized that comedy was "real", and "something someone could "actually make a career out of this".

Prior to coming out of this five-year "daze" as Bello calls it, he was working from vague ideas of how he wanted to entertain. "I knew that I wanted to create something different and unique," Bello says. "I knew I didn't want to do [straight] stand up. I wanted to entertain people." A noble goal indeed, but it required him to become familiar with the processes in the industry, without even an understanding of bookers and promoters.

I knew I didn't want to do [straight] stand up. I wanted to entertain people.
Benjamin Bello

To many comedians, those people and processes are mostly-literal "gatekeepers", deciding who can get into a club, who headlines, who even gets stage time. While Bello understands the pragmatic nature of these things much more now, he still hopes that success can follow talent, not networking skills. "I prefer to be judged by my performance, my material," he notes, and would much prefer "if audiences were gatekeepers".

So, whither President Obonjo? Bello's signature character was born of a mix of fortuitous circumstances and happenstance. At the time, President Obama was a topic of conversation on the international stage (and apparently the target of a bit of a crush for Bello's wife). Bello's family history included several generations of service in the African army (though his parents stopped him from doing the same). When a chance walk led Bello to a second-hand army goods store and he saw the uniforms available (Obonjo's signature dictator-haute), everything clicked.

I thought: that's what Obama actually needs. Obama needs to be an African president...a real African dictator.
Benjamin Bello (on creating President Obonjo)

Thinking of the challenges the US president was facing getting his initiatives through a highly partisan government, Bello saw an opportunity. "I thought: that's what Obama actually needs. Obama needs to be an African president...a real African dictator," he recalls, and the character of President Obonjo was born. As such comedic origin stories go, that spark and conviction led to taking Obonjo to the stage, and Bello being told afterward that he'd "found his mojo". In a tale of an entertainer's ship looking for port, it seems Bello had finally sailed into his.

Audiences immediately loved Obonjo, though they couldn't say why, stating they felt they weren't supposed to like this guy, but absolutely did. And that's some of the magic of Bello's creation: a commanding tone and posture paired with army fatigues sets up an expectation in the mind (even if based on caricatures), then topples it by stridently talking lovingly about his "nation" and the ways he wants to preserve and improve it.

The character rapidly grew in popularity, even leading to a potential sitcom offer for Bello. Unfortunately, someone less scrupulous than the benevolent Obonjo decided to take the idea, change the name, and run with it, leaving Bello in the lurch. But fans have continued to stay with Bello, constantly engaging with his fan page, and starting tags like #SaveObonjo on Twitter. The President even participated in a debate with a London mayoral candidate, who at times found himself wondering if it truly was a character or real dictator.

The success of a character that "writes itself", while fantastic in so many ways for Bello, did have the effect of somewhat stalling growth in other professional areas. "I didn't want to be seen as an Instagram or TikTok star, but I'm glad I embraced it," he jokes, gracious for the success. As Obonjo grew in popularity on Instagram, Clubhouse* and TikTok (and continues to do so), Bello the comedian has turned his focus to building his writing chops, just coming off a five-week comedy course.

* At the time of publication, Obonjo's Clubhouse account was suspended for commentaries made about the Afghan humanitarian crisis.

I didn't want to be seen as an Instagram or TikTok star, but I'm glad I embraced it.
Benjamin Bello

Still, the President (as they often do) continues to loom large. As Bello works on material that draws on his own life, stepping away from the character, audiences (and promoters) have been gracious but continue to demand proof-of-life that the President will return.

While Bello laments the strong association to a singular character, even claiming at times that he has a twin brother who is really behind Obonjo, he feels "no regrets" about what he's created. He likens the relationship to that of an actor and their roles, "but [at least actors] have different characters".

The good news for all of Bello's fans, including us at CW, is that both the real and fictional comedy will continue. As mentioned, you can find Bello (in multiple forms) on Clubhouse and TikTok. He's continuing to build his profile(s) in the London comedy scene as well. As live comedy returns, and Bello plans to perform at Edinburgh Fringe Festival, we are certain to see and hear more of him (them?) in the future.

And since, as Bello notes, people are "frightened" to return to a changing world, who better than a benevolent (and hilarious) dictator to lead them back out?

Want to know more about comedy in London, England?

Benjamin's recommendations for comics to check out from London (and Nigeria) include: Moses Olaiya (stage name of Baba Sala), Gina Yashere, Njambi McGrath, and Aaron Simmonds.

If you're in London, Benjamin says doors are opening up again and there's a lot to see. Recently, there's been an emphasis on diversity in lineups and you're also seeing more women on shows and more women at the top of the bills (lineups). He thinks the future is bright for the British comedy scene, but some people are still hesitant to go out due to Covid. He recommends checking out or for all things British comedy.

Follow Benjamin:

Follow President Obonjo:

Benjamin can be seen and heard:

  • Podcasts Hosted - If Comedians Ruled The World with President Obonjo
  • Comedy Albums/Specials - President Obonjo: Goodbye, Mr. President (2020)
  • Honors - Malcom Hardee Award Winner (2019 Edinburg Fringe)
Benjamin Bello