Benjamin Bello: A Real Character

August 22, 2021

Photo Credit

Benjamin Bello

Interview by

Valerie Lopez

Article by

Richard Goodwin

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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 www​.chor​tle​.co​.uk or www​.beyondthe​joke​.co​.uk 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)
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Benjamin Bello