First Gig Worst Gig

Ikechukwu Ufomadu

Ikechukwu Ufomadu

It was the first of times, it was the worst of times. And this week it's the New York times of Ikechukwu Ufomadu, the critically-lauded comic and Emmy-nominated actor who brings a splendidly suave silliness to the stand-up stage. Now he brings it, via the show Amusements, to London. How would this dapper artiste pitch the show, if he decided to flyer outside, opening night?

"I would dress up like a peanut vendor at an American baseball game, and shout, 'Amusements! Get your Amusements here! Nice, fresh Amusements, right over here! Step right up for your Amusements, folks! Amusements! Right here!' and hope for the best."

Onstage: bit esoteric. Offstage: impressively pragmatic. On screen, Ufomadu has appeared in high-profile works like the Oscar-winning Judas And The Black Messiah with Daniel Kaluuya, and lots of interesting US TV stuff, while as a comic he debuted at the Edinburgh Fringe last August. How did he find the sheer longevity of that, hunkered in a bunker every day?

"Perhaps the weirdest part was feeling like I was turning into some kind of comedy monk," he says, "living and working in a sort of comedy monastery. There was something almost meditative in the simple yet demanding structure of the day.

"Essentially, my one job each day was to do the show. Everything I did before the show was in service of getting ready to do the show. Everything I did after the show was in service of unwinding from doing the show - while being careful to not unwind so much as to put the next day's show in jeopardy. As far as monk-like existences go, it was a fun one."

Good habits. Now, let's head back a decade, to another debut.

Ikechukwu Ufomadu. Credit: Zack Dezon

First gig?

The year was 2013 CE. Down the street from my apartment was a bar/venue called Goodbye Blue Monday. They held a weekly open mic that also had one (1) booked act. People came mostly for the mic, but if you did something the host liked, you got invited to come back the following week to be that one (1) booked act, which came with a whopping 20 minutes of stage time.

One week, those 20 minutes went to me. I don't remember much about the gig itself, but I do remember approaching it with a sense of solemnity. There was a weight to those 20 minutes that I could almost feel in my hands. An approximation of my inner monologue at the time might be: "Wow. I've been given the gift of time. And with that gift, I must do my utmost to entertain to the best of my ability".

Ultimately, this meant doing some kind of absurdist oratorical improvisation while slipping in and out of an impression of Barack Obama.

Favourite show, ever?

I did a show a couple of hours after I read the New York Times's review of it. It was not a good review. This being the first time seeing my work reviewed in such a public forum, I was especially disappointed. However, something about the pressure of needing to do the show so soon after reading the review pushed me to think, "Hey. The newspaperman doesn't decide whether my work has value. I do." Holding onto that thought, I had a real fun and carefree time up on the stage that night.

Worst gig?

That distinction goes to the gig that never was. A couple of years into my pursuit of comedy, I got an out-of-the-blue offer to take over hosting duties for a variety show in Vegas. This was the summer of 2014 CE.

My head was already a bit in the clouds because I'd just performed my first solo show at a venue I'd always wanted to play. That was on a Tuesday. Then I got called in for a meeting with the Vegas folks on a Thursday, which is when they made the offer. And then the next day, they flew me out to Vegas for the weekend so I could see the show first hand. I was impressed by what I saw and after some deliberation, I decided to accept the offer. Then... crickets. Complete radio silence.

I'd already given notice to my day job at the time, and with each passing day, I slid deeper and deeper into a pit of anxiety. Then one day, I randomly decided to Google the show, and learned that the casino where it played was being taken over. The new owners, unfortunately, were not fans of the show and so they decided to close it down. The predicament this all placed me in was... horrendous.

But you know what? I bounced back. And now here I am, on the verge of performing my latest solo show Amusements at the Soho Theatre from 26th February through 2nd March at 7:30pm (forgive the mid-interview plug, but I'm trying to improve my skills of self-promotion).

Ikechukwu Ufomadu. Credit: Zack Dezon

Which one person influenced your comedy life most significantly?

Probably Andy Kaufman. I went to theatre school for college to train as an actor. And after college, I found myself getting cast in/gravitating towards more experimental theatre work.

Simultaneously, I felt this nascent sense of humour bubbling up from within and I started getting ideas for projects that I didn't think of as comedy per se - just odd little performances that just happened to be more funny than serious and just happened to involve only one performer (me).

It was around this time that I somehow stumbled across a wealth of Andy Kaufman videos on YouTube. They were something of a revelation, and bridged the gap between my theatre background and comedy future.

And who's the most disagreeable person you've come across in the business?

That would be a commercial agent I had a meeting with once who will go unnamed because I do not remember their name.

Is there one routine/gag/bit you loved, that audiences inexplicably didn't?

There's a bit in my set where I make reference to New York City's "World-Famous Streets". A little piece of my mind always expects a huge laugh at that line. An applause break. A mid-show standing ovation. It hasn't happened yet, but I still have hope.

Ikechukwu Ufomadu

Does the feel of a theatre affect what you decide to do onstage - the actual setting, as well as the audience?

Oh yes - even if I have a pretty fixed set of material. I always try to remain flexible enough to incorporate whatever is unique about the venue or the audience that night into the show. I like shows where the audience leaves without being able to pinpoint exactly why the show was funny and so must simply resort to telling people, "You had to be there".

Any reviews, heckles or post-gig reactions stick in the mind?

Yes. It happened in Edinburgh. Towards the end of the run, there was one audience member who was not on board with my brand of silly absurdism. She communicated this by engaging in what could only be described as a silent pantomime of exasperation which grew more elaborate by the minute. I like to think the audience that night got two shows for the price of one.

How do you feel about where your career is at, right now?

I have a simple test to gauge how I feel about my career. I ask myself: If it all ended today, could I - with conviction - sing Frank Sinatra's My Way? If the answer is no, then I've got to change something up. If the answer is yes, then I'm on the right path. I'm happy to report that - currently - I am of the opinion that I am indeed doing it... "my way".

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