The following interview was between SaharaReporters editor Declan Galvin and Rudolf Okonkwo commemorating the upcoming 200th episode of Dr. Damages on SaharaTV.
SR: You are nearing the 200th episode of Dr. Damages, does this landmark feel exciting or more burdensome for you?
Rudolf: It is exciting because I didn’t know I would get here. There was no plan to get to the 200th episode, not in four years. I have noticed a lot of changes in terms of my viewers and what they think about the show. I think we made little impacts here and there, so I think we accomplished the goal we set at the beginning.
SR: Take yourself back to when you were writing the first script of Dr. Damages. What did you think would come of it? In the back of your mind did you think that one day you’d be creating hundreds of episodes?
Rudolf: That’s interesting. There were people like me, Adeola Fayehun, and Omoyele Sowore we decided that this Dr. Damages show that I’d been talking about for a long time—that I should do it. So I wrote a script in less than four hours, it was about 8 minutes—it wasn’t even long. It was far away from what we have now, I spend God-knows at least 40 hours a week on the script. There was no watching of videos or news. It was just something to put out there. I just sat on a chair and started talking. It was very easy I didn’t know we’d get to where we are now—a major production is the way I see it. The beginning, the first one, wasn’t anything major.
SR: Why did you feel the need to create the persona Dr. Damages?
Rudolf: Oh, it is like an ego. We all have egos in ourselves…
SR: An alter ego?
Rudolf: Yeah, an alter ego that would do what Rudolf Okonkwo wouldn’t do. There are some things that Rudolf wouldn’t say, but when I put on the mask I could say that. But it goes very far back. When I was in college I would write as Dr. Damages, so from that point that personality was established. He could always do things Rudolf couldn’t do, say things I couldn’t say.
SR: When you began thinking of Dr. Damages did you find yourself inspired by certain characters, personalities, or absurd interactions with people? What were some earlier versions of Dr. Damages?
Rudolf: We did a lot of things. In college I wrote with a pen name, we didn’t write with our real names, and I picked Dr. Damages as my pen name because the big writer in college when I joined the press was called Dr. Who, so when it was my time to write I said, “what do I call myself?” then I remembered one of the best pen names [from someone] in high school was “Damages” so I added “Dr.” to that and I became Dr. Damages. So in college I was writing as Dr. Damages. There was no personality attached to it but it gave me to cover to say things that other people cannot say and that I cannot say using my own name. It took a long time for them to discover who Dr. Damages was on campus. By knowing me, by knowing my personality, people did not believe that I could be the one writing those things.
SR: What kinds of things were you writing?
Rudolf: Anything people say you cannot do, Dr. Damages can do it. For instance, there is a political situation and people were afraid to say things about the leader. Dr. Damages can say anything about what they were doing wrong. In fact several times they closed down the press club in college for what Dr. Damages wrote. They wanted to expel Dr. Damages from the university.
SR: So the university officials wanted to find out who you were and expel you?
Rudolf: Yes of course, there was a meeting and at one point someone pointed out “he is Dr. Damages”
SR: Then what happened?
Rudolf: Then they begged, they said he is a good guy it is just when he starts writing as Dr. Damages things happen.
When I got to America, I started using Dr. Damages on message boards popular in 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002 in Nigeriaworld.com and other places. It gave me the cover so I could make fun of people and say things I couldn’t say myself. There was this instant when Bola Tinubu as Governor of Lagos State had this scandal when he was showing his fake University of Chicago certificate, and was showing it to Lagos State and INEC, and we discovered that he didn’t go to school there. And I was on his case. I thought that they could remove him because he lied. I cancelled everything I was doing. Everyday I was on message board and I was hitting that and hitting that. Then finally, Laolu Akande, who is my friend now, he did something I don’t know what, he investigated and he outed me as Dr. Damages.
SR: Why did he do that?
Rudolf: Because everyone was interested in knowing who was this Dr. Damages on Tinubu’s case. It was competition everyone wanted to know who was Dr. Damages. And then they banned me from the message board because you weren’t supposed to write with fake names.
SR: Many people would be surprised to know that you have a deep respect for poetry, fiction, and especially short stories. You have even published some of your works. Do you feel there is a connection between your published works, including your poetry and short stories, and your show Dr. Damages?
Rudolf: I got tired without saying it because I continue to write. At a point I had written commentary for a long time. When I finished college I joined the media and I was one of the youngest members of an editorial board of a newspaper in Nigeria. I was writing commentary and at a point you feel like you are repeating yourself. Some days I could look at my articles and see what I wrote about Obasanjo when he was president and could just change his name for Jonathan and publish it and would be the same. I could just publish it. So I was always looking for new ways to reach new audiences. People in Nigeria are tired of “Big Grammar.” Tired of people giving them essays. They want something lighter. That is what Dr. Damages and satire is trying to do. Because if you look at my short stories or whatever I am writing about in fiction it is about pointing out things in society that might be wrong that should be corrected. Dr. Damages is the same and trying to accomplish that goal.
SR: As you reflect on the body of your satirical work, not just Dr. Damages, but also your column “Correct Me If I’m Right,” do you feel like you’ve accomplished anything and how do you measure success?
Rudolf: Well it’s interesting because before Dr. Damages started, Rudolf Okonkwo was someone people could identify but now he’s dead. Nobody remembers him. It’s just Dr. Damages. I think I’ve done my best, I’ve tried. In Africa I should be retiring now but we’re not in Africa. The struggle still continues. I have friends who haven written for a long time. They all feel the same as me; that we keep saying the same things again and again. Meanwhile the society continues to get worse than it was the day before. But you can’t give up until the end. You see people who were not even writing when you were writing and they look up to you. So those kinds of things make you continue knowing that you’re touching some people.
SR: Are there some topics, themes, or issues that you would be uncomfortable talking about on Dr. Damages?
Rudolf: Yeah of course, several issues; one would be tragedy. It is a comedy show. Tragic situations I stay away from. You won’t hear me talking about Boko Haram killing 20 people. There is no punch line there. If someone died you won’t hear me making fun of that person. Unless it’s a terrible person or the person died on top of a woman. Like a pastor dying on top of a woman—that’s a goldmine! It has to have a connection to the personality and I have to find a punch line. That’s my key thing. If there is no punch line then I’m not doing it. I’m not delivering the news.
SR: Do you think that you strike fear into the hearts of certain corrupt officials? Do you wonder if they worry they’ll be featured on your show?
Rudolf: Oh yeah, and there are instances now that we know they make efforts to hide videos from us. There is one video of Jonathan dancing in Kano after a major bombing. Everyone was looking for this video. Politicians are now aware that what they say could be used against them, that people could lampoon them. They are aware.
SR: Is there a one person or official—including Sowore—who you would like to make fun of but haven’t had the chance to yet?
Rudolf: No I make fun of Sowore all the time! I talk about his stomach which I am watching. I don’t think there is anybody. This is what I tell people. Everybody I reduce to the same level whether you are the Pope, a Bishop, or whatever—I don’t care. If you are in the news and you do something foolish or stupid, then I will make fun of it. The guideline is simply if you are in the news and you do something that I see doesn’t make sense.
SR: But because of the constraints of time and the massive number of possible number of people to ridicule, sometimes people manage slip through. Has there been one person you haven’t had the chance to hit them the way you want to hit them?
Rudolf: No, I don’t think so. You have to choose stories every week. But if you are big and you are on the front page of a newspaper then there is no way you can avoid being talked about. The only way to escape is if you are not in the news. Even when you are not, sometimes I remember people I have not heard from. Whatever happened to that Arthur Nzeribe? Is he dead?
SR: There is some criticism that you have more lenient to Buhari than the PDP or even some Yoruba politicians. Do you think those critics have a point?
Rudolf: No they don’t have a point. In the case of Tinubu he is one of my most favorite targets. Nobody sees that they say, “Oh you like the APC people.” Amaechi is also a good target. Here is what is going on with Buhari—we want, just like with Jonathan, for Buhari to define himself and then we will capture it and start making fun of it. For now he hasn’t been defined—all people have been saying is that this is the government of body language, by body language, for body language. We are watching Buhari. The old Buhari we know, but the new Buhari we are waiting for. It will show when he appoints his ministers.
SR: Do you think that Buhari is just too boring to be able to satirize?
Rudolf: He is. But he cannot avoid making mistakes. He will make mistakes and we are going to capitalize on that. We are watching him. Just like Obama, when Obama came the comedians weren’t sure how to handle him. Overtime they discovered ok this guy is aloof, this guy is naive, this guy has big ears—we will find it with Buhari. Okay look at Buhari’s wife, he has been able to rein in his wife and then his daughter. I know he is going to appoint someone who will be our next Labaran Maku, our next Doyin Okupe—we are going to get characters, if not him we’ll get someone.
SR: You begin each show by saying you’re broadcasting “from New York, the greatest city in the world.” Do you open that way to jab at Nigeria and is that opening part of your commentary on Nigeria and Africa?
Rudolf: No. Some weeks our formula is to point out something in New York that is outrageous. New York is our home base so we start there, then people in Africa say, “oh so things are bad there too.” We let people know what is happening in New York, then wider America, then Africa, and Nigeria—that is the formula we use.
SR: When do you think you’ll go back to Nigeria and is it ready for Dr. Damages?
Rudolf: I can go back anytime I just don’t have the money yet. We are talking about taking the show to Nigeria next year and we are actually looking forward to that. It may happen depending on resources but we will have to see.
SR: So what would the show look like?
Rudolf: It would be interesting because I have not been in Nigeria for a long time. I am interested in seeing how the new government responds to that. I want to talk to ordinary Nigerians on the street. I don’t care about the Big Men in government circles; I don’t expect them to embrace it. They don’t like Dr. Damages and it won’t protect them. Even if I don’t take the show to Nigeria next year I think I will go to Nigeria myself next year.
SR: You take your relationship with your fans seriously. Many people may not know but you message with them, respond to their comments, and answer emails. Why is it important for you to have that kind of relationship and how will you sustain that if your success continues to grow?
Rudolf: That’s a challenge. The only thing keeping the show going is the viewers. Some weeks I wish I could take the week off but I keep getting emails from the fans. If you read the emails you will see the transition of Nigeria and how people are changing, and how the show is impacting people. A lot people are beginning to reengage and show interest in watching the Nigerian political process. People are expressing themselves. I get a lot of ideas for the show from people who are smarter than I am- people who write things that look like the script of the show. The biggest one is that ordinary people in Nigeria now are demanding accountability from their government, not just the government at the center but even governors and local government administrators. They are beginning to have the courage to say that people should be answerable to them. That’s the reason I do what I do.
SR: As you move beyond the 200th episode can your fans expect any new characters?
Rudolf: Yes. There are some we are thinking about, of course things have changed, Jonathan is retired. We can’t bring him back the way we used to do. We have to get Buhari in. We have to get key characters. We are watching people who are famous. Someone like Ayo Fayose would be someone who we should have on the show every other week. So we are working on that. They have to show up, they help us tell the story of Nigeria and Africa.
SR: Can you give us a teaser of your 200th episode? What can your fans expect for this landmark moment?
Rudolf: It is still undercover, we haven’t agreed on what it will be. But we know that Jonathan is coming back to say hello. We know that Buhari will be there. All the key people. We know Mazi Anu Nti. Mama Udoka indicated she would be there. So all the old friends will stop by.
SR: So we can expect some famous friends to stop by?
Rudolf: Yes. Even Shekau. I got some messages from Abubakar Shekau saying he may show up. We won’t know. If he gets the visa to America. I think I was told he is joining the refugees in Europe; he is making his way from Europe to America. We may have Shekau here and we may find out how his Boko Haram thing is going.
SR: What is something about you, Rudolf Okonkwo, that you think fans of Dr. Damages should know? Who is more important, Rudolf Okonkwo or Dr. Damages?
Rudolf: It is Dr. Damages now. I used to be more important than Dr. Damages but the guy destroyed me. Actually, I am very shy and quiet person. I don’t talk much in public. When I am on the show it is a different thing. What is surprising is all I ever wanted to do was be a columnist. I don’t know how all these other things happened. I just wanted to be like May Ellen Ezekiel (MEE) writing a column and people reading it. That was all I wanted to be. But the bigger thing for me is if Africa or Nigeria is in good shape what I would ideally be doing is writing novels, and short stories- just fiction, get lost in fictional world. But things are too serious for me to be writing fiction.
SR: You are known to have a trademark question so I think it is only fair to ask you: what is keeping you up at night?
Rudolf: What’s keep me up at night is the script of Dr. Damages, in fact I don’t turn off. You can’t go off if you’re doing this show. You have to constantly know what’s going on. That’s the sad thing I can’t turn off. That’s why I need a vacation after the 200th episode. The script follows everything in the world, I have to know what Obama did, I have to know what the Mayor of New York City did, I have to know what the President of Nigeria, the President of Ghana, the President of Kenya have done. I stay up late at night looking at videos, no matter how stupid the video is you have to keep watching it.
In general I am concerned about the Africa’s situation and the fact that a lot of people on that continent have not been able to enjoy parts of the resources that they have on that continent. They continue to live a life which is substandard, beneath what they should live in the 21st century. And the fact that we have not managed to have a group of policy makers and leaders who are interested in the welfare of their people. That’s what’s keeping me up at night.
Thanks so much for taking the time to answer our questions and we look forward to your 200th episode coming this week!