Ahamefule J. Oluo is one of the most flamboyantly talented people in the city. He’s a musician, writer (check out his essay in this month’s issue), funny storyteller and thinker. He’s a longtime writing partner of the brilliant Hari Kondabolu and he’s engaged to thunderbolt of amazingness Lindy West. His band, Industrial Revelation, just won a Genius Award. He works regularly with the angel-voiced Okanomodé Soulchilde and tours occasionally with Hey Marseilles and he’s got approximately 49 other ongoing musical collaborations. Even his side projects have side projects. Dude’s really laying it on thick lately.
As a friend and a fan, it’s a joy to see a performer reach this point of inflection and momentum in their creative life—call it “leveling up” or simply just “getting after it.” This week Oluo brings a revamped production of his experimental pop opera Now I’m Fine to On the Boards (check out Jonathan Zwickel’s breathless review of the original show at Town Hall). I talked to him about it.
How is this different from the show you put on at Town Hall?
It’s gonna be better, basically. The show at Town Hall was the highlight of my career so far and it put me in a really good position where I don’t have to make a new good thing, I just have to make something better. I’ve had two years to work on it and an actual budget.
You said that it’s the biggest achievement of your career, a culmination.
It’s been a process of having the best story idea I’ve ever had to start with, then working on it harder than I’ve ever worked on anything else before. It’s a pretty simple math equation. So much of what I’m doing, having worked on this show for a decade, is thinking about things in a very objective way; you take a step away and then you come back.
The format of the show is really hard to explain—it’s kind of a musical but it’s not, kind of stand-up comedy but it’s not. The easiest way to explain it is that it’s just everything I do on a stage, with a giant orchestra and the most compelling story I could possibly tell. If this doesn’t work then I must not have anything good inside me, I must literally be good at nothing. [Laughs]
It probably gets weird with the life story enfolded in the show tangling together with your current life. You have to be objective about things you lived subjectively.
Totally. That’s one of the benefits of life moving and changing—I wouldn’t have made the same decisions that I made then. Even the music—it’s music that I wrote back in 2006, when all the stuff that happens in the show was going on. I don’t write music that way now. I don’t do any of those things the same way, which is a really big advantage. It allows me to step out of it. I can think of it as stuff that someone else did. I was a different person then.
Is it like going into a house you used to live in and thinking it looks smaller now?
It’s really funny you bring that up. It does feel exactly like that and, even more directly, a friend of mine now lives in the apartment where this stuff takes place. Sometimes I go there and so many things seem different about it. In my memory it’s four-feet by four-feet, like a coffin, but I go there and it’s still a shithole but you can walk around in there.
You and Hari have the kind of creative friendship/collaboration that most comics would kill for. What’s it like to have someone to bounce ideas off daily and get all mixed up in each other’s creativity?
I’m really fortunate, not only with Hari but also with Lindy. And I live one block away from Evan Flory-Barnes—basically on every project either one of us has, we work together.
But, particularly with comedy, I mostly absolutely hate doing it. I’ve had some amazing experiences in stand-up, but for the most part it’s the thing I hate doing. I’m sure you know what I mean—you do it. There are times when you’re like, “This is the worst thing in the world. Why am I doing this to myself, why would I go out there and be this vulnerable to a bunch of people I would never want to be around?”
I love having people I trust whose work I respect and I am fully invested in their vision. I love having people like that in my life because then I can say, “Let me give you the things that I’m never gonna do. I don’t want to go up there! Don’t make me go up there! But I have to get this out somewhere. Please take it and do something with it.”
What’s the fundamental difference between you and Hari that makes him able to tolerate or even thrive in that but drives you away?
So much of it is just because he’s a better comic. I’m definitely not saying that he’s funnier than me because I’d never in a million years say that [laughs] but he is absolutely a better comic than me. If you’re better at something you can maneuver, you have a better chance of not having a terrible experience. I’ve had a couple moments on stage where I felt free and I was interacting with the audience in the way that I wanted to, but I don’t think I necessarily connect with people in that specific way. When I watch Hari, he connects with the idea of doing stand-up comedy more than I do.
I love the art form, but that thing where you’re effortless onstage just doesn’t happen. It happens to me more in a storytelling environment where I’m not tied to the structure of jokes.
The whole laugh mechanism of “you’ve gotta get a laugh every 30 seconds.”
So instead you’ve gone ahead and created your own genre to work around that?
Exactly. I wanted to be the best in the world at something so I had to make up what that thing is.
Photo by Kelly O.