Before you attend the experimental comedian and actor Ikechukwu Ufomadu’s live show, you should know that the jokes might take some time. And that’s a good thing. Ufomadu, who often goes by Ike, has developed a captivating take on the tired talkshow format. His Nightcap is a meta version of the genre, which he helms in the guise of a ponderous, tuxedo-clad, non-sequitur–spouting host. To further describe Ufomadu’s act would ruin many surprises; suffice to say I spent most of my first show on the edge of my seat, waiting to see if he would ever lose control of the audience or break character. He did not. On the rare occasions when Ike delivered a direct punch line, the crowd erupted in almost grateful laughter. It takes a fearless performer to leave an audience suspended for so long. By the end of the night it was clear that the initially clueless-sounding Ufomadu might be the smartest man in the room.
I recently spoke with Ufomadu about the perils of preparing for a live show without a script, why he looks to Mr. Rogers as a hero, and how his Buddhist faith helps drive his work.
What Should We Do?!: Your onstage character revels in a kind of social awkwardness. How much of that Ike is based on your own personality?
Ikechukwu Ufomadu: “That Ike” is a stage persona that bends, stretches, and exaggerates certain aspects of me. The character comes from a project from when I trained as an actor in the experimental theater program at New York University. The assignment asked how I might go about creating a live show. I envisioned my show in the style of the Andy Williams Christmas specials. They struck me as such a peculiar way to celebrate a holiday. Williams would put his entire family on the set and shoot a show around them. They highlighted a barely there divide between the performer and the “real person,” and there was an earnest quality to his presentation that I truly valued.
In researching those specials, one YouTube video led to another. Having never watched late-night television when I was younger, I fell deeply into the alien world of talk show TV clips on YouTube. Johnny Carson, Steve Allen, David Letterman; just on a surface level, it was so strange to me that these talented people would put on formalwear to do very silly bits. If you’re supposed to be an entertainer, why would you feel the need to wear a suit and sit at a desk? Determining just what that sort of person would be like to talk to, how they would interact with a guest, and why they might need that heightened level of formality to function was the germ of the Ike character. Being “that Ike” in front of an audience has honed him into the gentleman you can find entertaining a late-night audience near you.
WSWD: What’s your writing process like? What percentage of the show is improvised?
Ufomadu: I often think of writing in terms of basketball. Before a game, there’s the intense preparation of drilling moves, conceiving of and practicing specific plays, keeping your body in shape. When you show up to the court to play another team, you don’t exactly know what to expect. So even in a scenario as practiced as team sports, there’s a kind of improvisation that’s informed by a great deal of preparation. That’s what I’m aiming for.
I’ve always felt strongly that I should discover things in front of an audience as much as possible. I can promise you that the character and the impulses that guide him are very carefully thought out. The exact moment you see onstage, perhaps not so much.
WSWD: Do people ever get angry if they don’t “get” what you’re doing?
Ufomadu: I sure hope not! My intention is that if my work is disorienting and nonsensical, that it is pleasantly so. There have definitely been nights when I’ve played the entire act to silence. The nature of the character is such that he can’t change directions too quickly, so I just have to ride out that wave.
When you ask that question, it brings to mind Steve Martin’s memoir Born Standing Up, which I’ve been reading lately. He talks about the idea of the delayed payoff and what happens to an audience when you don’t provide the release of a clear ending to a joke. I don’t mind being in that liminal space for a very long time, but I do understand that one’s audience needs closure. Personally, I haven’t yet sussed out a formula for my own mode of performance that always returns the effort. It’s a work in progress.
My intention is that if my work is disorienting and nonsensical, that it is pleasantly so.
WSWD: You’ve said that two of your role models are Andy Kaufman and Fred Rogers. I can certainly see a lot of Kaufman in your act.
Ufomadu: My appreciation for Andy Kaufman comes from his ability to bridge the gap between experimental theater and stand-up. He had a sort of theatricality with regard to space and unexpected conventions of character that I’ve always enjoyed. I love not quite knowing where an idea is going, then having the payoff come in an unexpected way. Kaufman was the master of that. He would always get reactions from an audience, not laughter necessarily, but he made sure they felt something. That’s a major goal in my work, as well.
WSWD: And Mr. Rogers?
Ufomadu: One thing I admire about Fred Rogers was that he saw his show as a tool for action rather than an end in and of itself. He created and hosted his program with an awareness of his audience and a clear intention of how the material might leave a lasting impression. From a purely pragmatic standpoint, I find his speaking cadence and manner to be soothing and entertaining, qualities that I strive for both in my own life and in character.
WSWD: When you hit a wall onstage or can’t find your way around a problem in your own life, what do you do?
Ufomadu: A lot of what I do when I’m stuck is inspired and informed by my Buddhist faith. I’ve been practicing in a group called the Soka Gakkai for about a decade. The main practice is chanting nam-myoho-renge-kyo about whatever problem, issue, or goal is most pressing to you. Through meditation and chant, I find I’m better able to access parts of myself that aren’t habitually at the ready: having appreciation for difficulties as a source of growth, being more patient with people, having a greater sense of agency, deepening a sense of purpose or meaning, finding my own wellspring of courage and compassion. These internal shifts help me take more effective action to make my professional and personal growth happen in tandem. One doesn’t happen without the other.
WSWD: What’s your perfect New York day?
Ufomadu: I’d wake up early, brew a cup of coffee, and sit on the stoop for a while to take in the morning air. After that, I’d go for a bike ride around Prospect Park. I’d make my way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a while, then over to the Museum of Modern Art. I’d get a burger from Shake Shack for lunch and pick up everyone on the line’s check. I would watch the sunset on the High Line and splurge on a little sightseeing down the Hudson River. I would end the night listening to music and having drinks at Café Carlyle. Can I get everybody’s check there too, please?
Nightcap by Ike
425 Lafayette Street (between Astor Place and East 4th Street), NoHo
Tuesday, July 24
Doors open at 9 p.m.; show at 9:30 p.m.