Hawai‘i’s Veteran Comics Weigh In on Social Media Comedy
In light of our recent interview with local social media pros creating funny kine videos online, HONOLULU caught up with Hawai‘i comedians Andy Bumatai, Frank De Lima and Jose Dynamite to chat about what it takes to make it in the industry.
Photo: Courtesy of Jose Dynamite
In the latest issue of HONOLULU, we spoke with social media content creators Pashyn Santos, Alex Farnham, Shermanray Anteola, Jarod Bailon, Daryl Bonilla, Dani Stolfi-Tow and the 808 Viral team about their successes with attracting audiences on smartphones and tablets through humorous videos, many of them based on life in Hawai‘i. (Read it here.) These virtual platforms provide an opportunity for income as well as for performers to reach a potentially large fan base that could help vault comedy or acting careers to the next level (both Justin Bieber and model Kate Upton’s careers began with appearances in viral videos on YouTube). But it also opens the door to online haters who leave offensive comments on videos just for kicks.
“It’s the weird thing about where we are as Americans now, it seems like everybody’s a keyboard warrior. And some people get off on being trolls and bashing someone’s work,” says local comedian Jose Dynamite. “With stand-up [comedy], as intimidating as it can be, it’s rare to have someone show up with the intention of heckling the comedians and giving everyone a hard time.” For nine years, Dynamite was the opening act for Augie T. Since 2012, he’s hosted regular stand-up comedy events at O’Toole’s and Anna O’Brien’s geared toward giving up-and-coming comics a few minutes at the mic. Although his content is performed in-person rather than through social media, Dynamite understands the appeal of delivering comedy through technology.
“Social media has helped put Hawai‘i on the map for comedy internationally, sharing that this is a great destination with good shows and solid audiences,” Dynamite says. “Our shows finish at 11:30 p.m. at the latest. Compare that to L.A., where stand-up comics might be waiting until 2 a.m. for the chance to get on stage and there are only three people left in the audience.” He’ll get out-of-town comedians who message him about possible stage time while they’re visiting Hawai‘i. Social media has also helped connect local comedians and alerted them about the latest open mic nights or gigs.
“Some local comedians will live-stream their sets. They can use social media to build their audience,” says Dynamite. “Of course, for a headliner like Jo Koy, there’s no recording because people already know him and if all his stuff goes on YouTube, that’s taking away potential money. At the same time, even he benefits from social: Jo Koy tweets about coming to Hawai‘i and he can sell out 11 shows at the Blaisdell. So comics use it however it works for them.”
If there’s anyone in Hawai‘i who knows comedy’s evolving styles, it’s Andy Bumatai. For 40 years, he’s been performing—stand-up comedy, on cable TV specials, Saturday Night Live-style sketches, on a nighttime talk show, social media bits. Not even a cancer diagnosis last year (he’s in remission) was able to keep him from instructional pidgin videos or new episodes of Toolin’ Around, a web show dedicated to his other lifelong passion of riding motorcycles.
There was no social media when Bumatai first began performing comedy in the mid-1970s. Attempting stand-up back then meant walking away from a lucrative sales job (that afforded him two Mercedes and a house on Tantalus in his 20s) and going broke, having to catch a bus from Kāne‘ohe to Waikīkī every night for a year, getting rejected by club after club before landing his first gig at the former Noodle Bar, along with Frank De Lima.
Just as audiences today may not be familiar with 808 Viral and comedy on social media, the bars back then didn’t initially understand Andy’s explanation of what stand-up comedy was. “Everyone asked, ‘What do you play?’ I said, ‘I just talk, I tell jokes.’ ‘OK,’ the manager says, ‘tell me your jokes.’ I said, ‘It’s like a presentation over the microphone.’ He says, ‘I’ll put you on stage but come back when there’s less people.’ And I’d say, ‘No, you need audience reaction.’ And it went on like this,” says Bumatai.
New technology continued to propel the comedian forward. Two 1980s KGMB TV comedy specials starring Bumatai—All in the ‘Ohana and High School Daze—brought big crowds to Kojak’s, where he was performing stand-up at the time, and led to a million-dollar contract opening for the Beamer Brothers at the Monarch Room at the Royal Hawaiian. He became an executive vice president for Pixi Net, one of Hawai‘i’s first internet service providers, and was one of the early adopters of digital video, which he used to create In The Car, a series where he interviewed local celebrities while driving in a car around the island. Six months later, Jerry Seinfeld would debut a similar talk show for the web, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.
“A guy came up to me after a show I did at Blue Note [Hawai‘i] and says, ‘with all due respect, Uncle, your days are kinda over. It’s all about social media. I can post a photo on Instagram and make $1,500 dollars,’” says Bumatai. “‘OK,’ I say, ‘do it.’ He says he has a day job, but I asked if you can just post a photo online, why are you working? I wanted to tell him I was selling Macintosh computers since before he was born,” he says. “I’ve always liked tech stuff. When you come from a time where we had to have eight guys with giant cameras and equipment and editing to being able to film and edit on a phone and distribute it on social media, it’s mind-blowing to me. Younger guys may not appreciate how far we’ve come.”
Another comedian looking to break into the digital realm is local funnyman Frank De Lima, who has entertained both adults in packed Waikīkī showrooms and children in nearly all of Hawai‘i’s public and private schools, for decades. “Besides the shows, I sold a lot of CDs and products. But when people film me and put it online, I don’t have control over that,” says De Lima. “I’m working with a group now to film my skits and put them on YouTube because this is where comedy is going.”
Photo: Courtesy of Chuck De Lima
After his comedy heyday from the 1970s to the ’90s, De Lima became known more recently for his TV commercials promoting TheCab. As the local taxi company’s authorized spokesperson, De Lima sings and acts as assorted tūtū (a play on TheCab’s phone number, 422-2222) wearing a mu‘umu‘u and makeup. “Plenty people know my career but they really recognize me from the commercials,” De Lima says. “They’ll come up to me in restaurants, at the shopping mall, at the gym to talk about the commercials. They’ll tell me which ones they like best.”
People will also sometimes approach him about his ethnic jokes, taking offense at De Lima’s comedy that draws from his own background of being Hawaiian, Irish, Chinese, English, Spanish, Scottish and Portuguese. But it’s rare. “It’s usually the ones that come from another place, especially the Mainland—people who are sensitive for everybody else. Most people born and raised here understand,” says De Lima, who took ethnic studies and psychology courses at Stanford University while pursuing his master’s degree at nearby St. Patrick’s Seminary and University. He started working in comedy, inspired by the likes of Sterling Mossman, K. K. Kaumanua (say it out loud) and Mel Cabang, who all told “Portagee” jokes, which De Lima wrote down and used as his foundation. From there, he invented caricatures of local personalities, wrote humorous covers of popular songs and built his career.
“Compare it to music: After the Beatles, how many songwriters thought they were never going to write another song because it’s all been done? And then Michael Jackson comes along. Sting, Bruno Mars, all these artists later,” says Bumatai. “With comedy, it’s about having an original thought and perspective. That’s how you come up with new material that makes people laugh and nod their heads at the same time.”
Comics are mirrors, Bumatai says. Whether that means Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino and other migrant workers poking fun at one another’s cultures during Hawai‘i’s plantation days or imagining what Siri might sound like if she spoke Pidgin in 2016, it all begins with making real observations about life in Hawai‘i and writing it down. Eh, Russell, you get pen?
Tips from the Pros
Local comedians Andy Bumatai, Frank De Lima and Jose Dynamite offer insights to those looking to break into comedy, whether across digital platforms such as YouTube or Instagram, or live and in-person:
1. Stop Swearing
“I’m not a prude; I swear like a truck driver among friends who are hanging out. But you never know who’s watching your comedy. And not swearing allows you to talk about subjects with the chops to deliver it in such a way that it doesn’t come across as crass. Some of the pros, they can say the F-word and know how to make it count. Otherwise, it’s like a martial arts white belt trying to do a spinning back kick on the first day of training. Get your basics down first.” —Andy Bumatai
2. Know Your Audience
“Since the beginning of my school program, I’ve told all the kids that comedy is very delicate. You may hear something and you want to share it with everybody but you cannot. Comedians may say something that can be misinterpreted as racist or teasing or something that can start a fight. Someone can always get mad at something we say and we have to deal with that. With comedy, you have to know where, when and with whom you’re talking.” —Frank De Lima
3. Decide Your Platform
“Some people do social media and think that translates to being good at stand-up comedy. Or they do live comedy and think they can quickly become famous on the internet. What is your ultimate goal? Are you trying to master a routine for a stand-up performance? That’s different from trying to gain more likes on Instagram. I’m producing three shows a week and sometimes think about doing videos or podcasts, but that’s overwhelming. I’ve decided to focus on live audiences and coaching new comics. Decide your focus.” —Jose Dynamite
4. First Reality, Then Absurdity
“Sugar is good but if you add too much, it doesn’t taste good anymore. A friend and I once did a sketch about fishing and he shows up with fishing wire all tangled in his hair. I ask him why; he says he’s a Portagee fisherman. But that wasn’t the joke and it didn’t make sense—it didn’t have a foot in reality. You have to create the reality of the scene before you can point out absurdity, even if it’s a 6-second Vine.” —Andy Bumatai