The Funniest People in Hawaii
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Those weren’t the days when you could make a living simply by doing comedy. Like Mossman, Lucky Luck had a day job doing early-morning radio and TV commercials. Moffatt told me that, after one long night at the Barefoot Bar that lasted till early morning, Lucky Luck decided to go straight to the radio station and take a nap before he had to go on the air. He woke up and saw it was 5:30, his starting time. So he rushed into the studio and started his show. “The thing was,” Moffatt said, “It was 5:30 in the evening. Someone had to go in there and get him off the air. True story.”
Mossman, Lucky Luck and Bowman transitioned Hawaii comedy from ethnic jokes to stories told in pidgin. But it was pidgin that tourists could understand. Lippy Espinda, however, was another story. He had a used car dealership on Kalakaua and Kapiolani. A natural comedian, Lippy also is credited by some with inventing the shaka sign.
Don Costa, a well-known music arranger from the 1950s who worked with Frank Sinatra, ran into Lippy Espinda. At the time, Tom Moffatt was promoting a show with singer Dick Jensen at the Hawaiian Village.
“Costa called me and said, ‘I’ve just seen the funniest guy I’ve ever seen! You’ve got to put him in Dick’s show.’” Moffatt said. “So I put Lippy on before a tourist audience. He had never been on stage before. There were 1,000 people out there.”
Lippy’s pidgin apparently was a little too authentic for the haole audience.
“It didn’t work out well,” Moffatt said. “I felt kind of guilty about that.”
Don Ho quickly outgrew the Barefoot Bar and found himself in Duke’s, a nightclub named after Duke Kahanamoku, and then moved to the Polynesian Palace. Perhaps remembering how Mossman had welcomed him into the Barefoot Bar, Ho always made his stage available to the next batch of funny people coming up. One of these was Frank De Lima.
“He liked comedy and he gave all of us comedians a chance,” says De Lima. “I’d visit him at the Polynesian Palace and he’d call me onstage. Don was funny in his own way. I imitated him. Half the time he didn’t know what he was saying.”
De Lima began a long-running gig at the Noodle Shop in 1977 and continued the Barefoot Bar comedy genealogy by welcoming new comics to his stage.
One of those was Andy Bumatai, whose comedy embraced pidgin storytelling but sometimes used an educational aspect. In one bit, he says, “The dirtiest thing you can say to a person in Hawaii is to use the word ‘What?’ If someone tell you ‘What?’ and you like get ’em back, you just tell ’em ‘Why?’ You tell somebody ‘What?’ and they tell you ‘Why?’ garrens ball barrens you gonna beef.”
The 1970s were sort of a golden age of comedy in Hawaii, with some of its funniest people breaking through. Three of the funniest were Rap Reiplinger, Ed Kaahea and James Grant Benton, who performed breakthrough skits under the curious name Booga Booga. Reiplinger, though troubled with drug problems, created some of Hawaii’s best remembered bits, like the “Room Service” skit in which a hapless tourist attempts to order a cheeseburger from a ditzy hotel employee. Many of Rap’s classic pieces were memorized by the next wave of young comics.
Reiplinger left Booga Booga in 1978 for a solo career and Kaahea and Benton, looking for someone to replace him, saw Bumatai performing in De Lima’s Noodle Shop. Bumatai stayed with Booga Booga for less than a year before going back to standup at a small club named Kojack’s, on Young Street. Kojack’s had a hot band that packed the place. But the owner, Mel Pinzari, liked comics, so he let Bumatai have the stage on Monday nights.
“Nobody knew who I was, even though I had been with Booga Booga,” Bumatai says. “On Monday nights, I’d get maybe five or six people if I was lucky. After a couple of months of telling jokes to tables and chairs, I did a TV special on KGMB called High School Daze. I watched it on TV but didn’t understand the impact. Monday rolls around and I’m walking to Kojack’s. When I turn the corner I see a long line of people waiting to get in. I think, ‘Damn, Mel gave the night to the band.’ So I turn around and walk home.”
Bumatai’s sitting at home in the dark feeling dejected when Mel calls him and screams “Where the @*%& are you?” It turns out the line of people were there to see Bumatai.