How Hawai‘i Comedians Are Using Social Media to Cash in on Local Culture
Viral videos and digital memes are the latest social media trend, delivering humorous skits and sketches straight to smartphones and tablets. Some comedians hope local kine videos lead to careers with real incomes.
pashyn santos, best known for her "pidgin siri" video, has racked up millions of views on social media.
PHOTOS: DAVID CROXFORD
Did you hear the one about the four mokes who sit down for a meal … of dried kale, tofurkey, chicken-free chicken, vegan cheese and kombucha?
“Eh, what is ‘vegan?’ Some Pokémon?” asks one of them. “[Pronounced] vee-ghan, I think,” replies another. One of the mokes tries rolling the kale into a joint: “You gave us fake weed, Russell.” The other moke just stares at the kale. “Might as well just go out in my yard, yeah? Pick one leaf from my tree.”
It’s not a joke, but a video that has garnered more than 1.7 million views on Facebook, posted by 808 Viral (@808Viral), a social media channel that regularly produces and shares comedy videos about Hawai‘i and local culture. The Hawai‘i comics, actors and personalities who make up this casual collective are self-billed “independent content creators making people buss laugh since 2013.”
It began with Vine, the app where users shared looping six-second videos. “We were all on Vine. There were so many talented local people there and it felt funny but also personal,” says 808 Viral founder Daniela Stolfi-Tow, who has been posting short videos of her dog on YouTube since 2007. “You had these glimpses into people’s lives in a different, real way.”
DANIELA STOLFI-TOW @DANIELAROX.
When Vine waned in popularity, Stolfi-Tow decided to create 808 Viral as a central place for people to find local videos that were trending online, as well as a spot where people could create and share new videos. She thought up ideas of scenes they could film: demonstrating the different types of shaka (used to signal everything from “hello” to a fistfight to “we go drink”), having mokes put on makeup for the first time, taste testing the smelliest ethnic foods they could find and performing hula wearing an inflatable dinosaur costume. The videos began as mostly comedic but soon grew to include elements of Hawai‘i culture intended to shed light on other topics, such as an interview with Herb Weatherwax, the Pearl Harbor survivor who died in 2016, or to correct a misconception, like the proper definition of the word “haole.”
Most of the videos are filmed in Stolfi-Tow’s house (“If you pay attention, you can hear my cat’s bell ringing in the background or see the actors sometimes shooing it away from their feet,” she says), with sheets hung up as a backdrop and lighting from lamps purchased at Walmart. The 808 Viral team used iPhones and iPads to shoot videos—they did eventually pick up external microphones for better audio—and edited them with the iMovie and Filmmaker Pro apps.
Within a few weeks of launching 808 Viral on Facebook—its biggest platform—in December 2015, the group had 30,000 followers. Today, that number is more than 147,000 with a combined total of somewhere north of 100 million views of its videos across Facebook, YouTube and Instagram, according to Stolfi-Tow.
“What starts to happen is you look at these numbers and they don’t become real anymore. Someone asked me to speak to a room of 200 people recently and it kind of freaked me out. Meanwhile, these videos on the Internet can get hundreds of thousands of views,” Stolfi-Tow says. “The other day, I was a little disappointed that a video only got 10,000 views, but a friend reminded me to actually picture 10,000 people in a stadium. You don’t think of it like that and then you realize you have to become more responsible.”
It became important to curb any swearing, especially once the 808 Viral team realized that young children may be tuning in. Another complication came in the form of online haters, who post nasty comments bashing the group. While the vast majority of viewers respond positively, a few disparaging words by a handful of internet trolls can make an impact—and there’s a big temptation to reply in kind.
“The comments can be horrible. They’ll say you’re not funny or you’re annoying or they’ll make physical comments,” says Stolfi-Tow. “Sometimes the [social media stars] want to respond and blast someone. They want to find out who they are when it’s probably just some random kid on the Mainland.” Stolfi-Tow developed a “pono policy”: Everybody she makes videos with signs off on the policy, promising to never use social media as a weapon or their audience as a platform to call someone out.
Daryl Bonilla @ddb_azw.
Jarod Bailon @boss.wit.da.sauce.
I actually kind of get a kick out of the negative comments. Even if they’re trying to troll you, I find humor in that,” says local performer Daryl Bonilla. He’s new to the 808 Viral scene, only recently performing in videos telling terrible “dad jokes” or reviewing the “Top 8 Most Cringiest Hawai‘i TV Moments,” but Bonilla’s no stranger to acting and appearing on-screen. For the past 20 years, he’s been a regular in Hawai‘i’s local theater scene and he starred in the 1996 indie local film Beyond Paradise. You might know him better as the guy in the early 2000s Bank of Hawai‘i commercials who says, “That’s my bank!”
“I just like performing. I’m trying to get more people familiar with me and my comedy. So, if they see me online and they get a kick out of what I’m doing, maybe they’ll come see me on stage,” Bonilla says. “As long as I’m making people laugh, I’m happy with that.”
For Bonilla, social media is simply another platform. The man loves to entertain, whether it’s in films, commercials, on stage for a play or to try his hand at stand-up comedy, or even hosting local professional wrestling matches. Videos with 808 Viral provide him another outlet to reach audiences.
“I’m doing social media and hoping that it turns into something a little more. That’s my goal for this year,” says Jarod Bailon, who appeared with Bonilla in Mānoa Valley Theatre’s musical Happily Eva Afta in 2016 and began performing with 808 Viral soon after. Bailon’s appeared in nearly a dozen videos for the group, usually relating to food challenges or tasting new things: “I love food. I’ve gone into restaurants for food review videos, and it’s great to get free food for doing this, but if I want to make this my profession, it has to be more than that.”
Bailon’s goal is to build a strong enough social media following to be able to monetize sponsored posts. He’s currently the general manager of a storage company in Kapolei. Prior to this, he worked in customer service for the hotel industry for 10 years. “I think my success comes from being able to relate with people very quickly,” Bailon says. “Some people have a natural ability to connect with others; you immediately know when you watch someone’s video. I don’t know what it is, but I have been told that I have it. So for something as simple as a 15-second skit, when it [garners] thousands of views, I thought maybe I can make a living doing this, as a full-time influencer.”
According to Forbes in 2017, the top YouTube influencers—those accounts that have 7 million or more followers (think entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk, gamer PewDiePie or Grumpy Cat)—are able to earn $300,000 for a video partnership. On Facebook and Instagram, rates are closer to $187,000 and $150,000, respectively. Hugely popular yoga teacher Rachel Brathen can command upward of $25,000 for a single social media post. Getting millions of followers may seem like a considerable challenge, but even with 100,000 followers, an Instagram user can reasonably make a few thousand dollars for a photo posted in partnership with a particular brand or company.
shermanray anteola @ickest.mp3.
Shermanray Anteola has a monetized YouTube channel. Born and raised in Pearl City, the ‘Aiea High School grad posted funny videos of himself back in 2006, when YouTube had only been around for a year. “It started off slowly at first because I had to find a groove in terms of what people liked. When I started coming out with these one-man shows where I played five different characters, that’s when I started seeing the response. I didn’t even know I was funny until the feedback I got,” says Anteola.
At the time, he was working for a photography studio and was able to transfer within the company to California in 2007. He’s still working as a photographer but his social media channels, where he performs original music and continues to make comedic short videos under the handle “iCKEST,” have provided him additional income, both through sponsored posts and selling his music. His ultimate goal is to post videos on social media full time.
“Around 2007 or so, when I started getting a lot of views, another [YouTube] user sent me a message and told me about the partner program. Back then, you had to gain at least 600 views to be considered for it,” says Anteola. “Becoming a YouTube partner now is difficult. They’re always changing the algorithm and analytics for what’s required; I’m just trying to keep up. You have to gain way more views than 600 now, that’s for sure.”
THE BIG ISLAND’S ALEX FARNHAM GOT FAMOUS LIP SyNCING TO JUSTIN BIEBER, KATY PERRY AND KESHA. @ALEX_FARNHAM.
Alex Farnham is another local who moved to California after finding success on social media. There weren’t many opportunities for the aspiring actor growing up in Kailua-Kona. But with his family’s video camera, Farnham and his friends began shooting short films, first for fun, then for school projects and small gigs. After graduating from high school in 2007 and attending a one-year film program in Los Angeles, he found success with his first video, about two mokes who argue over a dollar bill they find on the ground (“Finders keepers, losers is crying!”). The video went viral.
“I made a lip sync video of a Justin Bieber song and he somehow saw it and shared it on Facebook and Twitter; then my numbers [of followers] really blew up. The same thing happened with Katy Perry and Kesha. It was amazing—I couldn’t believe the actual artist saw this random video I shot on the Big Island and then liked it enough to share it,” Farnham says.
Shortly after, a company called Maker Studios offered to move Farnham out to Los Angeles and pay him to make YouTube videos, an opportunity he jumped at. This led to a gig hosting an animal show for Discovery Channel’s digital network and a few national commercials. Farnham’s latest goal is to write and star in his own film, a feature-length version of his “One Dolla” video, set on the Big Island.
But how do you make one dollar into thousands, or millions? Stolfi-Tow of 808 Viral says that while paying for sponsored posts on YouTube and Instagram is as accepted as buying a television commercial or radio spot on the Mainland, the idea is still new in Hawai‘i. “Some influencers are working two or three jobs and hardly have any free time,” she says. “They’re creating videos that reach a million people, and yet they’re having trouble making their car payments.”
At the same time, there’s a worry for content creators, whose brands and social media channels are extensions of themselves and their own real personalities, of being perceived as “selling out” by accepting money to endorse products or services. “I think social media is doing so well right now because people are tired of being endlessly marketed to. This form of entertainment is where people finally feel like they’re getting something real and that’s why they’re so hungry for it. But if we start taking money, will that change everything?” asks Stolfi-Tow.
Pashyn Santos @pashyn.
Arguably the granddaddy of locally made social media videos is “Pidgin Siri,” a roughly minute-long clip created by Wai‘anae and Hau‘ula girl Pashyn Santos, in which she tries to navigate to Ala Moana using a (fake) pidgin-speaking Siri app on her iPhone, to humorous results: “Turn left on da next street, right after da mango tree,” Siri says in the video. “To complete setup process, please say what high school you wen grad from.”
Released in June 2016, the video has since racked up nearly 4.5 million views on Facebook and helped transform Santos into one of the biggest social media stars in Hawai‘i, with a combined 235,000 followers on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. “I always wanted to be in some form of entertainment since I was a little girl, but who knew it was going to be social media?” the 2005 Kahuku grad asks.
Santos began with Vine, amassed a dedicated following on Facebook and Instagram, and has now set her sights on finishing a variety of other projects, including her own children’s book due out later this year, a phone app and an original screenplay for a movie featuring local Hawai‘i character types, similar to Tyler Perry’s Madea franchise. Her latest project is “Political Potluck,” an interview program featuring people in local politics. In the interview, Santos asks a mix of political and personal questions and guests either answer or eat from a selection of intense ethnic food, such as cod sperm, beef bile, ghost chili pastele or a dinuguan pork “smoothie.” “I’m getting into full-length programs and shows and posting those online, but I’m still staying true to creating little skits at least once a week, those ones that helped me get my start,” says Santos.
Most of Santos’ audience is local, although she also has a large following in the Philippines, Japan and across the United States. “What we mostly get are people with ties to Hawai‘i, whether they just visited, were in the military briefly or lived here but moved away,” Santos says. “Sometimes even if they’re coming to Hawai‘i, these videos can give them a sense of our culture and perspectives. A couple from Brazil living here stopped me once to say they watched my videos regularly because it helps them understand what their local friends are saying in pidgin.”
A complication arises when some point out that social media entertainers, like those on 808 Viral, sometimes borrow or adapt comedic material that has been performed elsewhere. For example, “Hawai‘i Mokes Try Vegan Food” is inspired by a previous video, “Cholos Try Vegan Food,” with a similarly humorous response. (The 808 Viral team acknowledges the earlier video in the description of their YouTube skit.)
But this is not new: Even Rap Reiplinger, if not the godfather of local sketch comedy then at least its buckaloose uncle, adopted others’ routines. His famous “Auntie Marialani’s Cooking Show” skit, which has Rap as Auntie (“not too sweet, not too rancid!”) getting tipsy after guzzling too
much wine, draws heavily from the famous I Love Lucy episode in which Lucille Ball’s character acquires a taste for the foul-tasting and highly alcoholic “Vitameatavegamin” while filming a commercial. The comedy is universal; it’s up to the performer to make it true for different audiences at different times—and through different media.
Farnham hopes to write and star in his won feature-length film.
Whether influencers’ goals are to build another platform where they can perform, gain a large social media following or leverage their comedy success to pay the bills, Hawai‘i audiences benefit, because the result is an abundance of videos produced by local people who care.
“When I was a kid, I wanted to become an actor and win an Oscar someday, but there weren’t a lot of people I could look up to locally who were doing that kind of stuff. What I did have though, was … Rap’s Hawai‘i and Beyond Paradise. Those things really pushed me,” says Farnham. “I’d rather have a few thousand followers in Hawai‘i than a million followers all over the world. Coming from here, there’s something just more real and loyal about the Hawai‘i audience.”
Funny You Should Ask …
Actress/comedian Kimee Balmilero spoke with funnyman Jo Koy to find out what he thinks about ethnic humor after he sold out a record 11 standing-room-only shows at the Blaisdell Concert Hall in November with lots of riffing on his Filipino heritage.
Jo Koy @jokoy
If you grew up in Hawai‘i, chances are you’ve heard a lot of ethnic jokes that you’ve probably laughed at … and then felt guilty afterward. Even in these politically correct times, it seems that people from Hawai‘i (and those we’ve adopted) can’t help but chuckle about a Filipino mom who judges her child for not growing up to be a nurse, or the auntie who’s constantly forcing one member of the family to sing a Celine Dion song at every gathering.
“I’m doing stories, man,” says comedian Jo Koy. “I’m not going up there and saying, ‘Oh yeah, [all] Asians do this.’ I don’t do that. I love family situations. I love becoming my mom on stage because that’s the shit I laughed at when I was a kid.”
The popular half-Filipino stand-up comic from Washington state had Honolulu audiences on the floor laughing with hours of personal stories and observations. But can you go too far? “My whole thing is: The more real it is, the funnier it is. … that’s what comedy is all about. You gotta find that truth, and then you gotta try to jazz it up so that it’s relatable and likable … and funny.”
With a hit Netflix special, Live From Seattle, and another in the works, Koy is traveling all over the world. His publicist says he’ll keep coming to Hawai‘i every year. And while most of his stories are pulled from the Filipino side of his family (his parents divorced when he was “really, really young”), he is reaching comedy fans of all backgrounds.
“When I go to Omaha or Nashville, the shows are still sold out,” he says. “You got white people coming. You got Latinos coming. You got black people coming. You got Korean. You got every race coming! And my favorite thing to hear at the end of every show is, ‘Yo! My mom does that too!’ I love hearing that. I’m sharing my mom stories, but it’s still just a mom. It’s just mine has a Filipino accent.”
That echoed through his performances here with a diverse audience that cheered, sang and gave him a standing ovation, especially after more than half an hour of custom Hawai‘i material about slippahs, local attitude and his appreciation for furikake on rice, which he almost pronounced correctly. Nobody cared because they were laughing so hard.
So the next time you see a Filipino grandma put a napkin full of crab legs in her Louis Vuitton purse at a Las Vegas buffet, don’t call security. Just smile and be comforted in knowing that there’s another grandma, grammy, nonna, gigi, mamaw or tūtū somewhere in the world doing the exact same thing.
Read more stories by James Charisma