The Funniest People in Hawai‘i
It takes one to know one, so we asked award-winning comedy writer Charles Memminger to choose the most hilarious comedians the Islands have produced.
Frank De Lima
PHOTO: OLIVIER KONING
Trying to identify the “funniest people in Hawai‘i” is something like trying to identify the shortest munchkins in Munchkinland. There are so many of them. Hawai‘i is a sort of funny people breeding ground, a tropical petri dish that provides a rich, nurturing environment for humor to grow and thrive. Humor is an organic consequence of throwing a ridiculous number of diverse cultures and ethnicities onto a clutch of islands in the middle of an empty, balmy ocean. And balmy is a key factor. Because if you throw a bunch of people together on cold, forsaken islands in the middle of a freezing ocean, you don’t get humor, you get Vikings.
Now, let’s be clear: There is no way I can single out all the funny people in Hawai‘i. Because most of them work in offices, or at the Department of Public Works or in restaurant kitchens. We remember them from school, that funny guy or girl who made us spew milk through our noses with an unexpected antic or observation. They never ended up on stage or TV or radio. But they are still around, still funny.
So I have to concentrate on the standouts, the funny people who made names for themselves in the Islands. Where do you start, historically? I’m sure there were some funny folks around back in King Kamehameha’s day. A court jester, if you will, who amused the royal family with bits like, “Hey, I just swam in from Maui and, boy, are my arms tired!” There was probably even some sailor in Lahaina telling whale jokes during Herman Melville’s time. (“Three whales walk into a bar …”)
I’m no cultural anthropologist, but from talking to a number of local comics and entertainers, it seems that modern Island humor, heavily influenced by cultural and ethnic differences, can be traced back to the original “Portagee jokes,” jokes made at the expense of the Islands’ Portuguese residents during the early sugar plantation days.
Comedian and proud “Portagee” Frank De Lima explained it to me this way: “The Portuguese were the foremen on the plantations and they were very strict. Some of them were mean, actually. When you have someone who is mean, you are going to make jokes about them.”
De Lima has kept that tradition alive in his more than 40 years of comedy by not only telling Portagee jokes but skewering all ethnicities equally and, if not in drag, then in outrageous costumes. De Lima is one of Hawai‘i’s funniest people, but that hasn’t kept him from being lambasted in this New Age of Hypersensitivity for continuing to indulge in ethnic humor. Lee Cataluna, a columnist with The Honolulu Advertiser, a noted playwright and a former standup comic herself, chastised De Lima in a column a few years ago for continuing to make Portagee jokes. De Lima laughed it off, saying that ethnic jokes in the hands of professionals before a paying crowd who know what they are going to hear is fine while ethnic jokes told by some idiot in an office specifically to demean or insult someone … not so good.
I use the example of telling “Portagee jokes” in order to draw an arbitrary historical starting point for identifying some of Hawai‘i’s funniest people in modern times (i.e., the times when mixed drinks with umbrellas in them first became popular) because humor at the expense of plantation foremen became a mainstay of comedy in Waikiki. And the godfather of ethnic and pidgin humor came from an unlikely place: the Honolulu Police Department. He was a detective named Sterling Mossman. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Mossman held court at the Barefoot Bar at Queens Surf. He was known as the “Hula Cop,” because he would sing, dance and tell outrageous stories until the early morning hours and then go to his job as an HPD detective. He was part Portuguese, so Portagee jokes were an inevitable part of his repertoire.
Legendary promoter Tom Moffatt knew Mossman well. “We put him in a show once at the Civic Auditorium; he was funny as hell. He told a joke about the missionaries, how they came to Hawai‘i and wanted to teach the Hawaiians Christianity. They asked the Hawaiians to bow their heads and when the Hawaiians raised their heads, their land was gone.”
The Barefoot Bar was ground zero for this new brand of local comedy. Mossman was the ringleader, along with the likes of Lucky Luck, a zany radio personality, and Kent Bowman, known as K.K. Kaumanua [say his name out loud]. They told stories, sang songs and, when a celebrity from the Mainland happened to come by (and they did a lot), they became part of the show. Imagine the scene … songwriter Kui Lee singing “I’ll Remember You” downstairs at Queens Surf while Bobby Darin joined Mossman on stage up in the Barefoot Bar. Mossman even allowed an unknown Hawaiian-Chinese crooner from a little bar in Kāneohe to sit in for him occasionally. His name was Don Ho, and his relationship with Mossman became pivotal in an unlikely comedy genealogy that extends to this day.
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 Hawai‘i 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 Hawai‘i 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 Hawai‘i, 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 Hawai‘i’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.
Bumatai officially became one of Hawai‘i’s funniest people after that, eventually claiming the Monarch Room at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel as his own and shooting a TV special, All in the Ohana, that became a comedy classic.
It was an amazing time. Radio personality Michael W. Perry calls Reiplinger, Bumatai and De Lima “the holy trinity of comedy” in Hawai‘i.
And in the ’70s and ’80s, Booga Booga was still cycling through various comedians, like Ray Bumatai, Andy’s brother and one of Hawai‘i’s funniest people in his own right. But the next batch of funny people were already waiting in the wings, memorizing entire albums.
When Bumatai opened for Yvonne Elliman at the Maui War Memorial, a 10-year-old kid named Augie Tulba was in the crowd. He never forgot it. Around the same time, Tulba’s dad took him to see Reiplinger perform.
“I sat in the front row and he signed my arm,” Tulba says. “I didn’t wash it for a week. I treated it like a cast.”
A rambunctious kid, Tulba began doing comedy in high school after a teacher forced him to enter speech contests. In the first contest he simply did a verbatim recitation of Reiplinger’s “Room Service.”
“I won,” he recalls. “I won every school speech contest in high school.”
Tulba did grow into doing his own material, both on stage and on the “Augie and Lanai” radio show with Grant “Lanai” Tabura. Tulba’s one busy funny guy. This year he raced through the Islands on “Augie’s Keeping Sane Through Insanity Tour,” putting together TV specials and doing all kinds of other things. The reason I’m being vague is because Tulba talks real fast, faster than I can type and I’m a pretty fast typist. So, here’s a few things I managed to get down when I talked to him … never went to college, loves reading, age 41, something about the “Slow Goose” theater … that’s in Alaska, where he fell off the stage once … met Andy Bumatai two weeks after he started doing comedy, opened for the Platters, and America, his dad thought that meant he was getting a government job (America—get it?) … something about, no, can’t make that out … Hālawa prison inmates make for the best crowd in the world, lots of his school friends in there.
When he played Halawa prison the inmates wanted an encore and kept yelling “hana hou!” But the Adult Corrections Officers (ACOs) wanted him off the stage. When Tulba tried to tell the crowd of prisoners he couldn’t do an encore, one of them shouted, “We know where you live!”
“I did 20 more minutes,” he says. “Because those ACOs not going to protect me at my house when those guys come out of prison.”
The Hawai‘i funny person genealogy wiggles down from Sterling Mossman to Don Ho, to Bumatai, to Paul Ogata, who has become one of Hawai‘i’s top comics. He started out at open-mic nights in Honolulu, but now tours everywhere from the Mainland to Hong Kong. I caught up with him in San Diego, where he’s just moved with his wife, Kris.
Ogata has won national comedy contests and has a special coming out in December on the Showtime network called, and I’m not making this up, “Slanted Comedy.” He also starred in a strange movie called Porndogs, which is apparently so racy, theaters in the United States won’t show it. I don’t know if “starred” is the right word. The real stars are actual dogs who do nasty things and actors do their voices.
“I play the Shar Pei,” Ogata says. “It’s typecasting.”
“It’s not actually porno,” Ogata says. “It’s sort of like Look Who’s Talking meets The Green Door.”
Despite the many exciting things that have happened in his relatively short comedy career, his biggest thrill came when he first started out as a comedian.
“The phone rang during lunch,” he says. “My mom answered and she got all excited. ‘It’s Andy Bumatai! It’s Andy Bumatai!’ That was a huge moment. He asked me to be on his show. I thought, I must be doing something right.”
He also was able to work with that other link in our genealogical comedy line, Don Ho.
“He gave birth to a lot of local talent,” Ogata explains. “He was very generous and supportive. He said, ‘You gotta work clean, don’t use the ‘F’ word.’ I said, ‘Can I say fricking instead of the F word?’ Don said, ‘No, ‘cause those words know each other. You gotta behave your language, boy.’”
Now is the time I start feeling bad about all of the other funniest people in Hawai‘i I’m not going to be able to get to in any depth. Like all the hilarious radio personalities like Frank B. Shaner, Michael W. Perry, the late, great Hal “Aku” Lewis and Larry Price (usually unintentionally funny, but funny anyway). Great local comedians like Bo Irvine, who I have shared the stage with from time to time. And Mel Cabang, Hawai‘i’s Don Rickles.
And what about the funny women? Hilo Hattie and her “rascal” hula. Standup comic Cathy Tanaka. Melveen Leed. And Karen Keawehawaii.
Few people know that Keawehawaii got her first laugh on stage when an equipment malfunction made it sound like she had passed gas.
“I just stood there by the microphone, made a little look at my okole and said, ‘Good lunch.’ Everyone laughed. Before I sang a note I knew I had these people in my hand. It pivoted me from just doing music to using comedy to make people feel comfortable.”
And what of the unlikely comedy genealogy that has offered up a seemingly endless line of really funny people?
Somewhere right now a rambunctious girl or boy is disrupting a high school class or practicing the routines of Paul Ogata or Augie T in front of a mirror using the TV remote control as a microphone. Andy Bumatai told me that, at a recent open-mic night he hosted in a small Kapolei club, he may have seen the future.
“There was this Samoan guy who had never been on stage,” he says. “And he got up and did 10 solid minutes in front of a pretty good crowd. It was the best first-time effort I’ve ever seen.”
Charles Memminger is a national award-winning humor writer who has been known to perform standup comedy from time to time to the side-splitting befuddlement of Honolulu audiences.