In preparing for Thursday night’s comedy show at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center, I decided to take an academic approach, rather than my usual reliance on instinct. I suppose Robin Williams’ suicide and the subsequent abundance of armchair analysts prompted my sudden desire for introspection and contemplation.
In the news media and in casual conversation, everyone was quoting statistics and studies about the dark side of comedy and the proverbial sad clown, laughing on the outside, crying on the inside. More than a few friends asked if I, as a comedian, agreed with the theory that comic brilliance is a byproduct of a tortured soul or, at the least, major depression.
I seriously pondered that for a week. It depressed me. If a tragic life were a prerequisite for success in comedy, I’d be in trouble. I had a wonderful childhood and, all things considered, I’m happy with the way I’ve turned out. My friends say I’m crazy sometimes, but they mean it in a good way, I’m sure.
So I changed my focus from “what makes someone funny?” to “what’s funny?” Of course, this required a lot of research. OK, maybe Comedy Central and my favorite stand-up DVDs don’t count as research, but they did put me in the right frame of mind.
In Thursday’s show, “A Pair of Queens and a Pair of Jacks,” I’ll be sharing the stage with three hilarious entertainers. Four, if you count our host, Willie K. Alaka’i Paleka, Francis Tau’a and Rodney Villanueva are bound to deliver extra scoops of local-style humor. I plan to let my alter ego, Tita, do most of my talking.
Writing Tita’s monologue got me thinking about the rules and the roots of local comedy. Ethnic jokes, while politically incorrect in most of the world, are the basis for Hawaii humor. In his nightclub act, Frank De Lima used to explain that ethnic humor is necessary to island life; with so many of us sharing such a small space, we have to laugh at each other to keep from killing each other. We laugh at ourselves, too; that’s the pono way.
While De Lima delivered da message at The Noodle Shop in Waikiki, Rap Reiplinger left his Booga Booga cohorts, James Grant Benton and Ed Ka’ahea, for a solo career. Local humor was in its heyday during the 1970s. Andy Bumatai burst onto the scene and even replaced Rap as a Boogaman for a while. Mel Cabang was cracking up the over-21 crowd. And then there was Billy Sage’s classic comic masterpiece, the “Honk If You Love George” LP, in which Billy quietly and effectively imitated then-Gov. George Ariyoshi and a host of other local characters. Those of you with better memories than I probably know that “Honk” was released in 1982 or ’83, but I had to include it here, because it’s just so darned funny.
Decades before Aunty Marialani had her cooking show (“not too sweet, not too rancid . . .”) and Lucille left her old man in the middle of mango season (“But wow . . . laulau”), Lucky Luck was entertaining local TV and radio audiences with his amazingly authentic pidgin – considering he was a Mainland transplant who just happened to look like a kama’aina. I have very foggy, black-and-white memories of Lucky Luck doing commercials for Leonard’s Bakery and Lucky Lager beer during his “Lucky’s Luau” TV show.
My recollections of Kent “K.K. Kaumanua” Bowman are clearer, because my parents owned a copy of his album, “No Talk Stink!” I remember feeling rather naughty and just a little guilty for laughing at his slightly blue jokes. I won’t repeat them here, but if you Google “Kent Bowman” you can listen to clips online. His story of Manuel and mother’s milk still makes me giggle. And blush, just a little.
I think I was still a teenager when I heard my all-time favorite Andy Bumatai joke. He was talking about the Kikkoman Shoyu label that warned consumers to refill the bottle only with Kikkoman brand shoyu. “What, da oddah kind no fit?!”
My favorite Rap routine? That’s like picking my favorite dance song. There are so many, too many, to choose from. From Fate Yanagi to Date-a-Tita, Room Service to Japanese Roll Call, they’re all funny. And after weeks of examination and deliberation, I still don’t know why. They just are.
So, with the big show less than 48 hours away, I’m back to relying on my instincts. But perhaps all this “research” was not for naught. Thursday’s audience may be too young – or too old – to remember punch lines of the past. Maybe I could cockaroach couple, t’ree jokes from Mistah Bowman. Now how did that mother’s milk thing go?
* Kathy Collins is a performance artist, broadcaster and freelance writer whose “Sharing Mana’o” column appears every Wednesday. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Between Robin Williams and Michael Brown, the news of late has put quite a damper on my usually sunny disposition. There’s a crack in my rose-colored glasses; not so deep that I’d throw them away, but enough to alter my outlook. So I was delighted to read in Sunday’s Maui News that a new Laura Ingalls Wilder book is about to be published.
Wilder’s autobiographical “Little House” books were my most treasured possessions during my childhood and adolescence. The pioneer saga of the Ingalls family enthralled and inspired me. I received the first, “Little House in the Big Woods,” when I was 6 or 7 years old, and by the time I was 12, I had the entire eight-book series, all of them sent to me by my dear Aunt Esther.
Aunt Esther was the wife of the Rev. Theodore Schulz, who led the restoration and reopening of Makawao’s Po’okela Church nearly 70 years ago. In a 1948 newsletter, Aunt Esther wrote of their “hope for a truly inter-racial venture at Po’okela.” Their hopes were realized, and my mother, as a young woman, became a member of the historic church and a close friend of the Schulzes. When the couple relocated to California, Esther kept in touch with Mom and they corresponded by mail for decades.
Aunt Esther was an avid fan of literature and a writer herself, and she sent me a new book for each birthday and Christmas throughout my childhood. “Blue Willow,” “The Secret Garden,” I liked them all, but the “Little House” books were special. Over and over, I would read my favorite chapters, escaping to Plum Creek, Silver Lake and, of course, The Big Woods.
While other girls dreamed of fairy tale castles and enchanted forests, I harbored fantasies of churning butter in a log cabin and running barefoot through fields of wildflowers on a Wisconsin prairie. At the age of 10, I was sure that I was the reincarnation of Laura; she seemed to share all of my tomboy emotions and desires. And, as I learned from the book jackets, the author had passed away seven months before my birth.
Ten years ago, when my mother and I traveled to Branson, Mo., we rented a car and drove to Mansfield to visit the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum. Walking through Laura’s and Almanzo’s farmhouse, seeing her handwritten manuscripts and the writing desk at which she penned them, I was overcome with chicken skin. Laura would have called them goose bumps, of course, but in any case, it took hours for the thrill to subside.
I felt the same rush of emotion when I read that the South Dakota State Historical Society Press will release “Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography” this fall. Written by Laura for an adult audience, the memoir was never published and instead served as the basis for her children’s series. In “Pioneer Girl,” we get to read her original rough draft along with extensive footnotes by a team of editors.
Going online to place my order, I saw representations of the original “Little House” book covers, and it occurred to me that part of my emotional ties to Laura came from the beautifully detailed illustrations by Garth Williams. I did some Googling and came across a fascinating story.
Best known for his artwork in “Charlotte’s Web” and the “Little House” series, Williams also wrote and illustrated several children’s books of his own. “The Rabbits’ Wedding” was a sweet little love story about a black rabbit and a white rabbit who chose to be together “forever and always.” In 1959, a year after the picture book was published, the Alabama State Senate fought to have it banned from the library system, claiming that it was an attempt to brainwash children into accepting miscegenation, or interracial marriage.
Williams reportedly commented, “I was completely unaware that animals with white fur . . . were considered blood relations of white beings. I was only aware that a white horse next to a black horse looks very picturesque.” He said the story was written for children, not adults, who “will not understand it, because it is only about a soft furry love and has no hidden message of hate.”
Hawaii is one of only 10 states that has never outlawed interracial marriage. About a dozen states repealed their anti-miscegenation laws in the 19th century, and another dozen followed suit in the 1950s. In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court declared those laws to be unconstitutional, but it wasn’t until 2000 when the last state – Alabama – formally repealed its anti-miscegenation statute. Astoundingly, more than half a million Alabamans voted to keep the law on the books. In the year 2000.
I ordered a copy of “The Rabbits’ Wedding,” too.
* Kathy Collins is a storyteller, actress and freelance writer whose “Sharing Mana’o” column appears every Wednesday. Her email address is email@example.com.
When I heard of Robin Williams’ death Monday evening, I was sure it was an Internet hoax. At least, I hoped it was.
Everyone has a favorite Robin Williams memory; I have several. Enjoyed him as “Popeye” and “Mrs. Doubtfire,” admired him in “Good Morning, Vietnam” and “Dead Poets Society,” delighted in his portrayal of Armand in “The Birdcage.” I even remember the first time Mork appeared on TV, in a 1978 episode of “Happy Days,” before he and Mindy got their own spinoff series. But beyond his film and television roles, I loved Robin Williams for his spoken word artistry. His observational humor was brilliant and his improvisational skills even more dazzling. His stand-up comedy always left me breathless, both from his dizzying pace and from laughing until my face hurt.
Clowning around with “Comic Relief” co-hosts Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg, or climbing off the stage to interact with his audience, the improv genius seemed most comfortable when he had a comic foil or a partner. But then, even with no one else onstage, Robin Williams was never really alone. His monologues were more like conversations with himself. Or, more accurately, with his selves. With cameos by characters like Elmer Fudd crooning Bruce Springsteen’s “Fire.”
My late husband, Barry Shannon, remembered Robin Williams as a teenage busboy at the famed Trident in Sausalito during the late 1960s, when the restaurant was owned by the Kingston Trio and frequented by folks like Janis Joplin and David Crosby. Whenever we’d watch Robin’s manic antics on TV, Barry would talk about the incredibly talented kid who, at 17, had the Bay Area’s rock ‘n’ roll elite rolling with laughter. With his zinging one-liners, delivered in a wild assortment of voices and accents, the kid stole the spotlight from even the notoriously gorgeous Trident waitresses. Perhaps that’s why he worked there only for a couple of months.
It always pains me to hear of someone committing suicide, whether a stranger or a loved one. How utterly sad, that a person could be so full of pain or despair, with absolutely no hope for a better day. And when that person has spent a lifetime making people laugh, bettering their days, my grief is amplified by bewilderment.
One of the sweetest anecdotes that has emerged came from Christopher Reeve’s autobiography, “Still Me.” Williams and Reeve had been close friends since attending The Julliard School together. After the horseback riding accident that left Reeve a paraplegic and ended his acting career, the comic paid a visit to the former Superman’s hospital. Reeve wrote:
“At an especially bleak moment, the door flew open and in hurried a squat fellow with a blue scrub hat and a yellow surgical gown and glasses, speaking in a Russian accent. He announced that he was my proctologist, and that he had to examine me immediately . . . for the first time since the accident, I laughed. My old friend had helped me know that somehow I was going to be okay.”
The motto of “Comic Relief” and its efforts to aid the homeless is “Where there’s laughter, there’s hope.” I don’t know whether that’s ironic in this case, or just plain tragic. Robin Williams would know. He, like the great George Carlin, was a masterful lover of wordplay, profound and hilarious at the same time.
Carlin said, “I don’t wanna die. That’s the whole meaning of life: Not dying!”
Williams said, “Death is nature’s way of saying, ‘Your table’s ready.’ ” I guess he felt he was ready too. I wasn’t.
Rest in peace, Robin Williams. I wish I could have given you back a fraction of the joy you’ve given me.
* Kathy Collins is a storyteller, actress and freelance writer whose “Sharing Mana’o” column appears every Wednesday. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Preparing for the impending arrival of unwanted visitors Iselle and Julio, I was reminded of some of the darker moments of my newlywed days: my mother-in-law’s annual visits. Not that I didn’t like my mother-in-law. She was personable and lively, and we got along fine. But those last few days counting down to her landing were pretty nerve-wracking for both Jim and me.
The house had to be immaculate, of course, and things in the kitchen rearranged to her liking; otherwise, she’d do it herself, admonishing me, “THIS is where that should go.” She was strong, smart and sassy, with a larger-than-life disposition. She was actually a lot of fun, as long as the pantry was properly stocked and organized. That’s why the anticipation of her visit was more stressful than her stay. Every summer we drove ourselves crazy bracing for the blustery arrival of Hurricane Marge. Bless her heart and rest her soul, I mean no disrespect. In fact, she’d appreciate the analogy.
Fortunately, prepping for the oncoming storms was much simpler and stress-free. Having participated in the Makani Pahili hurricane preparedness exercise two months ago, I know that the Maui Civil Defense Emergency Operations Center and participating agencies are ready. And so am I. Got my flashlight, batteries, water, duct tape, Spam, Cheetos . . . all set.
With my kit in order and my car gassed up, the only thing left on the emergency preparedness list was to stay informed. So, during the last several days, I’ve spent much more time than usual online. Now I wish I’d stuck to the radio. For I have become addicted to a brand-new guilty pleasure, worse than Cheetos, even.
It started innocently and well-intentioned, with visits to weather-tracking websites like the NOAA National Hurricane Center. But then, while waiting for updates, I figured I might as well check on my Facebook friends. If only I had stopped at liking photos and posting one-liners. No, I had to click on a link that said, “I’m Bugs Bunny! Which Looney Tunes character are you?” That was my first step into the dark world of online personality quizzes.
After learning that I am Pepe Le Pew, the incurable romantic, I just had to scroll down to the Disney princess quiz. I was so pleased to get my childhood favorite, Snow White, I jumped right into “Which of the Seven Dwarfs Are You?” I got Dopey. Which turned out to be an accurate assessment. I can’t think of a better word to describe my newfound obsession with these silly tests.
Apparently, my aura is Red and I am full of passion. Or unresolved anger or fear. But my spiritual power is Joy. “The Great Gatsby” is the story of my life, at least in terms of classic novels. The movie version of my life is “Dirty Dancing.” If I were a Monkee, I’d be Davy Jones, and if I were a Muppet, I’d be Miss Piggy. I was Aristotle in a past life, and of the “Frasier” sitcom characters, I am Daphne Moon. Now that one I saw coming. I’m a bit psychic, you see.
What exotic wild animal would I be? Snow leopard. What animal was I in a past life? Unicorn. As for my present life, I was dissatisfied with my first result, eagle, so I took a half-dozen other “inner animal” quizzes and got a half-dozen different answers: crow, rabbit, wolf, cat, tiger and vampire. Really. That last quiz must have been concocted by the same person who declared me a reincarnated unicorn.
Finding my inner animal wasn’t enough. One quiz led to another and another, and after a couple of days I had determined my inner power (magic and healing), my inner demon (conceit or perfectionism), my inner fruit flavor (kiwi: flamboyant, proudly unique and – yikes! – larger than life) and my inner potato (curly fries).
And yes, there’s more than one quiz titled “What Natural Disaster Are You?” I thought for sure I’d be a hurricane, but I was wrong. I got Blizzard. Or was that my inner Dairy Queen product?
* Kathy Collins is a storyteller, actress and freelance writer whose “Sharing Mana’o” column appears every Wednesday. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.