Monday, March 19, 2001

Craig T. Kojima / Star-Bulletin
James Benton, former Booga Booga performer,
shows some of the irreverence that peppers
his corporate comedies.

Corporate goofballs

Local comedians turned
motivational speakers improve
workplace morale

By Russ Lynch

"Auntie" is a ghost, but the nice kind.

She was a waitress at the first hotel on Maui. Now she is back, telling today's workers at a major Maui resort that she understands their problems, understands the difficulties they have in the workplace, knows their pains and anxieties. She has not only been through it all herself, she stuck around for decades after her death to see more of it.

"I was dead," Auntie says. "Now I'm back to tell you about service, how to get along with people."

The workers love her because she speaks their language.

James Grant Benton, who made pidgin comedy famous with the Booga Booga group in the 1970s, created "Auntie" as part of a new gig, working with fellow Booga Booga performer Ed Kaahea and others to put local-style humor into the workplace.

The group creates laughs to help businesses relate to their employees, help employees relate to customers and to relieve on-the-job anxieties.

Call it corporate or motivational comedy, using pidgin to connect with workers in a way that they will remember, laugh about and -- employers hope -- benefit from on the job for a long time to come.

Now Benton and some colleagues have been hired by the Hawaii State Library System.

Benton said his group will spend weeks going around the libraries, listening, watching and talking to management and staffers before deciding what messages they need to convey and how best to convey them.

Then they will play a part in Library Institute Day, an all-day session on Kauai May 23, the Big Island June 1, Oahu June 6 and Maui June 8. The library system uses the day to train employees to improve themselves and better serve library patrons.

The comedy bit will be part of a serious training program, no less serious because it is funny, Benton says.

Booga Booga was the trio of Benton, Kaahea and Rap Reiplinger that made audiences roar at the antics of local people. It was not always easy being funny. They had their own stresses, and booze and drugs played their part. Reiplinger died in 1984 after a bout with cocaine.

The next year, Benton read an article describing how British comedian John Cleese, of "Monty Python" fame, was being hired by businesses to motivate workers through his unique humor.

"It was stewing in me for 10 years" after that, Benton said. He got his ideas together and in 1996 made a proposal to the Westin Maui at Kaanapali Beach.

He and colleagues studied hotel operations, talking one-on-one with employees after promising them anonymity, listening to their problems and listening to the bosses, too.

The management wanted a motivational message and to educate workers about sexual harassment, substance abuse and other workplace issues. The result was a skit with the hotel represented by the sailing canoe Hokule'a, but with a female navigator and an all-male crew. The message was that if everyone paddles together, the canoe gets there faster.

The guys reversed the common sexual harassment issue by talking to each other with such phrases as, "Eh, brah, she always looking up my malo (loincloth)," Benton said.

It went over well, and a new Booga Booga was born, with Benton and Kaahea joined by Arnold Miura through a new organization called Moiliili Blind Fish Tank, based on the story that mullet once swam in from the sea to breed in tunnels under Moiliili. They could not complete their journey because of construction and ended up breeding a race of blind fish in lava tunnels.

Benton says he and his colleagues always start by studying the workplace, listening to management and workers and finding out the goals of the motivational exercise. That can easily take eight weeks.

Then they localize everything, write a script, bounce it off the companies that hire them, and go to work. Humor, Benton says, is far more effective than the boring lectures and videos that employees often watch.

A figure like "Auntie" can get a message across far more effectively than a suit-and-tie lecturer with a video, Benton said.

In 1996, Benton and pals did a show for a big local retail company.

"I was amazed how you took our 'raw material' and transformed it into completely recognizable, and yet hysterically funny, skits," the company's training manager wrote.

The cost of putting on programs depends on how many people have to be reached, the difficulty of getting across the messages and a wide range of other factors. The total bill for the state libraries' effort is not clear.

Benton looks back on the $5-a-head cover charge Booga Booga used to bring in at the nightclub. The first "corporate comedy" gig he signed was for $12,500.

"That was for 900 people, so you figure the cover at the door," he said. (That's about $14 a head.)

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