BY MARK COLEMANSunday, March 2, 2003
GEORGE F. LEE / GLEE@STARBULLETIN.COM
Entertainer Frank De Lima is on a mission to "mend some hurt that should not have happened" because of poorly excuted ethnic humor, and to educate Hawaii's newcomers to the local ways.
He has taken flak for plying ethnic humor, but the multitalented De Lima, aided by writer and song composer Patrick Downes, has stuck to his shtick and continued to produce CDs and videotapes, appear in nightclub shows and star in radio and TV commercials. He also gives motivational talks and entertains at baby luaus, weddings and other social functions.If Frank De Lima isn't the king of ethnic humor in Hawaii, I don't know who is. For 25 years, De Lima has been poking fun at Hawaii's many different cultures -- through jokes, skits and song parodies -- bringing us closer together by highlighting and caricaturing our differences.
De Lima's ability to play a wide range of characters has contributed to his success. For seven years he played Ebenezer Scrooge in the popular Christmas play "Scrooge" at Diamond Head Theatre. Using elaborate costumes designed by Kathy James, he also has delighted audiences by pretending to be a sumo wrestler, the former Philippine first lady Imelda Marcos, even a Catholic cardinal -- Cardinal Vermicelli, the surprise guest at Honolulu Bishop Joseph Ferrario's retirement party in 1993.
De Lima himself grew up in a devout Catholic family. He is a 1967 graduate of Damien High School. He then spent four years at St. Stephen's Seminary, then earned a bachelor's degree in sociology from Chaminade University of Honolulu and a master's degree in divinity from St. Patrick's Theologate in Menlo Park, Calif., where he was ordained a deacon.
De Lima has won many awards, including Hokus from the Hawaii Academy of Recording Artists for 11 of his 13 comedy albums. He also was named Sales and Marketing Executive of the Year in 1993, for his years of spreading his unique message of aloha to children in Hawaii's schools across the state.
Currently De Lima appears on weekends at the Palace Showroom in Waikiki, with keyboardist David Kauahikawa and guitarist Bobby Nishida, who also emcees when De Lima is backstage changing costumes.
GEORGE F. LEE / GLEE@STARBULLETIN.COM
"Portagee is not an ethnic group. It's a type of person and a way of life. Some people just don't T'INK before they talk." --Frank De Lima, Comedian, singer, actor
'Portagee' jokesterMark Coleman: I was driving home a few nights ago, listening to KSSK-AM, and they played a segment from one of your Hanohano Room appearances in which you were telling a "Portagee" joke.
Frank De Lima: That's what got me started.
MC: You were telling that joke about how you went to Makawao, Maui, with your uncle and you saw this Portagee guy out in the middle of a field, rowing in a stationary rowboat, and your uncle leans out the car window and yells at him.
FDL: (Telling the punch line:) "Hey! It's Portagees like you that make us Portuguese look stupid! If I could swim, I'd go ovah deah slap yo head!"
MC: I heard that and just cracked up.
FDL: I got that joke from a local boy from Makawao. I was sitting in the airport, waiting for my flight, and he said, "De Lima, I got one joke for you!" But, of course, his punch line was "Kick your ass." I had to change it to "slap yo head."
MC: That's an interesting point. Some comedians are more vulgar, while others try to keep the level a little higher. How do you gauge at what level to approach your comedy?
FDL: Well, let's put it this way: Vulgarity is actually the common language of the common people, and if you ask me, every other person uses the "F" word -- in Hawaii anyway -- and "ass" and all those kind words. So in a normal sense, it's above normal to not use those words. But for me, being brought up in a Christian, Catholic, traditional family, I just felt that it just didn't sound right for me to use such words.
Getting startedMC: How did you support yourself as a comedian in the early days?
FDL: I started with a tour company. I got paid right off the bat.
MC: You mean like driving a tour bus around and cracking jokes?
FDL: No, I was a musician for the breakfast briefings. They would herd the tourists in for breakfast, and while they were eating, we'd play Hawaiian songs, teach them hula, whatever. And just toward the ending part I would crack jokes.
MC: I read somewhere that you had wanted to be a musician originally.
FDL: I was a musician. I played ukulele from when I was a kid. I sang Hawaiian songs and I also clowned around, but deep down inside, I really wanted to be a Catholic priest. But that didn't work out, so I went to work at the tour company. Then I needed a night-time job, so I worked at the Club 400, and then the Noodle Shop where my career really took off, and that was the beginning of my nightclub career.
Hawaii's ethnic humorMC: What do you think of the new generation of comedians in Hawaii?
FDL: Well, Hawaii is ethnic, Hawaii is local pidgin, and that's basically a small square of what you can build around, so the originals like Lucky Luck and Sterling Mossman, Kent Bowman, all those guys, they started all of this, the local pidgin, ethnic jokes, all that kind of stuff. Sterling Mossman was actually the guy that helped me when I first started. He gave me some Portagee jokes and he used to come to my shows. Those of us who followed, we were just delivering that same humor but in different ways, and today's comedians are doing the same thing.
MC: I love that kind of comedy, and I think most people that grew up here do. But a few years ago it was coming under a lot of fire, ruffling feathers. Did you have to lay off of it for a while?
FDL: No, I never did and I never will, because it's Hawaii humor and most of the people enjoy it, and that's the bottom line. They're the ones that buy the product, and they're the ones that go to the shows.
MC: One reason I laughed at that Portagee joke was not so much that you were making fun of Portagees, because, you know, that's the same thing as a Polish joke or whatever.
FDL: Right. And growing up in the Portuguese community, obviously most of them are not like that. That's why from when I first started in my career, I've tried to explain to people: Portagee is not an ethnic group. It's a type of person and a way of life. Some people just don't T'INK before they talk.
MC: You're often touted as a leading member of the local Portuguese community, but actually, you're not just Portuguese.
FDL: No. I'm half. I also have an eighth Hawaiian, plus Chinese, English, Spanish, Scottish, Irish and French.
MC: Then you can poke fun at just about anybody.
FDL: I guess. And in Hawaii there are so many different ethnic groups that grew up together. I tell the kids in the schools, if it wasn't for our ancestors' sense of humor, then there would have been much more difficulty back then.
MC: Some people say humor is just a mask for what you really mean. I don't think that's true all the time.
FDL: No. See, there's three kinds of people who tell jokes. All the professional humorists I know of, they see something that's funny and they imitate it and have fun with it, but with a very clean heart. They're just exaggerating the truth of what's around. Then you got those people who do hate. They're the most dangerous because they're going to do anything they can to put down whatever they hate. And they use humor and that's dangerous. Then there's the people who tell jokes but they don't know how. They're the ones that really ruin it for the professionals. They go to the workplace and go, "Oh, I heard this joke today!" and they tell it. So what happens is, they offend people. Like the hotel workers, for example. You have Filipinos, Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese. They speak very little English, they're not acculturated, and you say, "You heard about da Filipino da uddah day?" And, oh boy, they can really get mad! They hear this joke and they cannot distinguish, and so, "Terrible Frank De Lima," because Frank De Lima also does Filipino jokes.
GEORGE F. LEE / GLEE@STARBULLETIN.COM
Plantation days revisitedMC: It's true that sometimes you have to look around first to see if you might offend somebody by telling a certain joke.
FDL: Because obviously this is another plantation days, only in a more modern society.
MC: How's that?
FDL: Well, back then, they all came here and they hardly spoke English. They all had their own cultural things that they did and were separated at first, but then they came together. When they came together, they needed one language: pidgin. That language formed communication, so they started making friends. But because they started making friends before they started mingling with strangers, they had politeness, they were respectful. They didn't want to ruin the friendship by saying things before thinking. They didn't say, "Hoo! Yo food STINK!" They wouldn't say that right away because they didn't wanna offend their friends. That's what I think happened back then, otherwise they would've killed each oddah off, you know?
MC: Well then, how is now like plantation days?
FDL: Because the immigrants are flooding Hawaii and they hardly speak English. Many keep to themselves. And then when they have to mix, at the hotels where they work, sometimes there's conflict, 'cause they're not friends. They don't know each other. And then you get some guy come in and start telling jokes. Of COURSE he going get piss off! (Laughter) That's why I'm putting out a flyer now, a brochure. I'll be sending it to all businesses. If they want to have some kind of sensitivity training, whatever, an hour talk at a lunch. Throw a luncheon for your workers, and then, you know, mend some hurt that should not have happened and enrich the newcomers, especially, to the local ways.
MC: That's almost like carrying on your desire to be a priest but in a different way.
FDL: I'm just doing what I can. They (critics of ethnic humor) tried to stop something that really helped our ancestors in the plantation days, and it can help us today. Ethnic humor lets people know they're not perfect, and some people can't stand that. So pride turns into arrogance, and because of that arrogance, they'll do anything they can to stop whoever is making fun of the fact, for example, that Filipinos eat dog.
MC: Well, let's take that as an example: "Black dog roasting on an open fire." (Sung to the melody of "The Christmas Song.") Why is that funny?
FDL: 'Cause some of them do! (Laughter) And they're not the only ones. They eat dog in Korea and elsewhere, too.
MC: But is that funny because the dominant culture here doesn't do that, and the Filipino culture does?
FDL: I think it's funny because of the fact that, you know, "Chestnuts roasting ..." You just replace da words with what da culture does! I went to Damien High School, and I was playing basketball one day, and the Filipino houses surround the football field of Damien, and I saw two Filipino men carrying a dog that already was dipped in hot water and the hair was off. It was pink. It wasn't a pig. It was a dog. We said, "Oh! So, big dinnah tonight?" They said, "No. Big party tomorrow!" "Oh, so ..." But we didn't faze them at all. They didn't faze us at all. I saw it, we made jokes about it and we moved on.
Parodies aplentyMC: The song parodies from your albums are really where you've made your money, right?
FDL: That's right. The jokes are enhancers.
MC: The songs of yours that stick out in my mind are, of course, "Lucille," which was a parody of the Kenny Rogers song ...
FDL: That was the biggest that I had.
MC: And "Glen Miyashiro" (a parody of "Guantanamera"). I think that was a scream.
FDL: Oh man, and they took off on that, Perry and Price (of KSSK), and made it so big. Poor Glens! Whoever it was named Glen Miyashiro -- and there were a few of them in the phone book -- people would get drunk at 2 o'clock in the morning and call 'em. I felt sorry for 'em.
MC: What serious songs do you sing?
FDL: Serious ones? Just "Waimea Lullaby" (which earned composer Patrick Downes a Hoku award for "Song of the Year" in 1980). I have others but they never did get attention, so I just stuck with comedy. Some people said, "Why don't you do a full music album?" And I said I've tried before, but people want it to be funny.
MC: Maybe you should just do it for yourself, and even if it's just a vanity project, there would still be something out there for the die-hard Frank De Lima fan.
FDL: Right, who would like to hear me sing. That's true.
Talking with the kidsMC: Are you married?
FDL: No. I was ordained a deacon at one time, so I've kept the promise I made not to marry.
MC: I asked because if you were and had kids, I was going to ask if they think you're funny.
FDL: (Laughter) No. But I have plenty kids, 200,000 of them, and I gotta be up and alert and aware to talk to them every morning. For 23 years I've been visiting the schools, talking to the kids.
MC: All around the state?
FDL: All around. DOE (the state Department of Education) helps with the airline tickets and some finances. Chevron USA helps me. So does the Cox Foundation. Princess Abigail Kekaulike Kawananakoa, she also helps. And many others. I also have an annual golf tournament to help raise funds. In the beginning, I funded it myself because the entertaining was awesome. I was really doing well. But then one day, about four or five years ago, my manager, Millie Fujinaga, said my company, Pocholinga Productions, cannot support the program anymore. She just listed up my expenses and it came out to like $40,000 a year. So now I welcome financial contributions to help support it.
MC: And your message to the kids is what?
FDL: Self-esteem. Through the years, the foundation of life is really studying, laughing and family. You've gotta let the teachers nourish your talent that you were born with, because that talent is going to carry you to the end of your life. The math, the English, science, geography, speech, vocabulary, all these things, whether you think it's important or not when you're growing up, they are all important, and you're going to use every single one of them, including languages you gotta take, so you shouldn't turn anything down, from any teacher. I also tell them that as part of their daily routine, they should remember to put some time aside to laugh, whether it be with a friend, a video, a cassette tape, whatever, and not just once a day.
Frank De Lima sampler
1995 "Jurassic Classic" Surfside 1995 "Baboose" Lehua 1995 "Best of Frank De Lima" Surfside 1995 "Best of Too" Lehua 1998 "Mary Tunta" Pocholinga 1998 "Ethnicology 101" Pocholinga 2000 "Live at the Captain's Table" Pocholinga 2001 "Silva Anniversary" Pocholinga
1994 "Frank De Lima Live Pocholinga at the Polynesian Palace"
2003 "Silver Anniversary: Pocholinga: The Complete Collection"
Mark Coleman's conversations with people who have had an impact on our community appear on the first Sunday of every month. If you have a comment or suggestion, please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.