Comic conjures

Filipino-American Rex Navarrete
feels at home in Hawaii -- or
anywhere else, for that matter

For Filipino-American comedian Rex Navarrete, the appearance of a fellow Filipino on his travels abroad is no longer a surprising sight. Whether in a Midwestern shopping mall, an Asian marketplace or on cobblestone streets in Europe, Filipinos have become a common beholding for Navarrete.

Comic Rex Navarrete

Where: Pipeline Cafe, 805 Pohukaina St.

When: 7 p.m. today through Sunday

Tickets: $20 general advance and $25 at the door, and $25 VIP advance and $30 at the door, 18 and over

Call: 589-1999

Note: Local comic Greg Gabaylo will open today and tomorrow, and Elroy and Shawn Felipe on Sunday

"I think everywhere I go, I expect to see at least three now," he remarks in a phone call from his Bay area home. "Whatever airport I land in, there's at least a few working security, checking bags and IDs."

Navarrete says he's learned to identify them quickly, even in a crowd. "It's the body language and the smile," he notes. "We smile too much. That just gives us away. We're one of the world's worst spies. We just keep smiling."

He's seen them on concert stops in Hong Kong, Singapore and Canada, and, increasingly, Navarrete has been catching their attention as well. On a recent tour of Western Europe as the opening act for celebrated Filipino vocalist Regine Velasquez, Navarrete says he learned just how far flung his people are, as crowds of Filipino ex-pats turned up in droves to the shows. Many were serving as domestic workers on the continent, he discovered, while others were hired as laborers, civil servants and technical experts.

"Believe it or not, there are thousands of Filipinos living there and working there," he says. "They'd never seen standup in the Philippines, but they somehow connected to it. They got it. They understood it as basic storytelling, doing characters, situational stuff. Switzerland, Germany, Italy, Spain, you name it, they're there."

Part of the reason the world has become a smaller place, says Navarrete, is the Internet. With the proliferation of the World Wide Web has come greater exposure for the 34-year-old comic, whose outrageous live skits such as "Maritess vs. the Superfriends" and "SBC Packers" have been transformed into animated shorts hailed by his fans as underground online classics. These days, Navarrete fields offers to ply his trade from every corner of the globe, including Hawaii, which boasts a sizable Filipino population. In fact, says Navarrete, it was the Aloha State's top comedians who showed him that tailoring his act to regional audiences can earn bigger laughs.

"I love Augie," he says, referring to Hawaii funnyman Augie Tulba. "A lot of people are still stuck on his pidgin, but I see beyond that. The stuff that he's writing is very contemporary. Same thing with Andy Bumatai. I consider them really close colleagues and guys who teach me what local comedy is really like."

NAVARRETE, who spent most of his youth in Northern California, says he first heard Bumatai in the mid-1980s when friends in high school made copies of tapes they'd brought back from Hawaii for Navarrete. "I thought it was great, like, 'Wow, there's a Hawaiian comedian?' Then later, I'd find out he was Filipino," recalls Navarrete. "He was really funny, so I put him next to my Eddie Murphy collection. I thought, 'This guy's good -- and he kind of looks like my uncle.'"

Such is Navarrete's renown that he was able to draw an audience large enough to fill the Hawaiian Hut during his last visit in August. Part of his growing appeal, he believes, is the universality of his subject matter. "I do write for Filipinos who are conscious about being Filipino, but I think the material crosses over to pretty much anyone with tight-knit immigrant families," he states. "My real mom and my (standup routine) mom are not too different. Some people have accused me of stealing their stories, but maybe it's because we're all the same."

Despite the promise of great fame and fortune, Navarrete isn't concerned with finding the quickest path to mainstream stardom. "I got time," he says. "This is one of those occupations you can actually keep doing until you croak. Besides, people pay me to have fun, and a lot of my friends in the corporate world hate me for saying that and really meaning it."

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