Wed, 24 December 2014
I have been waiting to share this piece for days. But you have to wait until Christmas Eve to read (or hear) “`Twas The Night Before Christmas…” (In fact, I think that’s a law in certain jurisdictions that you have to wait – like not listening to “Alice’s Restaurant” before noon on Thanksgiving.)
As I have written here previously, the nature of comedy in Hawai`i is far different than practically anywhere else in the world. At the heart of Hawai`i’s unique approach to humor is that it is one of the most ethnically diverse spots on the planet, and these many different cultures needed to learn to co-exist peacefully on an island. So while the rest of the world has eschewed ethnic humor as perpetuating racism and stereotypes, for many in Hawai`i the differences between ethnicities are so apparent that not pointing them out would be the equivalent of ignoring the proverbial elephant in the room. It is the humorist’s job to observe and point out the obvious, turn it on its side, look at it through a different lens, and make us laugh about things we already knew. This often takes the form of “men are different from women because…” and “blue collar is different from white collar because…” In Hawai`i, therefore, if you intend to do humor that is uniquely “local,” you have very little material if you don’t look to ethnic differences. With time, as political and cultural sensitivities have risen to a fever pitch practically everywhere, some have become more critical of such practices. (I just read a tirade on YouTube by some Filipinos about Frank Delima’s “Filipino Christmas.” While half expressed outrage, the other half of the Filipinos referred to Delima as a “comic genius” and indicated that it is possibly the funniest thing they had ever seen. As a Filipino-American, I agree. And I agree all over again every time I put on a hot pink or lime green shirt. Some would argue that stereotypes exist for a reason.)
Humor in Hawai`i is so unique in the comedy universe that it has even merited examination in The Hawaiian Journal of History. In his article Humor in Hawai`i: Past and Present, Dr. Harvey Mindess explores the art of comedy as it has blossomed in such an ethnically diverse locale as Hawai`i.
One of the things the residents of those Islands have to teach the rest of us is that humor—even ethnic humor—can be a friendly way of expressing affection for one another, not a form of demeaning attack. Most of us feel as protective of our ethnicity as we do of our families. It is as basic a part of who we are, as is our masculinity or femininity. As we all know that anti-Semitism and prejudice against Blacks, Indians, Chicanos and other ethnic groups have sponsored unfairness and viciousness on the part of racists, it is no wonder that many members of ethnic groups are highly sensitive to any suggestion that their group may be even slightly flawed. But we are all less than perfect as individual human beings, so how could the groups to which we belong be faultless?
The challenge is to differentiate between ethnic slurs in jokes' clothing and ethnic jokes as they exist in Hawai'i: a mostly-friendly form of kidding each other by unveiling one's own and each other's frailties. The difference between ethnic jokes and ethnic slurs is the difference between a pat on the tush and a kick in the butt.
What the residents of Hawai'i have to teach us in general is even more important. All the foregoing evidence of humor in Hawai'i, from its earliest days to the 21st century, suggests that, faced with threatening or disastrous situations, the Hawai'i populace might be inclined to use their sense of humor to keep their spirits up. And in fact, that appears to be precisely the case.
Any exploration of local Hawai`i comedy must also include an examination of the local (and quite legitimate) language referred to as pidgin – a combination of English, Hawaiian, Chinese, and other languages that came to Hawai`i with its many “settlers.” (Note that while locals call the language “pidgin,” that is not, in fact, the name of any language. It is the technical linguistic term for any new language anywhere that was created locally by its people and which likely would not be spoken outside of that region. And, more accurately still, a new language should rightfully only be referred to as a “pidgin” for the first 25 years of existence. As Hawai`i pidgin is nearly 100 years old, it should more appropriately be called a “creole.”) Pidgin began to gain prominence on stage, radio, and TV in the 1950s and 60s with such hosts and comedians as Kent Bowman, Lippy Espinda, and Lucky Luck. The question we might ask is… Why did these comedians choose pidgin as their medium? Dr. Mindess may hold the answer:
Pidgin, the language created by the immigrant laborers in Hawaii to help them communicate with one another, is a humorous tongue, not a polite one. Like Ebonics for Blacks and Yinglish for Jews, it helps draw its users together by endorsing their inclination to amuse themselves and each other.
Simply put, these comedians chose pidgin as their currency because it is a language that doesn’t belong to any one ethnic group but which was co-constructed by all of the ethnic groups and therefore belongs to everybody.
Still, it is an unusual language to speak – and with such fluency – for a guy like Lucky Luck, a haole born and raised in St. Louis (Missouri – not the Catholic high school in Kaimuki). Melvin Luck (his real last name) stayed in Hawai`i after his tour of duty in the military there and made good as a comedian, disc-jockey, TV host, and sometimes actor. (See the early episodes of Hawaii Five-O for his star turns on the cop drama as well as his cameo in the Elvis Presley vehicle Blue Hawaii.) But one might argue that Luck’s background is not unlike anybody else’s who came to Hawai`i – he was once a stranger there too – so why shouldn’t he achieve fluency in pidgin?
In the early 1960s fellow pidgin comedian Kent Bowman recorded his version of “’Twas The Night Before Christmas” in pidgin for Don McDiarmid’s Hula Records. (It is included on the #17 album on Ho`olohe Hou’s list of the 25 Greatest Christmas Albums from Hawai`i – Mele Kalikimaka – A Hawaiian Christmas Party – which is hosted by Bowman.) But a year or two later, Lucky Luck laid down his version – which was slightly different – on a 45 rpm under the title “Kanaka Christmas.” I thought that those who remember Lucky Luck fondly from “sma’ keed times” and “hanabata days” (pidgin terms – the latter of which I would be happy to translate for the unindoctrinated) would enjoy hearing Luck again after more than 50 years. And for those of you who do not hear pidgin often (or perhaps are hearing it for the first time), there is no finer introduction than Lucky Luck and this humorous take on a Christmas classic which – ironically – does not poke fun at any of Hawai`i’s ethnic groups.
So much more to say, but the story reminds me that I have to go set another trap for the `iole nibbling around my recycling cans. I believe I heard them stirring – possibly a pot of tripe stew.
~ Bill Wynne