You’ve probably heard the Beamer Brothers’ song about Mr. San Cho Lee, which pinpointed an aspect of local culture that is sometimes bewildering to newcomers. Its chorus goes like this:
One thing I wen’ notice ’bout this place
All us guys we tease the other race
It’s amazing we can live in the same place
How the heck can all these people seemingly insult each other and still get along?
Comedian Frank DeLima says he thinks this local style of humor actually helped folks live together back in plantation days. Good-natured joking around allowed people with very different backgrounds to defuse tension by laughing at their own and each other’s cultural idiosyncrasies.
DeLima is one of several Hawai`i comedians who have raised this comedy to a high art. Another is Maui’s own Kathy Collins, who, like DeLima has combined accents, costumes, and characters in comic performances that send local audiences into gales of laughter.
Some might think ethnic humor is a form of racism. DeLima, for one, denies this. “Racism is when a person hates another person because of their race,” he says. “I don’t hate anybody.” This master of ethnic wit cautions others to be sensitive when they are joking around. “You have to know who your audience is. When you don’t, you can really hurt somebody.”
Fondness and pride are key elements of Hawai`i’s humor. Our next-door neighbor may have a different accent and eat food that seems a bit strange to us, but we know he is a good guy, and we are proud that these tiny Islands hold so much diversity.
That said, newcomers would do well to remain on the audience side of the footlights when it comes to local humor. This sort of comedy is a delicate thing, best performed by those who have soaked in Hawai`i’s ethnic nuances and know where to draw the line between joking and insult. Of course, you’re welcome to add to the mix by sharing jokes about your own ethnic group!