The growing glut of comics has given rise to a theory: You need a gimmick to stand out in stand-up. Andy Bumatai comes by his most immediately noticeable distinction naturally: He's Hawaiian.
Of course, that may help people remember Bumatai after the show, but it won't necessarily help him elicit laughter from them--or win them over-- during the show. That's where his second most noticeable distinction comes in: He's supremely likable.
You see a lot of edgy attitude and misguided (and sometimes contrived) anger in the current crop of comics, but it's rare to run into a comedian as fundamentally engaging and warm as Bumatai was Tuesday at the Irvine Improvisation.
Like any rare commodity, this quality is highly prized and enormously valuable. The chief by-product of such an appealing personality is that it quickly puts an audience firmly on a performer's side, wanting him to do well, pulling for him to be funny--and staying with him when he isn't.
Tuesday's show was a classic Exhibit A. Neither well-paced nor tight, Bumatai's 48-minute set was laced with lulls. It just seemed to be an off night; Bumatai would probably concede that he wasn't on top of his game. At the same time, thanks to that likability factor, it would be a safe bet that if someone polled the crowd afterward, the consensus would be that "we really enjoyed the show. We liked him."
A lesser comic might coast on that kind of charm, relying on weak or generic material, knowing he could sell it and make it work. Not Bumatai, though. He tends to explore different topics, and even when he's addressing more familiar ones, he has fresh takes on them.
He's not really a political comedian, but he devoted the opening section to some topical stuff, including speculation about the reactions to the Ayatollah Khomeini's death ("I got a feeling the Pope is high-fiving at the Vatican") and asking, "How many people think Noriega would be less (angry) at the world if he had a better complexion? I got a feeling Panamanian mothers tell their kids, 'Wash your face--you're looking kinda Noriega.' "
A much larger portion of his act--in fact, a running theme--involves a bemused examination of the '60s, either on their own or contrasted with the late '80s. During a subsection about the changes in fashion and hair styles, Bumatai allowed that "one style I'll never understand" is "people who wear camouflage pants in the city. What do these people think? That other people are going look at them and go, 'My God, I can't see the bottom half of that man.' "
A major subsection that Bumatai developed under the '60s versus '80s theme focused on drug use. Kind of interesting how drug humor avoids the typical pitfalls of being dated, obvious or just plain dumb when it's skillfully filtered through a nostalgic sensibility, or when the behavior and attitudes of two distinctly different eras are juxtaposed.
Bumatai recalled that in the '60s, when he and his friends smoked pot, "we used to hide from our parents. Now we're smoking pot and hiding from our kids."
Kid: "How come your eyes are all red, Daddy?"
Bumatai: "Uh, Daddy's tired." (pause) "You gonna finish that Snickers bar?"
At another point in the show he asked: "Where are those drug flashbacks they promised us in high school? . . . They said: 'If you do drugs, you'll have flashbacks when you're older.' That was supposed to scare us, right? All it ended up doing was justifying the cost. . . .
"Scare the yuppie generation? I think not. We just looked at it like a chemical IRA. Yeah, put a little aside every week while you're going to school, and one day, you're driving to work-- bang! --you're at a Vanilla Fudge concert."
He hit plenty of other areas. There was a nice bit about the regional differences in speaking habits. He also pointed out some ways your perspective changes when you have an infant around the house. "Now whenever I see anyone crying, I think, 'Maybe they have gas.' "
Toward the end of Tuesday's show, he presented some pieces in which he neatly personified animals and objects. In the first of these, he briefly discussed a fish sanctuary in Hawaii where "people go to check out fish." He then wondered if the reverse is true, raising the possibility of "little fish fathers bringing their fish families to check us out," which he then acted out, wryly adopting the fishes' point of view.
He extended the marine theme with some comments about a Jacques Cousteau special on the mating habits of whales, wondering how the whales might have felt about having a camera right there observing. Then he became the whales, demonstrating how that kind of intrusion probably killed the mood.
A longer, even more adventurous piece in this vein found Bumatai portraying the various items in a refrigerator--all with different voices and different personalities, but unanimously annoyed by people continually opening the door and looking in. We'd like to think this one is a work in progress, because it's wonderfully creative and different--but it's not really funny. Yet.
Still, it just highlighted the kind of leeway you get when you're as engaging as Bumatai: It produced some of the evening's more discernible lulls, yet the audience seemed enraptured and supportive. People weren't laughing much, but you could almost hear the huge smiles.
Headlining a solid bill that also includes Chuck Martin and Joey Scazzola, Bumatai continues at the Improv through Sunday.
The Improv is at 4255 Campus Drive, Irvine. Show times: 8:30 p.m Thursday and Sunday, 8:30 and 10:30 p.m. Friday, 8 and 10:30 Saturday. Tickets: $7-$10. Information: (7 14) 854-5455.