Rap’s Hawai‘i, Our Hawai‘i

Illustration by Mark Ghee Lord Galacgac

How Rap Reiplinger’s characters challenge sanitized notions of Hawai‘i and its people.

“Not too sweet. Not too rancid. Just right, ah?!”

You know how it goes. Someone opens a bottle of wine, takes their first sip, and busts out their best Auntie Marialani impression. “Smoke break!” your uncle shouts with spot-on delivery of the late Rap Reiplinger’s famous sketch, to which Mom adds, “Try wait, auntie lost da taste.” Your mainland friend, meanwhile, chuckles awkwardly, waiting to be clued in on the story behind this bizarre performance.

Born James Kawika Piimauna Reiplinger, Rap was famous for his rapid-fire, syncopated banter, perfectly executed in both standard and Pidgin English. But his greatest skill, perhaps, was his ability to capture an era in Hawai‘i’s history that continues to shape who we are today—all the growing pains of post-statehood Hawai‘i presented in three- to five-minute segments of pure comedic genius.

In the mid-1970s, while the rapidly expanding tourism industry continued peddling promises of brown-skinned hula girls and beach boys to the world, Rap poked holes in this pre-packaged narrative with his hilarious character sketches. There’s the “puka-shell tour guide” who hates his job, and the room-service operator who can’t even begin to feign interest in what Mr. Frogtree—oops, Mr. Fogarty—wants for dinner. Of course, you can’t forget the cheeky Mahalo Airlines stewardess, eager to provide some in-flight comedy (“Dea was dese two Portuguese pilots …”). All of these characters are simultaneously larger than life and, somehow, remarkably true to it.

If we can stop laughing long enough to really think about it, each of Rap’s characters challenge sanitized notions of Hawai‘i and its people. In a time when Hawai‘i was becoming increasingly dependent on visitors’ insatiable appetites for a tropical paradise, Rap’s sketches reminded us that we don’t have to pretend to be picture perfect.

Today, that reminder is just as relevant as it was in the 1970s. We’ve grown used to seeing ourselves onscreen as the exotic-looking extra, or the dumb but loveable native; we’re used to seeing the beaches we grew up on in perfect order for the perfect shot, swept clean of footprints from busy weekends full of family barbecues. And we’re growing a little tired of it. As big-budget Hollywood films struggle to represent Hawai‘i and its people in a way that wins our approval, we know that no one does it quiet like Rap did. Whether we grew up listening to him on cassette tapes or were introduced to him on YouTube, when we laugh with Rap, we recognize ourselves.

That’s the beauty of Rap Reiplinger’s comedy. Despite his passing in 1984, his skits continue to be an inside joke for those who call Hawai‘i home. Rap continues to make us all laugh, and with a few famous lines committed to memory, he makes us all comedians. But most of all, Rap’s entourage of characters reminds us of who we are and where we come from.

This story was featured in our Charm Issue.

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