They say humor is the new sexy. Well, we might have just met one of the sexiest men on earth! Not only does he have an excellent sense of humor, but Rex Navarrete has turned it into a career for over 3 decades.
Unknown to many, Rex was a counselor before becoming a full-time stand-up comic, but he values his learnings from his first profession, as it taught him necessary lessons in life and in stand-up comedy: listening, and how great comedy comes from a really uncomfortable, dark place.
Early into his career of sharing laughter, he has always been distinct, showing his ethnicity and embracing his Filipino roots right from the start. He was one of the very few comics who proudly says he is Pinoy, his material is definitely Pinoy, and that he will never stop being a Pinoy.
Murphy Report had a rare opportunity to talk to this amazing stand-up comic on one of his visits to the country. Dressed in simple clothes and definitely on time, making his voice animated occasionally and inserting witty remarks here and there, he talks about what makes him funny, his identity as a stand-up comic and the road to becoming skilled at it. He has remarkable honesty on how he describes life and the reality of it. He also shares with us the evolution of stand-up comedy in the Philippines and the irony of a profession where you interact with a crowd, but have to spend a lot of alone time.
After over 30 years of making people laugh, 4 CDs, 3 DVDs, and hundreds of shows, there’s no stopping this stand-up comic in spreading happiness, and teaching the younger generations that funny is sexy and witty, too.
My first question is, sir, why are you so funny?
I’m not that funny!
Yes you are!
I’m funny enough. I think I’m funny to a specific kind of people. Either you find your audience or your audience finds you.
Since we’re already discussing about the type of audience. Has it always been your style to be geared more towards the Filipino audience?
I write from what I know. And that’s how Pinoys think. Who we are as a people and where we are all over the world, how people perceive us, and how we perceive ourselves, that’s always been my base ground audience. The people that I write for are me, us. I mean, if you want to write for everyone else, well, that for me cuts in half what I’m doing. And I don’t want to. I really don’t need to.
Have you performed to other audiences aside from the Filipinos?
Oh, yeah. Hundreds of times.
What was their reception like?
Not bad. You know what? You go in there going, “Okay. At least there are some Pinoys here who brought their friends and hopefully, their friends have open minds about the material and the performance. And usually it works out!
Can you say that Pinoy humor is universal? What makes us stand-out?
You can’t always be universal. There’s some Pinoy humor specifically for a Pinoy ear. Forget even trying to translate it for everyone because you just want to keep it to yourself. Why show it? That’s just for us!
You know, people say, “I have to make sure my material reaches a wide demographic of people. I want to see the numbers.” What? What is wrong with you? Then you’re not an artist. You’re a sellout.
What are “real Rex moments”?
Just all that. Everything the material is based on. Like what I’ve said, just us being part of the Filipino family, having a Filipino family. You know how hard it is, especially for immigrants. We tap the immigrant experience, how it is to be overseas, and amongst the sea of minorities. Even the minorities don’t know what you are, you know? If you’re Chinese, or if you’re Vietnamese. “Getting warmer, getting warmer.” Thai? “No, you’re cold again”. So yeah, you know it’s always having to explain who you are and I’m tired of it. I really am, so that’s why I always fall back on us as the main audience because it’s a shorthand. You get it. You get what I’m talking about. And there’s enough of us to get it. I’m not in this for numbers. Like trying to make everybody happy. I’m not there yet. And if the material reaches out to other non-Pinoys, then good. That’s a sign that the world is changing. Humor’s maturing. Maybe the material is going a different and newer direction. Since the beginning, those Rex moments have always been about me just being me. Me being Pinoy. Every day, when I go to sleep and wake up, I’m still a Filipino.
Have you always wanted to be a stand-up comedian?
No. I’ve always wanted to be a filmmaker or a storyteller. And I got my wish! Doing stand-up is storytelling, but I don’t have a camera crew with me. I don’t have set designers. I have people’s imaginations. And I think that’s a lot more immediate and more intense depending on who you are asking.
Stand-up comedy is a very difficult type of comedy.
It is the hardest. And it’s one of the hardest art forms because even if you are a trained actor for 30 years, I dare you to do stand-up. I dare you!
There’s so much wit and humor.
Exactly! It’s either you got it or you don’t. You can not teach yourself to be a stand-up comic. I mean, you can learn the skills. You can learn the techniques but in real time, doing it in real time? That has to be a big part of your show. It’s tough to teach it. You’re chosen to do it, and you have to answer the call. I mean, I’m not a trained actor or a classical writer. This is something I had to learn along the way from other peers and mentors. And then finding my own style. Something that’s inherently me. No one else can steal from me and if you do, everyone’s gonna know.
Because that’s you!
It’s me! I write for me!
Your style is very distinct.
Did you imagine that this is something that you will be doing for most of your life?
No, no. It was a scary choice because I was always in public health right after I graduated in College.
Is this Public Health as a career?
As a career. I was doing it right while I was in college. I was working with Asian-American and mostly Pinoy immigrant kids, high risk kids in the inner city. And then from there I went into gang intervention so working with, you know, gangsters? And then after that I became a drug educator for the school district in San Francisco and a drug counsellor for almost 7 years. I was in recovery working with addicts, alcoholics and families. Boy, was that heavy! That was heavy during the day, and at night I do comedy. On weekends, I fly and do comedy. And then in 2002, I had one of two choices to make. It’s either stay as a drug counsellor or do stand-up full-time. You guys made me choose comedy, full-time!
We never knew you were a drug addict counsellor.
Yeah, I don’t put that in my Bio.
Why is that?
It’s out of respect for my patients and people in recovery. Why put that in your showbiz bio?
That’s true, but what’s something that you learned from that experience?
To listen. Really listen and hear people. You know, the deep down insights. And that’s what you need to write, a really great comedy because it has to come from a really uncomfortable, dark place. Most good routines come from that. You can write about light-hearted stuff and that’s fine. I do that all the time. But the really dark stuff, like “Maritess”, when I wrote that short piece in the late 90s, and then it became animated, had a second life to it. It really meant something to a lot of people. Yeah, it’s goofy on the outside with the super friends but on the inside, it’s a story about our kababayans who have to leave their families behind in the Philippines so that they can support them. We’re not gonna be OFWs forever. Well, I hope not. Change is here I hope. We can bring people back. They can stay in the Philippines and make a living with dignity. So I took it to that extreme, but people know where that story comes from, a very uncomfortable place. But sometimes you have to dig deeper and when it surfaces, you gotta make it digestible for people to enjoy. It still has, at the end of the night, to be funny. It has to make people laugh, otherwise, it’s not stand-up. It just becomes spoken words or poetry, but that’s something else. I don’t make people laugh. They make themselves laugh. It’s your choice. If you wanna laugh then that’s good and that’s good for me, too, because see? We connected.
Can you tell us about memorable experiences or shows?
You know, every experience is the one I like. The new experiences because I’m always on the road and I get to meet new people in different situations. How am I gonna do my comedy? I don’t know where people are at. Some shows still make me anxious.
But if you’re performing in the Philippines, do you still feel nervous?
Yeah, because you guys are smart! You guys are educated. You guys have more education than me and my buddies back home! No, really, you’re very sophisticated now. You’re learning from my generation’s mistakes. Like how the world runs, but faster than us! Technology and information-wise. You guys got it. I can’t fool you, guys.
You were talking about stand-up comedy as something difficult, but what have been the challenges?
I guess the greatest challenge for any stand-up comic is the material. Writing and where you’ll find inspiration. What is it gonna be this time? Are you mature enough as a writer to see all angles? So you leave it to those who can do it. For me, my angle has always been the Pinoy perspective. And I’m always up for the challenge.
What made you really decide that you wanted to do stand-up comedy?
Made me? I don’t know. I like the idea but it was frightening to get into showbiz and depend on showbiz to support you. It’s always good to have a day job, but did your day job fulfill you? But then my day job did really fulfill me. That was tough! I had one great job and another great job! It was with the help of my patients, “You know, man, you go follow your dreams now. You keep telling us to follow our dreams.” Yeah, it’s my turn. You can thank them, too.
Are there any regrets?
No. I don’t know. Maybe showing up to a gig late or missing a flight. Those are the only regrets.
No, because at the end of it, it’s like “Wow, look at what you get to do. I have friends with multiple degrees, but they’re miserable.” Again, perspective. I’m a working artist. I get the opportunity to travel the world, do what I do, build a growing audience and provide a decent life for my family, and I’m not miserable. I’m tired, but I’m not miserable. It’s been a good thing to be this far and still have that passion and drive, and it’s also nice to also see the young comics starting out. You’re terrified, but in time, it never changes. So don’t worry about being terrified. You’re going to be terrified all the time because there are so many phases to it. It gets harder. Your training will kick in. It’s just you and how you build your career, the direction you’re going, that’s the challenge. It doesn’t get easier because you’re setting yourself some bigger targets. And the competition is harder, because when I started there were only, maybe, 5 of us? 5 Pinoy comics and that was it.
Since this is coming out on our Humor and Hugot issue, can you define what humor is for you?
Oh, it’s a lot of things! I think Humor has always been a gift of survival. It’s a tactic. I think, it was early humans’ way of coping with the dangers of the world. You know? The letdowns. You’ve got to find a way to re-center. Re-center. Get the tribe back in calibration. Even when you are on your own. You got to find the world. Re-center. Finding something to laugh at or laugh with, that’s important. If you don’t have fun or you don’t know how to laugh at yourself or laugh at the situation, then that is bad news for you. You see, that’s why I love stand-up. It’s the ability to take something bad in the world, talk about it so it’s not so bad anymore. Now, we’re satirizing. That’s why we need humor. We need stand-up comedy. We need comedy because it takes that nasty stuff. It takes the boogey man and turns him into a con. For the con that he is. But that’s a dangerous thing to do. That’s why it’s nice to see what’s happening here in Manila. Like, Finally!
Are you saying it’s evolving?
Oh, yeah. I feel like their mentor. They recognize me as the guy who showed them the way. I didn’t teach them anything. I just showed them what I do. We always had to set a good example with the younger comics here, and let them find their own thing. And I get to work with them now! Manila has its own thing. And everyone I talked to are very impressed. Pinoy sensibility and our ability to see trouble and make fun with that trouble, have fun with that trouble! It’s great! No really, that’s why for a long time satire was kind of banned here. So now things have changed. You’ve got a new breed of Philippine comics who are doing what I do. It’s just a tradition, a life shown to them, not my creation because I just jumped on with tradition and some of the greatest comics in the States. And I’ve shared with them my influences, but they have their own. It’s nice that everyone gets their own influences and their own voice.
Talking about influences, who do you look up to in terms of style of comedy?
You know George Lopez is really important because he is the first guy as dark as me who wasn’t black.
You appeared in his show, right?
Yeah. I was on the road with him even before he got famous. I could see his shows and he was always “the Mexican guy”. I mean, he never stopped being Mexican. Even his material, there’s always some deep Mexican or Spanish words and he never stopped to translate, “Oh my god, I feel left out! He’s not translating!” “Yeah, because it’s not for you hija!” He gave me a little more courage. Like yeah, you can stand your ground. You don’t have to appease everybody, just be Pinoy! Unapologizing.
It’s so nice to hear that perspective.
Yeah. You know, people say “I have to make sure my material reaches a wide demographic of people. I want to see the numbers.” What? What is wrong with you? Then you’re not an artist. You’re a sellout. You’re a marketer. Ugh. Stop. Get out of my stage! You’re spoiling the art! A lot of people need to know that this is an art. This is a craft. This is not just something we do. You think it’s that easy? You do it! It’s like shark-petting. “That’s cool!”. “You do it!” “No, no”. “It’s so easy. Look, put my hand in his mouth.” No, it’s hard. There are seasoned great comics like Chris Rock and Louis C.K. My favorite ones are all dead. Like Richard Pryor, George Carlin, and Mark Twain, who was the very first American stand-up comic known for writing anti-establishment tales and he was one of those anti-imperialist who stood up for the Filipinos. And he toured the world doing stand-up, just on the stage. No microphones because they weren’t invented yet, but people will just listen to this man tell humorous stories about the world they live in. So he is the stand-up origin. We said our minds because he said his mind. And being Pinoy, we have a whole tradition of speaking our minds, whether you like it or not. That’s important, too. For everyone who thinks it’s this easy, it’s not. It really is a dedication. There’s wealth that comes with it. There’s poverty that comes with it. But as long as we’re still doing it. We’re better off than some people we know. They got their own personal drivers and everything. They’re fine, but they’re miserable. I get a whole room with people to laugh their guts out and some people can’t even smile. Eww. That’s sad, right?
True. What are your other plans? Do you have any other dreams aside from what you’re doing now?
Just keep going, moving forward. Just keep doing it. Nightmare is when you’re going backwards. I don’t know. People try to tell me my fortune and I’m like “No. Get away from me. I do not want to know. Gives you too much credit.” I’m superstitious like that. I don’t want to know. You’ll ruin everything that I’ve not planned for. Now, I’m just gonna plan for everything you’ve said, and if that doesn’t happen, I’m gonna come and kill you.” (laughs). Just keep on doing it. Stay alive. Keep having fun.
Just keep going, moving forward. Just keep doing it. Nightmare is when you’re going backwards. I don’t know. People try to tell me my fortune and I’m like “No. Get away from me. I do not want to know. Gives you too much credit.” I’m superstitious like that. I don’t want to know. You’ll ruin everything that I’ve not planned for.
What was the biggest crowd you have performed to?
When I did those showcases with other stand-up comics like Fluffy, we’ll do shows like 17,000 to 20,000 people. That’s crazy! Because you’re waiting for the speakers to hit the people at the back, and there’s a delay of like .75 seconds. Like “Hey… hey”. Oh, the timing is off. The people in the first half are laughing already, and then the ones behind are just finally hearing it. Oh, man.
So you have to wait for their reactions?
You have to hold it backwards! Wait! But small room like 200-300 people, oh, that’s awesome! Then you’ll hear every whisper, in real time.
You’ve been sharing so much wisdom in the answers that you’re giving, but what advice can you give those aspiring stand-up comedians?
No matter how big your entourage, it’s one of the loneliest art forms. It is. If I was one of those guys, I’ll be coming in here with 4 other people, an hour late. It’s one of those art forms where you gotta spend a lot of alone time and be comfortable with that alone time because some day you’ll be in front of a crowd of 15 to 20,000 people and you still gotta have a one-on-one conversation with them. It’s just you and them. It’s a conversation. But if you can’t be with yourself most of the time, listen to where you’re coming from, your material will never be as good as what you want it to be.
Check-out Rex’s upcoming shows! Visit his website at http://www.rexnavarrete.com/