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"This place used to store things which were used to kill Filipinos," says Rex Navarrete. The San Francisco-based Filipino-American stand-up comedian is onstage at Sanctum Unmasct, a hip lounge bar in historic Intramuros, the Philippines' walled city that was the seat of government during the Spanish era. Sanctum, perhaps the coolest hangout in Manila right now, was used for munition storage during colonial times, and is now a converted entertainment den modestly decorated with bric-a-brac from antique shops. It's a small space where you can listen to alternative and jazz bands or express yourself during open mike sessions. Right now, it's the place to go if you want to see Rex Navarrete perform live (in a free, invite-only show).
"But tonight there's going to be a different kind of explosion," Navarrete declares in mock self-praise, "an explosion of laughter." Even if he were bragging, the crowd surely wouldn't have held it against him. The 33-year-old comic has taken the Philippine entertainment scene by storm. Originally invited to come to the Philippines in late July by the Lopez clan for Philippine television mogul Gabby Lopez's birthday, Navarrete then got requests to do other shows. He would say later that the first week of August was the only calm time he had in the country. "Then it was all chaos from there."
Aslie Aslanian, co-owner of Sanctum, says that Navarrete didn't expect such a reception -- although he should have seen it coming. His local "infamy" can be blamed primarily on the Internet. Early in 2002, Navarrete collaborated with another Filipino artist from San Francisco, Dino Ignacio of the "Bert is Evil" Web site, in creating the Flash animation Maritess vs. the Superfriends, based on an early sketch by Navarrete. The cartoon, a sendup of the plight of overseas workers that featured a Filipina domestic helper (voiced by Navarrete) working for U.S. superheroes, became an instant hit after it was launched in May on Navarrete's Web site (www.rexnavarrete.com) and Ignacio's (www.fractalcow.com). For Internet-savvy Filipinos -- of whom there are many -- Rex Navarrete became a household name. And thus, the chaos.
Navarrete was so busy during his stay in August -- appearing as a guest on TV and radio, doing interviews, performing at sold-out shows and free mall appearances (always packed, his last with an estimated 1,000 people) -- that his friends and relatives couldn't get in to see him. So the Sanctum owners, Aslanian and Triccia David, let Navarrete give this free event for them.
Before the show, Navarrete said that the evening was a time to relax, a time for people close to him. When folks started arriving, it looked like a who's who of the Manila social scene: a famous basketball player, two models, and a couple of young actors. Either Navarrete has an extremely good pedigree, or he's become a rock star.
Back onstage, Navarrete is more of a historian. He's still warming up, riffing on FOB immigrants (laughs from the Filipino-Americans in the crowd, mostly the young people at the back) and retelling the story of the first time Filipinos reached the United States -- no one wanted to go ashore until somebody said it was picture-taking time (louder laughs from the natives).
He tells the audience about his childhood, saying that he didn't have a doll to identify with, like a G.I. Joe or a Barbie doll for whites or a Muhammad Ali doll for blacks. All he had was the Sto. Niño (the statue of the Child Jesus). And bam! the explosions come. He starts comparing the Sto. Niño to G.I. Joe: Sto. Niño wears a helmet and holds a grenade in his hand. From here on, we get explosion after explosion. The audience has recognized something -- themselves. Which brings us to the secret of Rex Navarrete's success: He digs into his Filipino roots and his culture's idiosyncrasies.
Although raised in the U.S. most of his life -- his grandparents took care of him in the Philippines until he reunited with his parents at age 2 -- Navarrete was always in touch with his homeland. Growing up in the Bay Area, he listened to albums by Tito, Vic & Joey, the Philippines' popular comic trio. Whenever he visited the Philippines in the '80s, he would watch TV shows like Champoy, a comedy revue. Then there were the movies of Dolphy and Panchito, plus other famous Filipino comedians.
Navarrete added American influences on top of his foundation of Filipino humor. His comedic idols included Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Lenny Bruce, and Eddie Murphy, just to name a few. By the time he was in college at San Francisco State University, he was so into comedy that one of his professors took notice of his talent and encouraged him to pursue it professionally.
Navarrete can be seen twice a month on a TV segment called "Rex Files: Pinoy Undercover" on The Filipino Channel's (TFC) Stateside program. "It's a man-on-the-street kind of thing, goofy stuff explaining Pinoy phenomenons," explains Navarrete. Initial shows have been as diverse as "The Filipinos' Undying Love for Star Wars" and "Philippine Independence." In Manila, he shot two episodes: "Places to Go in Manila" and "Types of Street Food You Buy." He's also developing a DVD of his works to complement his three currently available CDs, Badly Browned, Husky Boy, and Bastos (which means "vulgar").