MANILA, Philippines — I loved to listen to him most in the middle of winter.
When it was cold and dark out, and I felt homesick and alone in my college dorm room in the US, I’d put my earplugs on and search for “Maritess vs. the Superfriends” on my iPod, the story of a Filipina domestic helper working for superheroes. By the end of the skit, I always felt better. Because I felt closer to home.
Rex Navarrete helped me get through college through his Filipino-based jokes. So when I was asked to interview him, I jumped at the opportunity.
I ran to tell my 14-year-old brother, who I found watching Rex on YouTube a few days earlier, the news.
My brother’s excitement led me to wonder, how was it, that people of all ages enjoyed his material? That my father, my teenage brother and I could all laugh at his jokes? What was it that made him so relatable?
The answer is evident once you meet the premier Filipino-American comedian in person.
Rex Navarrete is a walking contradiction.
In person, he is simple and introverted, unassuming and extremely easygoing. A complete opposite from his loud, boisterous and critical on-stage persona.
He is decked in brown. A brown shirt, with a matching brown baseball cap, and on his feet, regular, brown tsinelas. A smile is plastered on his face. Immediately, I feel the same comfort I sought from him during my university days.
When Rex was a child, he was not funny. He describes himself as having been a geek, a comic book and sci-fi nerd. “I was a more serious kid than I remember,” he says. It wasn’t until he was in college that someone, his professor, found him incredibly hilarious – hilarious enough to encourage Rex to bring his jokes on stage and try performing.
Only when he signed up for a talent showcase at an Asian Pacific Islander student conference did Rex realize his passion for the comedic profession. He was 19.
Since then, there was no stopping him. Rex continued to perform on the side while he worked day jobs to pay for the bills. “I was a cook, then I started working in non profit work, working with kids and then later in the health field in an outpatient clinic for drug and alcohol-related clients,” he shares. Finally, in 2002, he decided to be a stand-up comedian full-time.
With a laugh, he explains that his mother is concerned about what his fallback is and how he is going to take care of her. “I still get resistance [from my parents] after 22 years of doing this,” he muses.
This, despite the laughter he brings to hundreds of people every day whether through their headphones or through their computer screens, DVDs or in jam-packed live venues all over the world. His audience is mostly Filipino, just the way he likes it.
“Have you ever thought of changing your material to cater to a larger, non-Filipino audience?” I ask.
For the first time, I see him frown. “The longevity of success is to always stay true to yourself and true to your source,” he explains. “I think I’m going to lose a major portion of my fan base because I stopped being Filipino. This is how I began and it’s been going good.” He does however, love performing for college students, a crowd that he describes as “fresh, open-minded, smart, and still emotional.”
“They’re giving…you impress them, they’ll come to your gigs afterwards when they graduate,” he explains.
“It’s really where I started, just doing colleges, now they’re my regular clientele in my theater shows and my club shows.”
It is evident that he loves what he does. He considers being on stage and helping people get through their problems “a gift,” something he’d willingly do until he is 80 and “croaking on stage.”
“I’ll just keel over during a standing ovation… it’ll be great. Just go out like that,” he says with a smile.
I ask him what career he’d be pursuing if he wasn’t doing this.
“Modeling,” he says.
The performing arts theater at Resorts World is sold out. Every ticket has been purchased, every seat is filled. Everyone has come to see the one and only Rex Navarrete.
“I’m nervous, I’m still nervous,” he tells me. “If you stop getting nervous you’re lying or you’re full of yourself. Getting on stage for an hour or an hour-and-a-half is always a feat.”
He has no need to worry.
I stand backstage and watch Rex from the sidelines, a perfect view of the crowd that is laughing heartily, hanging on to his every word. Rex’s timing is impeccable.
He pokes fun at his zealously religious mother, Philippine colonial influences and his father’s pambahay clothes. He speculates the origins of the word utot, imitates his parents’ thick Filipino accent, and narrates what it is like to grow up Filipino in America. The crowd eats it up. All of it.
Especially his Manny Pacquiao jokes. The audience is practically on the floor laughing by the time he ends, in tears at his impersonations of the champion boxer, Freddie Roach, and Ricky Hatton. They adore him.
I cannot help but notice that his material has somewhat changed, and onstage, he has become more subtle, effortless.
“I’m just happy to slow down a little more with the material, I don’t have to be so obviously goofy,” he says of his evolution since his first comedy CD. “I’m allowing the characters to take their time with just building themselves up and becoming a lot more three dimensional.”
He acknowledges a shift from his older skits like the “SBC Packers” and “Maritess vs. the Superfriends,” which are more fantasy-based. “Nowadays I’m trying to explore a little more commentary, my own voice.”
Not every show of course, that has this much energy, is this successful. There have been shows in the past when the crowd was not as responsive. When that happens, “I just keep going,” he says. “Every show is always a learning experience… I’d rather have a bad night doing what I love than have a great time behind a desk.”
We play a quick round of favorites, where he must tell me the first answer that comes to mind.
Comedian? “George Carlin.”
He is thinking. Quite a while. He looks torn. “Aside from Maritess?” he asks. I nod. “Oh man,” he sucks his breath. “Oooh that’s tough.”
Finally, reluctantly, “Maybe Spiderman? ’Coz he’s a normal kid from Brooklyn.” He pauses to correct himself.
“No Queens, he’s from Queens… and somehow things happen.”
This, I think, is why it’s easy for Rex to connect. He is real. He is natural. He tells it as it is. And his sincerity emanates from the stage.
He unintentionally gives the same advice to young, aspiring, Filipino comedians.
“Keep it honest, keep it sincere, work hard, don’t steal,” he says. “Expose yourself to everything else other than comedy because comedy is influenced by everything else.”
“We (Filipinos) have a strong tradition of comedy. It’s in our bones, it’s in our blood, it’s in our genetics to be well-humored people,” he says. “We should always embrace the arts, keep the day job but have a side of us that embrace expression.”
I see Rex backstage after his show. He is out of breath but he is beaming. He asks me what I thought of the show but I know he knows the answer to that. The energy in the theater was palpable after all.
He has done very, very well.
Follow the reporter on Twitter: @natashya_g