The Artist

Carla Montemayor

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Give Dolphy the National Artist award while he’s still here. He made several generations of Pinoys laugh — there’s no question about the man’s talent.

The first time I saw Dolphy was in Sine Siete, that catalogue of old Tagalog films screened after Student Canteen and before the 700 Club. He was already famous then (mid-1970s) but since my parents rarely took us to the cinema, I only knew him as the lovable, playful sidekick in movies like Maalaala Mo Kaya (the original film, not the TV series), Sa Isang Sulyap Mo Tita and Dalagang Ilocana.

I was tickled by Dolphy’s antics but mainly, the 6-year-old dance nut in me thought, wow, that man can boogie! Watch him slay the lindy hop here, one of his few dance clips available online. Find me a comedian who can do that today and I’ll join the fan club.

Then came John en Marsha, probably the last television show we watched together as a family. Every week for many years, we sat together and watched the misadventures of poor, put-upon John Puruntong, with his shorts made out of curtain fabric, a frying pan for a pillow and a toilet behind a cabinet.

Okay, the show could be drawn out at times, with old chestnuts for punchlines.

We knew how each episode would end: “Kaya ikaw, John, magsumikap ka!” And yet we watched it week after week and it made us laugh. Perhaps because it was about a struggling family with a funny and gentle father, just like ours. No American sitcom would ever capture that: the poverty, the love, the humor and the make-do spirit of the Puruntongs.

Beyond John en Marsha, we had our own television routines. My father followed The Streets of San Francisco, Combat, the news and every single PBA match during basketball season. My mother favored American shows like The Carol Burnett Show and Three’s Company. We kids watched the usual stuff (Sesame Street and Voltes V), and pretty much everything that aired after we’d done our homework and before our 9 pm bedtime. Hey, we were desperate! There were just four channels and game consoles had not yet been invented, nor the remote control. We had to reach a consensus on the programming mix everyday or no one would be able to watch anything in peace.

So it was Guni-guni, something with Ike Lozada in it, Batman and Robin, Hawaii Five-O, Charlie’s Angels. The last would always lead to quarrels over who got to be which “angel” during the re-enactments that followed, with my (only) brother complaining about being cast as Jill (Farah Fawcett). Well, there were only three of us; someone had to wear a towel on his head to play the blonde.

The older we grew, the more our tastes and preoccupations diverged, and the less time we spent with each other. My sister and I developed an unhealthy interest in Flordeluna, which dismayed my mother, who detested soap operas and loved Broadway musicals (yes, my mother was gayer than your hairdresser). My brother quit the Charlie’s Angels revue to pursue more manly stuff—our parents bought him boxing gloves, mostly to fend off his two sisters. I started finding old stuff corny and finding Erik Estrada (C.H.i.P.S.) sexy. One day my father brought home a Betamax, which changed our entertainment habits for good.

Now and again, however, John en Marsha moments would crop up in our daily lives to remind us of the times when we all giggled together. Like when I tried to wheedle cash out of my father, the wry retort would be “Magwalis-walis ka dyan.” (Referencing Doña Delilah, John Puruntong’s impossibly wealthy mother-in-law, whose money lay scattered on the floor of her house). Or that time when we had many relatives staying at our house and he suggested that I sleep on top of the fridge (like John did when contestants from the Miss Dabiana competition swamped their shack). Ano ako, pusa?

Dolphy’s concerns

Around 10 years ago, I got to interview Mang Dolphy for a corporate magazine. I was so nervous and excited, I thought I’d pass out.

All my anxieties evaporated once Mang Dolphy started speaking. Here was a huge star who took time to reflect on his responses, never giving any throwaway answers even if it was “just” a promotional interview. He was so gracious, and displayed such a sprawling intelligence, we ended up talking for about an hour.

Did he want to be anything else other than an entertainer? Oh, yes, he replied, he wanted to be a sailor. That, he said, was the only opportunity for a young man of his background to make decent money and see the world.

But then he learned how to dance, jamming on pavements with his friends, all of them poor and self-taught. From then on, showbiz was the only thing that made sense to him. And like dancing, comedy was all about timing and thinking on one’s feet—literally. “Pag nagkamali ka, bawi agad. Ganyan din sa pagsasayaw.”

He discussed his humor, how he picked themes and where he drew lines (no political jokes, no sexual jokes, no making fun of disabled people). He was concerned about the coarsening of Philippine television comedy and had prescient comments about a now-notorious noontime show host. “You can’t be crude when children are watching—especially if you’re famous.”

Most of our chat did not make it into the article but I kept the tapes. It was one of the most interesting conversations I’ve ever had with anyone.

I’m delighted that there are brilliant young Pinoy comedians today such as Michael V and Eugene Domingo, and that there is an explosion of clever, hilarious indie comedies. But that wondrous era of genteel thespians and graceful comedians is gone forever. As is the leafy, peaceful Manila in those LVN pictures, as are my parents.

Give Dolphy the National Artist award while he’s still here. He made several generations of Pinoys laugh—there’s no question about the man’s talent. –

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