(Photo supplied)

Tofiga Fepulea‘i says he was born to make people laugh, and it’s hard to disagree. He doesn’t even need to open his mouth to be funny — though his vein of comedy gold is a distinctly Sāmoan-Pacific style of humour.

Tofiga’s been making people laugh since he was a youngster at church, and then more seriously, for a while, as one half of the Laughing Sāmoans, with Ete Eteuati, before going out on his own.

Here’s Dale finding out more about the Wellington-born Sāmoan stand-up comedian, before his one-night show in Auckland on April 6.

 

Talofa, Tofiga. I often start these interviews by talking about villages, because that’s the Pasifika way. It pays homage to our forebears and our connections. Names can be quite revealing as well. So could you tell us your full name and describe your growing up?

Yeah, sure. My first name’s Tofiga, which is the name of my grandmother, my dad’s mum. I think my parents must’ve decided they were going to have only one child, and that child was to have my grandma’s name.

I have two matai titles from two of my mum’s villages. Tau‘ili‘ili from Papa Sataua, and Faletanoa‘i from the village of Falealupo. Both villages are in Savai‘i.

When you were bestowed those matai titles, how did that sit with you?

It’s really humbling. The first title I got was back in 1998, when I was in my early 20s. I really didn’t understand what it meant. I just thought that all of a sudden I’d have to stop hanging out with the boys and just hang out with the old fellas and learn their ways.

But I was really grateful, because it was my family who approached my mum to give me a title. At the time, we were in Sāmoa for my grandmother’s funeral (my mum’s mum) and my mum thought it would be a nice way to celebrate her mum for her son to be bestowed a matai title.

Then, last year, I was given the Tau‘Ili’ili title from Papa Sataua, which is the village in Savai‘i that my mum was mostly raised in. That was really emotional because it was something my mum had always wanted, but she’d already passed away.

So, going there, to Papa Sataua, and doing something that my mum always wanted, finally I was able to understand what it means to be a chief in the family — which is to be a servant for our family and try to do what’s right for our family.

And it meant a lot to me to be able to go there and receive it this time around with my wife, Bessie, there.

You and your sweetheart have been together for a while, āe?

Yeah, we met when we were in high school. I was only 15 at the time. But we knew of each other for a long time before that, at church and family gatherings. It really helps with our relationship that we were friends beforehand.

So who won Lotto, you or her?

Oh, nah, her! Everyone else missed out on the jackpot. She was the lucky one.

Growing up, did you always speak Sāmoan at home?

Yeah, that was one of the golden rules at home. By the time I went to primary school, I could hardly speak English, because all I knew was Sāmoan. The only people I knew were Sāmoan. Church was in Sāmoan. When I went to school, I was like some fresh kid straight off the boat.

But my English got better when I started making friends. Māori friends, Pākehā friends, Asian friends. But some friends I kept closer, depending on what they brought for lunch each day.

I know you went to Rongotai College in Wellington, but I’m assuming that you were also part of a churchgoing whānau. And so, singing, performing, using your beautiful voice, was not unfamiliar to you. Did you gain some confidence from your place of spirituality for the mahi that you’ve been doing over the years in front of people?

Yeah, the whole foundation of everything, really, is from the church.

One of the things that gave me confidence was knowing my identity as a Sāmoan. I was raised by a mum and dad who knew nothing but Sāmoan. In the midst of that, I was growing up in a church where it was all about the culture, about language, singing and all that. I didn’t go to drama school. My drama school was doing White Sunday, speaking in the church, doing the youth plays and Christmas plays.

And being encouraged as a young kid to perform — this is where I started to realise: “Oh, yeah, I really like this. I like the sound of laughter. I wanna see how I can produce more of that laughter.”

Knowing your identity plays a massive role as you grow up as a young person, especially as a Sāmoan born in Aotearoa. It’s being able to stand my ground, because when I go to Sāmoa, they call me a Pālagi because I was born here. They’re joking, but it can hurt a bit.

So, for me, it was like, well, I’m gonna make sure I can understand my language so I can speak to them in my language — and understand my culture and customs so they can see that I know the ways of being Sāmoan.

It helps to know how to play the Pālagi game as well, so that, if I need to switch it out, then I can — but always knowing that I stand firm with my Sāmoan identity.

A lot of Sāmoan people are doing very well, but just like in te ao Māori, we’ve got many of our whānau who are literally battling from day to day, and we have great aroha for them. But Sāmoan and Pacific Island people love to laugh, āe? You must have felt that power of laughter to spread joy. How did that play out in in your career path, being able to tap into this vein of humour, and spreading joy through laughter?

One of the blessings of being part of the church is that I learned at a young age that I really enjoyed making people smile and laugh. But it wasn’t until later, when I did my first show, that I realised that this was my purpose in life. When I heard that first crack of laughter, it felt like time had frozen.

It was like: “Man, this is what I was called to do.” For me, it isn’t just about getting paid and looking after my family. This is my ministry. This is what I was born to do.

Laughter has been huge in our family, and in Sāmoan culture generally. People come to a Sāmoan funeral, and they’ll be like: “Is this a funeral or is it a comedy show?” When you’re cooking, you’re laughing. When you’re eating, you’re laughing. It’s one of those things that we do for free. It’s very therapeutic.

If there’s one thing that we’re really good at, it’s laughing at ourselves, and it helps us deal with certain things. You can laugh for a while and forget that you’re hungry, little things like that.

Laughter is like a medicine. I like to think that I’m like a doctor. I always look forward to getting on stage to share some of that medicine with people. So that, hopefully, for an hour or so, they can just forget about all the tough times, or whatever they’re thinking of that’s heavy on them, and just release it and have a laugh.

Pasifika people not only laugh loud. We dress loud, we sing loud, we talk loud, the whole lot. It’s part of who we are as people.

There’s an interesting rhythm in stand-up comedy that I wonder if you might just touch on for a minute. Trying to come up with an idea every 20 or 30 seconds to maintain laughter is a real skill. I guess it comes off your pen, but by the time we see you perform, it looks like it’s coming out of your head without prompting. But I guess it’s taken a lot of practice to get that routine together.

That’s a really good question. You know, there are some real intellects and people who know how to write material and what goes here and there. For me, I just write down what I think is funny. The whole thing of having a good grasp of my identity as a Sāmoan is that I have to trust myself that it’s funny. So I just write it down and I don’t rehearse. I don’t go to clubs and try my material there.

When we have our Sunday to‘ona‘i, our Sunday feed with my family, I’ll throw out a few lines at the table, and if they laugh, I think: “Okay, I’ll keep that one.” And then my first dress rehearsal is actually the opening of the show. I get nervous for that because I’m like: “Oh, man, I hope they’re funny.”

But, in terms of how you write comedy, I really don’t have an understanding of that. I just write down what I know. I never try and talk about Black American life or anything over in Europe, because all I understand is what it’s like growing up as a Kiwi, as a Sāmoan, and whatever I think is funny in my perspective as a Sāmoan.

Well, it’s been working, it’s been working. Changing tack for a moment, what about sport? Weren’t you supposed to be an All Black?

That was many years ago, before it became a professional sport. So there was no real way to pursue a career in rugby. But then a couple of years later, they went professional, and I was like: “Oh, maybe I should have stuck with it.” But, really, I would rather be doing what I’m doing now.

What did your teachers at Rongotai College make of you and your future career trajectory?

I was always the clown in class, and when I was made a prefect in the seventh form, I was like: “You sure you’ve got the right person for this?”

I felt I was a good student in that I was never mean to anyone. But I wasn’t a good student in terms of being quiet in class. I was always either singing, rapping, or starting off the chants at school meets and stuff like that.

The vibe of our class was always about fellowship with the brothers — the brotherhood. Now, when I go back, and I often go back now that my second son is at school, the teachers often say: “Well, we always knew that you were going to be an entertainer or a comedian.”

Who can you describe as your mentors or influences? Not just with your career, but with life?

My mum and dad are definitely two key people. But being an only child, it was like I had heaps of mums and dads. And now that Mum and Dad have passed away, I’ve got aunties and uncles who are looking out for me.

So, for me, it’s my family who are my biggest inspirations. With comedy, there are other people that I looked up to and I enjoyed listening to, like the late Bernie Mac, Bill Cosby, the late Billy T James. There was another Sāmoan comedian, Petelo. I loved their stuff, and I was fortunate enough to be growing up around the late 1970s and ’80s with those TV programmes and comedy shows back then. They were hilarious. You had Different Strokes, you had Mind Your Language, you had The Billy T James Show, even Benny Hill. My uncle would make me stay up and watch Benny Hill. Can you believe it?

My church family also played a massive part. I’m really thankful to have had those people pray for me, look out for me and my kids and my wife, and always be supporting me. So everywhere I go, no matter what I do, whether I stand before an audience of five or five thousand, I always know that I’m standing with my whole village. With everyone.

We see you as this bright, cheerful, talented and funny guy. But do you have down times where you’re a little bit more withdrawn, circumspect, or have you been able to avoid that?

I’m a real introvert. What you see on stage is definitely not me all the time. And my family know that, too. If we have a family get-together, I’ll be the one in the corner sitting and relaxing while everyone else is being the life of the party.

It’s really important for me, because it takes a lot of energy to perform. When I’m with my family, I’m just intimate with my family. They know the real me. They know I like peace and quiet. I don’t like to be in front of a whole bunch of people all the time. And they know that I just love to chill, whether I’m jamming on the keyboard with my son, or we’re just singing songs or watching movies.

I think it’s always important to know when it’s time to turn the switch on and when it’s time to turn it off, so that you can rejuvenate and not run out of gas before you need to go back out again.

Your mahi has taken you out to all corners of New Zealand, even around the world. I wonder if you might tell us about other work along the way. What’s the worst job you’ve done?

When I finished school, I didn’t know what I was going to do. I started to dabble in a whole bunch of stuff. One of the worst ones was being a sales rep, and we would have to go knocking on doors. And my first gig was trying to sell umbrellas, and it was a sunny day. Another one was trying to sell movie tickets to people on a street that was so steep. I quit after the second house. I thought: “Stuff this, man!”

We had to dress up in suits and be respectful and everything, but, you know, that was commission-based. So there was no way I was gonna make much money trying to sell umbrellas on a sunny day and then movie tickets up a street that I could barely walk up.

What about your on-stage work? Describe a time on stage where you just felt it all really worked together. You know, one of the most enjoyable memories you have of your mahi.

That’s hard. I enjoy it so much. Every time I go out on stage, it’s a joy. I filmed my first feature film, Take Home Pay, and that was a great experience. So I did the stage thing, started doing movies, and then started doing stuff on TV.

I’ve got some more filming to do for a TV game show. I’ve never done a TV game show before. So, yeah, it’s continuous. I’m just grateful for the opportunities that come my way, especially when it’s collaborations with other people. It’s nice to be able to share those moments with others, being able to create laughter and to share it.

I was pleasantly surprised recently to find the Laughing Sāmoans on Whakaata Māori (Māori Television). Over the years our people have been a little bit at odds with each other. I think we’re starting to accept our close genetic and linguistic ties that link us as Polynesian people. What about this ability for comedy to cut through culture and unify?

I’ll tell you now, hand on heart, I think Māori are my biggest fans. When I go to the smaller cities in New Zealand, the audience is majority Māori, and when I go to Aussie, there’s always Māori at the shows. I think Māori TV has played a huge part in that.

To see the massive following by our Māori family has been really humbling. And if you see some of the older Laughing Sāmoan stuff, I add a bit of Māori in there because sometimes I joke around and say, you know, I’m Māori because I was born here in Aotearoa, and using a bit of te reo in there. I think, well, if my good Māori friends can laugh at it, then I’m sure other Māori will laugh at it, too — and hopefully they’ll understand that it comes from a place of love and unity.

I used to marvel at stand-up comedy because really all you’ve got is a microphone. You don’t have to carry your drum kit or plug in your amp. It’s just you, the audience and a microphone. It does seem quite intimidating for anyone who hasn’t tried it, being on stage for an hour, just you and a microphone.

It’s one of those things that, if you really want it, you’ve just got to give it a go. And if it doesn’t work out the way you want, you have to have thick skin and give it another go. Because, like all things, you can’t just do it one time and have it end up the way that you see other people do it on TV who’ve been doing it for years.

So, if you believe that you’re funny, and people are telling you you’re funny, then give it a shot. And surround yourself with good people who are able to support you and genuinely tell you: “This is what you need to work on.” If you’re passionate about something and you believe it, then you’ve gotta give it a go.

You’ve long had a focus on youth work and rangatahi issues. I noticed how lovingly you reference your three boys wanting to be a good dad and a good mentor for them. What about rangatahi and your commitment to developing skills, whether it’s in comedy, whether it’s in confidence? What do you see as your role now when it comes to our Māori and Pacific youth?

Whether you’re a celebrity or not, I think we all are role models for our next generation. Some people think that they have to be a certain way for young ones, but, for me, it’s just wanting to be a good person, wanting to be a good dad, and hopefully all that stuff will have a ripple effect with other people around me.

In the last four or five years, we’ve taken in kids to stay with us, from PNG, Fiji, Tonga. They live with us for schooling. It makes us richer as a family, and it’s good for our kids to see the way that we love our people, and for our kids to know, man, you don’t need heaps of money to be able to make a difference.

What are you hoping to do going forward? You’ve just done a movie and you’re still doing stand-up. What else is ahead for you, do you think?

I will definitely continue doing stand-up. My kids are at an age where they really need their dad, especially my youngest two. My oldest boy, Semurana (18), is now living in Brisbane, but our younger two — Mesepa (14) and Tautiaga (13) — are here at college. I just wanna be there as much as I can. So I’m always gonna continue doing stand-up and working around their schedules.

And just try and collaborate with whoever, wherever there’s an opportunity to be able to go and share my story and share a bit of laughter. Always making the most of whatever opportunity I get to be able to share the gift that God has given me.

At the end of every interview, I always leave a little bit of room to ask about what else you do, because we all need to strengthen ourselves for the roles that we have in life. What are some of the things you do to keep yourself fresh and enthused about life?

Well, I enjoy being a part of my kids’ school parents association. I love staying connected to my community. I love being around and, I guess, being visible for my kids to see: “Hey, Mum and Dad want us to do well in school because they’re here for this. They’re supporting us with this and that.”

In my downtime, I love playing the piano and the organ at church. Whatever time I can get with my family, that’s the ultimate for me. That’s one of the main reasons why it wasn’t a hard decision to stop doing Laughing Sāmoans, because we were away like 40 weekends a year. My kids were young, and I decided I wanted my kids to know me as a father, not as the guy that does the shows on TV and on stage.

Money comes, money goes, you know, but my time with my family is the most important.  

 

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Tofiga’s new show “I Love You Full Speed No Brakes” will be showing at the Kiri Te Kanawa Theatre in Aotea Centre, Auckland, on April 6. He’ll be accompanied by fellow Sāmoan comedians James Nokise and Bubbah.

© E-Tangata, 2024

Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and not-for-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going.

If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider making a one-off donation or contributing $5 or $10 a month.