Here Comes Tumua!
Hot on the heels of three sold-out shows at the Blaisdell, Tumua Tuinei remains a rising star in local comedy with aspirations to tackle more milestones in the new year.
What happens when a University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa football player enrolls in a stand-up comedy class for an “easy A”? For one, dozens of his big-bodied teammates dominate the front row of a local comedy club — that’s what.
It was just five years ago when Tumua Tuinei was seen sweating under the bright lights of Anna O’Brien’s stage. His 10-minute act could’ve gone one of two ways: a smash or flop. Lucky for him, it was a total touchdown as he not only saved himself from relentless ridicule at the hands of his beefy peers, but also set the trajectory of a fruitful career in the comedy industry.
“One of the promoters saw me there and they kept inviting me back and inviting me back — and I haven’t stopped since,” says Tuinei.
Doing stand-up started off as just a hobby for Tuinei, something he did in the very little free time he had as a Rainbow Warrior and full-time college student.
“We would start at 6 in the morning for practice, have workouts after that and meetings and school and meetings again,” he explains. “We would finish the day around 7:30 p.m. Then, I would go to Anna O’Brien’s right after that and finish around 10 or 11, go to sleep and go again.”
Tuinei went on to graduate with a degree in communicology and a minor in theater from UH. When it came to his post-college plans, the Punahou School grad relinquished his lifelong dream of playing in the NFL like his 6-foot-4 dad, Tom, a former Warrior who suited up for the Detroit Lions as well as the CFL’s Edmonton Eskimos, and 6-foot-5 uncle, Mark, an All-Pro offensive tackle with the Dallas Cowboys.
“I just never get their height,” says the 5-foot-9 funny guy, laughing.
So, really, the world was his oyster, and it was then that he decided comedy was his pearl.
While working at Hawai‘i Stevedores during the day, Tuinei could be found at a number of comedy clubs at night. His stage time started at just 10 minutes, then 20, and, before he knew it, he was headlining shows for a full hour.
“Three hundred people showed up,” he recalls of his first headliner. “At that time, that was the biggest show for me and that’s when I realized that I really want to do this.
“In the beginning of a big show, similar to a big game, you’re very nervous and you’re jittery until you make that first hit or that first tackle, then the jitters go away. It’s the same with comedy. As soon as I make that first joke and hear that first laugh, then it kind of eases the nerves and I ride the waves of laughs from there.”
It wasn’t until the spring of 2020 when everyone was hunkering down at home and glued to their phones when Tuinei’s career skyrocketed after he posted a video to his Instagram.
“I was never a social media guy,” he says. “The reason why I didn’t want to do that was because I was trying to say I was a ‘real comedian’ and I didn’t want to do those ‘silly videos.’ But when the pandemic hit, the clubs closed down … and I thought, ‘What am I going to do? Am I going to just sit back and do nothing?’ So, I decided to put that toilet paper video out — it was a hot topic at the time — and it ended up on the news and we went viral. I was like, ‘OK, this is what the local people want.’
“So, I kept doing videos of these stereotypical workers and videos from a local boy perspective and it kept blowing up and my followers kept growing and growing.”
When restrictions eased, Tuinei announced he was doing a show at Blue Note Hawai‘i. Within an hour, it sold out. Then, he posted another one and another one. Fast-forward a short year and some months later, and Tuinei sold out three nights at Blaisdell Concert Hall, a feat on the same level as big shot comedians like Jo Koy and Gabriel Iglesias (who were, in fact, scheduled to perform at the same venue in November and January, respectively).
“It’s crazy, it’s surreal,” Tuinei says with an air of always-present humbleness. “I remember the first show, right after I finished, I was telling (my manager) Greg that it just felt like any other comedy show. It didn’t really hit me until the week after that I just did that.”
For Tuinei, there isn’t really a disparity between talking in front of 12 people, like he did only a few years ago, to 2,100 each night at one of Hawai‘i’s biggest venues. Perhaps the only difference is that the laughs just keep getting louder.
“It’s the same comedy, the same style of jokes and I’m the same person no matter the show,” he says.
“I wouldn’t have done it without my fans,” he adds. “I feel like Hawai‘i is such a strong place; it’s different from any other place in the world. We have a strong community and a big fan base and whenever they see a local boy succeed, they want to support it.”
Growing up, Tuinei, who currently resides in Mā‘ili, lived all over O‘ahu from Kāne‘ohe to ‘Ewa Beach. When asked what side of the island he reps most, the 25-year-old is quick to say “it depends who’s asking” with a cheeky grin.
“If I need to show off and be big-bodied, I’ll say, ‘Oh, I’m from the Westside,” he adds with a laugh.
He describes himself as silly, committed and caring as a child, characteristics not unlike those he embodies today.
“I was into magic a lot,” Tuinei shares. “I was interested in performing in front of people and I liked that feeling of amazing people, which now turns into making people laugh. That was in me from when I was a small kid. I also always wanted to be an actor and I realized there are so many actors in the world and everyone’s trying to make it and I figured out that the quickest way to become a well-known actor is through comedy.”
He’s already scored a speaking part on NCIS Hawai‘i after a producer came across his work and asked him to portray a nīele paparazzi on screen. Next, Tuinei hopes to take on a bigger role and says he doesn’t restrict himself to just the funny stuff.
“My mom always tells me I have to get a job with medical and I tell her, ‘Don’t worry! This is the plan. It’s going to work out.’ And, now, she’s starting to realize this is my career. Same with my dad, too … he sees my passion for comedy and that it’s my dream and he supports it. They both do — they’re my biggest supporters.”
In fact, his parents have starred in several of his skits, helped out behind the scenes and are the focal point of some of his jokes on stage.
“I have this thing about being a lot smaller than my dad and uncle because that really did hurt me growing up and was part of the reason why I didn’t get any scholarships, just because I’m a smaller guy,” he explains. “But talking about some hardships I went through and putting a spin on it and shedding light on it is what comedy is all about — it’s about pain and making people laugh at your pain. Also, (I talk about) the crazy stuff we deal with in Hawai‘i … this is like a gold mine for comedians right now, the jokes just write themselves.”
As his top influences, Tuinei lists Hawai‘i greats like Andy Bumatai, Augie T, Frank De Lima and Rap Reiplinger, saying they “paved the way for younger comics like me.”
“I don’t know when or why, but local comedy died down a little bit and it’s just different. We would have other comedians come here and they would be cursing and talking about taboo subjects, but we never really had that old-fashioned, local comedy where you can come up and make fun of Portuguese, Samoans, Hawaiians and all that, and just have good fun and an interactive show. That’s why I called my tour ‘Bringing Back Local Comedy.’
“If you ever come to one of my shows, you’ll see kids in the audience and you’ll see grandmas in the audience. It’s a whole wide range of people there, which is great because I want people to feel like they can bring the whole family to Tumua’s show for a good time.”
Coming up next month, Tuinei has a show on Maui and hopes to lock down dates for Kaua‘i and the Big Island, too. (Follow him on Instagram, @tumua_, for updates.) Later this year, he’s planning to bring local comedy to the mainland with an extensive list of tour dates expected for cities west of the Rocky Mountains.
At the end of it all, though, the question still remains: What happens when a University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa football player enrolls in a stand-up comedy class for an “easy A”?
Well, we’re about to find out.