Tofiga Fepulea’i is back on stage with some comedic relief in a truly dismal year.
Tofiga Fepulea’i cracks up as we discuss some of the trends he’s clicked onto.
First, there’s the fitness buzz. Anyone who follows the Laughing Sāmoans comedian online will have seen the videos he posts of he and wife Bessie after their F45 sessions. When I reveal I’d tried it once and vowed to never return, Tofiga enthusiastically offers an “it’s actually awesome”.
“We drop the kids off, then go and come home and just die. I scream and shout and let the life out of me come out.”
There’s more laughter, followed by a firm commitment from me to continue avoiding F45 before we chat about his TikTok game. The proud father of three has an account with at least 30 videos. Surprisingly, most of them don’t feature him.
“If you go into my TikTok account, it’s my middle son, he’s the one that started it up,” Tofiga says. “There’s probably like 30 or 40 videos on there and it’s just him. People are saying: ‘Why have you got Tofiga’s account?’
“I’m going to jump on there probably this week or next,” he says.
By then, it’ll be well into the start of Tofiga’s North Island “Sorry Bout It” tour. Seven stand-up shows over two weeks, beginning with New Plymouth earlier this week. Fellow New Zealand Sāmoan comedian James Nokise will also be performing as the opening act.
Tofiga’s legions of followers, both here and overseas, will be delighted to have him back on stage. After nearly 20 years of performing, both as one-half of the Laughing Sāmoans and in his own solo shows, Tofiga has amassed a huge fanbase – particularly among Pacific communities. His unique brand of humour cuts to the heart of life as a Sāmoan New Zealander, blending his own experiences with a selection of well-known colourful characters like the sharp-tongued “Aunty Tala”. Last year, he also made his feature film debut in Take Home Pay.
Prior to the recent Covid outbreak, Tofiga squeezed in two sold-out shows in Palmerston North. More shows were planned, but were rescheduled to this month due to health restrictions. Comments from the crowd show it was good vibes all round. “So funny, heaps of fun and real relatable,” one audience member said. Another woman said she felt like she was “going to lose my voice from laughing”.
“There’s a bit of old stuff that hasn’t really been performed that I thought would be funny to bring out. It’s mostly around me and being a Sāmoan in New Zealand, my upbringing in old-school Sāmoan and also now transitioning into fatherhood and my three sons. The stuff with my three sons was all sort of during the Covid [level four] time,” he says.
The boys, aged 14, 10 and nine, also had two friends staying during that time, Tofiga says.
“My boys go to boarding school. Two of their friends are from Fiji and Papua New Guinea. They couldn’t really go back home during lockdown, so they stayed with us. That means we had five boys at home, three of them teenagers.”
Special food deliveries from family members always went down well, Tofiga says. That time at home, and ongoing disruptions from Covid-19, also led to a new focus.
“I want to see how to get more involved with performing arts schools, especially around Wellington,” Tofiga says. “When I was a kid wanting to do performing arts and comedy, it wasn’t really a career that many of our people were doing. The only brown face growing up was Billy T James, and the next one was probably April Ieremia – doing the news and sports.”
While working with young people, particularly Pasifika, has always been important to him (Tofiga was a youth worker for 12 years), he believes it’s the right time to really look at encouraging future generations into performing arts.
“Mum and Dad wanted me to become either a church minister, a lawyer or doctor,” he says. “It wasn’t a common thing back then, but now you can turn on the TV and see a lot of our young people involved in performing arts. Parris Goebel’s one example of that.
“I just want to encourage them to follow their dreams and if they’re passionate about it, they’re always right.”
Working with budding Pasifika performers will also sit nicely alongside programmes his company 3 Sons has in its Wellington community. During the school holidays, the team run their o a’u lea (this is me) wellbeing and mentoring holiday programme for Pasifika teenage boys. Held in partnership with the Ministry of Education, the holiday programme tackles themes of identity, language, culture, mental health and relationships for young Pasifika men. This year, the ongoing impact of Covid is also part of the discussion.
Tofiga believes the involvement of local role models like himself, and former All Black Ma’a Nonu, is essential in connecting with the programme’s young participants. His famous sense of humour also comes in handy, he adds with a few laughs.
“They love the laughter. I think that’s something for us Pacific, especially Sāmoan – you know it’s just part of us. In order to get a serious message across, you got to laugh about it. So the humour comes in really handy.”
And like his comedy, his upbringing and strong family ties have significant influences in his work with o a’u lea.“Being an only child, I’ve always been raised by the extended family, so there are a lot of people who’ve had a massive impact in my life,” Tofiga says. “And I knowthere’s a lot of kids out there who benefit from a programme like it, especially with locals getting involved. Some of the kids are still in touch with the mentors we had at our last programme [in the previous school holidays].”
The programme, a few projects in the wings, and a return to live audiences should make for a good month, Tofiga says.
Dates, tickets and more info on Sorry Bout It shows at tofiga.nz.