Editor’s Note:“Coconut Wireless” is a new occasional series aimed at bridging gaps in what can sometimes feel like disparate and scattered neighborhoods across Oahu.
When they bought a long-established business at one of the busiest corners of Honolulu this year, aspiring funnymen Scott and David Jung found themselves manning the highest-visibility comedy platform in the islands.
With longtime friend, Nathan Oh, the two brothers took over ownership of a McCully/Moiliili equipment rental company well known for its decades of bawdy, funny and irreverent signs, often tied to hot topics in the news, on a reader board above the front door.
Tens of thousands of cars a month stream past Hawaiian Rent-All at the intersection of McCully and South Beretania, and for the past five decades, motorists have craned their necks to catch the latest play on words or double entendre above the front door. The sign is a throwback to old-school technology of a theater marquee with changeable letters.
“I go by their business every day and I get a little chuckle with their clever wordplay,” said urban planner Tim Streitz, who chairs the McCully/Moiliili Neighborhood Board. “They’re like the talk of the town for residents and people passing through. Everybody’s got a reference to that.”
You have likely seen some of the team’s recent puns and zingers. After Sen. Mazie Hirono told American men to “shut up and step up” in the wake of the sexual abuse allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, they riposted with this embellishment:
When Hawaii residents were still shaking off the fear instilled by the mistaken announcement in January that a nuclear attack was heading this way, they had this to say:
The Jung brothers and Oh took over the long-time company in the past year, buying control from the previous owners. The core business is renting equipment such as jackhammers, forklifts, party supplies and power tools.
The reader board is a unique advertising tool that allows the small store to compete against giant rental firms funded by mainland corporations.
“The big corporates can afford to be cookie-cutter, process-oriented; our advantage is we are more nimble, more responsive,” said David Jung.
The original owners of Hawaiian Rent-All were also two brothers, Gordon and Norman Loui, who started the company in 1964. The reader board went up in 1968.
Back in the 1960s, such signs were a common way for independent entrepreneurs to draw attention to their businesses. But cultural homogenization, corporate consolidation and zoning regulations that disdain idiosyncratic advertising displays have meant that fewer businesses are able to use their storefronts as fonts for self-expression.
But people in Hawaii really love to laugh, and the Hawaiian Rent-All sign has hung on through the years, becoming practically an institution on Oahu. Roberts tour bus drivers have been known to point out Hawaiian Rent-All to gawking tourists as a local landmark.
Nathan Oh, left, and Scott Jung with their mascot, Rentie, in front of the reader board on one of the rare occasions when it displayed a serious message honoring the late President George H. W. Bush.
Cory Lum/Civil Beat
When the Loui brothers retired, Paul Gibfried, the owner of a factory in Missouri who relocated to Hawaii, bought them out. Gibfried quickly realized that the company’s reader board was a form of branding that kept customers returning. The Jung brothers reached the same conclusion.
“We inherited it, so we have big shoes to fill,” Scott Jung said.
The Jung brothers have always liked joking around, but they never imagined that maintaining a successful comedy schtick would be instrumental to career success. David owns EcoCab, a Hawaii-based company that fields eco-friendly taxicabs but has been hit hard by the advent of Uber and Lyft; Scott wanted to change course from an earlier life as a stock trader in Asia; Nathan Oh is an entrepreneur who has investments in the neighbor islands.
There’s a fine art to comedy writing, they have learned. It’s harder than it looks. Getting the nuance wrong means getting on people’s nerves or worse, but overthinking it, over-massaging it, can drive the humor into the dust.
“If you read it over and over, you lose the essence,” Scott said.
Crafting the messages is a thrill but also carries responsibility, the Jung brothers say.
Scott, 54, says he is the funnier of the two and usually “gets the ball rolling” in coming up with new wording. David, 56, an attorney, agrees that Scott can be funny but reserves the right to shoot down his little brother’s ideas if he thinks they are running astray.
“For political correctness, I’m the gatekeeper,” David said. If David doesn’t catch a problem, however, Scott can blame him for it.
Oh, 36, is the final arbiter among the three. But once they think they have a winning effort, they still run it past their crew, all men, to get their opinions.
The business’s customers, most of whom are also men, like the fact that the slogans on the billboard have long skirted the edge of political incorrectness.
“We’re mostly male — they’re always OK with it — but we need to be careful,” Scott said.
In 2014, before the Jungs joined the leadership team, Hawaii got the wrong kind of national attention when it was revealed that police were permitted to have sex with prostitutes in order to catch them in the act. The Legislature quickly ended that exemption in the law, though Hawaii police engaged in a last-ditch effort to protect their ability to go undercover to fight crime. Hawaiian Rent-All commiserated:
But in the Age of Trump, there is now substantial risk in humor that might be seen as being on the wrong side of appropriate. Scott says he tries to keep himself in line by imagining a mother driving her kids to Punahou and how she might view their ribald efforts at humor.
What he and the other guys at Hawaiian Rent-All think is hilarious might not seem funny to her at all.
So Scott follows a few basic guidelines. Mother-in-law jokes are OK and universal. Wife jokes need to be approached with caution.
“You can make fun of wives, as long as it turns out they are smarter than the guys,” Scott said.
Their audience extends beyond passersby. People follow them on Instagram; and their Facebook page draws a lot of attention.
The partners are thinking about creating a contest that would allow people to suggest messages. Winners would get coupons for free rentals, or maybe Starbucks certificates. The important thing is to keep their company at the forefront of their customers’ minds, they say.
“We want to get even deeper with our community and that’s what we are trying to do,” Scott said.
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Kirstin Downey is a reporter for Honolulu Civil Beat. A former Washington Post reporter and author of several books, she splits her time between Hawaii and Washington, D.C. You can reach her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org