She nods sagely at penis jokes, as if penis jokes were the most academic topic in the world.
She was Loida Viriña. Perhaps the first female comedy headwriter in the country, she created the seminal movie and television drama “Gulong Ng Palad,” before headwriting a long list of comedy shows under her belt — the classic “Home Along Da Riles” and “Oki Doki Doc,” among many others.
But in our creative brainstorming group, we simply called her Tita Loi. At 88, she refused to be called “lola.” Always smartly dressed and regal, she was a tall wisp of a woman. I remember on our first day at work, when a fellow writer nudged me to ask if I was seeing what he was seeing, unsure if Tita Loi was an apparition. After all, it’s unusual to see a very, very old lady still working in such a mentally draining workplace, the only female in a group of young men. But with her insights and ideas throughout the session, she proved to be brighter than all of us, many times over.
Tita Loi had the look of a grandma with the mouth of a sailor. She was not above peppering her sentences with a stray expletive or two — perhaps her way to fit into a man’s world. She also had this hearty laugh, saved for the most hilarious one-liners. Someone once said “I don’t have a short penis. I call it travel-size,” and she guffawed like it was the best joke in the world. It’s no secret, her reason behind a long life and career (unlike the aforementioned penis): Laughter is indeed the best medicine.
I remember her now in anecdotes.
Whenever a new writer is introduced to the group, she, along with other senior writers, would ask for P500 for “comedy writer ID registration fee,” which we eventually learned doesn’t exist. Of course, she doesn’t take the money. It’s all in the name of fun.
During her heyday, Tita Loi once became a leg model. She had a print ad with only her legs showing, and she was so proud of it. She compared that job to writing: We’re never seen, and it was never about us.
For most of her life, she was a single mother, working as a government employee and moonlighting as a writer. She would tell us fascinating tales of typewritten scripts, ink ribbons and liquid erasers. She would wake up at 4 a.m. to type the day’s script, which she would then personally deliver on set. Then she’d go to her office to work, and take care of her six kids right after. As writers now, we take for granted how easy it is with our laptops and email.
That’s not saying she didn’t keep up. Tita Loi refused to go old; she was handy with her social media, living vicariously through our activities, always leaving a comment or two on our Facebook posts, all of them positive and encouraging. Tita Loi was never shy of praise. When I wrote my first script, I got loads of negative feedback, which I was told was normal. But not from her. She emailed me, “Maganda siya. Ang galing mo!”
And she would do that with all new writers’ first scripts. Not that she was easy to please: She would always say comedy is tragedy in retrospect, after all. She preferred to skip the awful parts and go right in on the good bits.
Contrary to a writer’s common habit of tardiness, Tita Loi was always prompt and never late to a meeting. I was unusually 30 minutes early one time, and she was already there. The first two people in the room, we talked about writing as a craft. She said she writes to remember, and be remembered. The world is made up of a million stories, and it’s our duty as writers to tell even just one or two on paper. I keep that lesson in my heart.
Besides, Tita Loi also said, she knew that once she stopped writing, she’d die.
I went to her funeral, a year after she retired. The ceremony was a short and simple affair. She was cremated—that way, there was no drama, no body in a coffin to cry on. I guess Tita Loi wanted it just like that.
Among her many anecdotes, I have my personal favorite. It was when she visited the great comedian Dolphy in the hospital, a few days before he died. Tita Loi took one look at his feeble body, swollen with pneumonic edema. “My, Pidol. You look like you gained weight.” She aimed for laughter, even in death.
When I saw the heavy-looking marble urn containing the ashes of her once frail body, I thought: My, Tita Loi. You looked like you gained weight.
No one laughed, but I’m sure Tita Loi would have. She could appreciate any joke — penis jokes, poop jokes, death jokes. No matter how inane, obtuse or morbid.
During our last brainstorm meeting before her retirement, as we said goodbye to her, Tita Loi hugged me tightly. Mentor to pupil. Mother to son. She whispered: Please. Do not forget me.
Tita Loi, this is how I’ll remember you. By telling this one story, out of a million.
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Allan Habon, 29, is a TV and movie writer/filmmaker.
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