A Nation Laughs
Austin's Latino Comedy Project Finds Success on the Road
There's no getting a word in edgewise with Adrian Villegas. Though late in the afternoon, the artistic director of the Latino Comedy Project excitedly spoke of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the LCP's "ravenous" audiences, traveling to Los Angeles, why HBO's Mr. Show is the "epitome of sketch comedy," and how sketch comedy works without missing a beat -- or taking a breath, it seemed. Who can blame him? These are synaptic times for the LCP. In addition to celebrating its fifth annual Latino Comedy Fiesta at the Paramount Theatre this week, the 51é2-year-old sketch-comedy troupe is enjoying some high-profile buzz for its repertoire lampooning ethnic stereotypes, tweaking revered cultural figures, and challenging cultural assumptions all with attention to the big funny.
Although the group members felt like they were on track, they didn't realize what they'd accomplished until they attended their first sketch-comedy festival in Seattle last November. The reception by Northwest audiences was ecstatic, and subsequent performances in Vancouver, San Francisco, and Los Angeles saw equally enthusiastic crowds and reviews ("Murderously funny," "Nearly stealing the night was the Latino Comedy Project").
"It's good to know we could hold our own," Villegas said of a gig opening for Fred Willard's Hollywood Players at the San Francisco Sketch Comedy Festival in January this year. "We just keep doing what we're doing, what we know we're capable of, and the response has been great!"
While sketch comedy is as old as vaudeville, groups with a Latino perspective have been -- and continue to be -- few. The Chicano Secret Service has disbanded; Culture Clash has turned their attention to more theatrical work; and the brilliant Lalo Lopez's Pocho/a! productions are rare events. (A fourth Pocho/a! production travels to San Antonio's Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center Aug. 22 for two weekends. For more information, call 210/533-8240 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.) The scarcity of Latino comedy groups makes LCP's longevity and growing presence on the national scene all the more significant.
In the beginning, Villegas served as head writer. Today, nearly all cast members have a hand in writing scripts for the troupe, which has a collective review process that could test the egos of less devoted performers. "Experience has been a big teacher," Villegas says. "We're at the point now where we can talk about what worked, what didn't work in structure or character, but overall, we concentrate on being better writers."
The troupe's growing connections increased in July, when the LCP participated in the MADtv Sketch Showcase that the series producers organized to audition new talent. It turned out that MADtv had some very specific needs, which the troupe didn't fill, but the opportunity for the LCP to show its chops and build its profile in a high-visibility community was invaluable. Does this mean the LCP will hit the road for good?
"Austin has been very good to us," Villegas says. "It's a great home base. We're lucky to be in a town where we have developed a faithful following."
Still, the word is out. The LCP launches its first extended tour next fall, which may be all the more reason for local fans to see the troupe in action at the Latino Comedy Fiesta this weekend. Local stand-up comic Jesse Pangelinan repeats his role as host from last year. Joining him and the LCP this year are San Antonio actress Ruby Nelda Perez, star of the highly acclaimed one-woman show Doña Rosita's Jalapeño Kitchen; Los Angeles-based comic Rick Gutierrez (Latino Laugh Festival); and Peggy Gutierrez (Galavision's Que Locos).
The fifth annual Austin Latino Comedy Fiesta takes place Saturday, Aug. 23, 8pm, at Paramount Theatre, 713 Congress. Tickets are $24-39. For more information, call 469-SHOW or visit www.lcp.org.