The contemporary comedy scene boasts plenty of culturally adept comedians who are witty or clever, but for hilarity few match the Latinos, who have a fantastico capability to whip tragedy into comedy. With Latinismo so diverse and multidimensional that it attracts all kinds of forms being anointed the new powerhouse of American culture today and Latinos making up more and more of the U.S. population (with projections of 60 million Latinos by the year 2020 and that's only the ones legally counted), the time would seem ripe for Latino comedy in particular to hit big. And yet the muscle behind the entertainment industry is pumping out little Latino entertainment of any kind.
Latinos lack prominent representation on the stage, or more importantly to Adrian Villegas, artistic director of the Latino Comedy Project, the screen. "Right now, it's black and white," he says. "The brown has not even been introduced into the picture in a lot of ways, either politically or in the comedic discourse."
"¿Y porqué no?" is the question: Why is it so difficult for Latinos to get screen time? That's a burning question for the LCP, which is headlining Teatro Humanidad's seventh annual Austin Latino Comedy Fiesta at the State Theater this weekend. The local sketch troupe is driven by the same mission as Latinos overall, that is, "to be as present in the media as we are in the country," Villegas says. "To be taken seriously as an audience outside of purely Spanish-language programming."
The company is hot to get in front of Hollywood's cameras and would seem a prime candidate, given its stability and uniqueness in the world of comedy. "We keep coming up on the fact that a group doing the kind of material we're doing, having the take on the things we have, that's actually been able to sustain some kind of consistency for seven years now, is not out there," says Villegas. "It's not even a question for me if we're ready for that kind of opportunity. We've got the talent. People are hungry for it, on a national level."
Still, Hollywood isn't beating down the door to sign LCP. What few Latino comedy artists the powers-that-be are paying attention to tend to be stand-up comics, such as Carlos Mencia, whose Mind of Mencia premiered on Comedy Central in early July. Villegas understands why: "The reason that stand-up is so easy is that it's one guy. Give him a mic. A group of five to 10, which has a lot more variables, is a little harder sell."
But the bigger issue with Hollywood, as Villegas sees it, is accessibility. Spanglish may be the "unofficial second language," but producers tend to think that the only ones laughing are other Latinos. In other words, all the jokes about Cholos, the escapades involving La Virgen de Guadalupe, and the gratuitous tortilla gags are for Mexicans, demographically speaking. But Villegas knows that Latino comedy is no more limited to Hispanics than Mexican food is just for Mexicans; he's seen it in the range of race and age in LCP's audiences. Who laughs at the troupe's routines?
"Everybody," he says. "Young college Latinos, middle-age working class Latinos, white people, black people. I've tried to pigeonhole our audience, and it never works. There have been times where the audience has been a majority of white people. We've done shows in Idaho, and they were dyin'. We did a show in Vancouver, and we had Canadians stick around after the show and tell us how much they loved it.
"We approach it in a very egalitarian way, comedically. There is slapstick, lowbrow comedy, wordplay, in-your-face political stuff, musical numbers, parody a little bit of everything. At some point or another, your particular taste in comedy is going to get addressed. We make sure that it's presented in a way that even if you have to do a little bit of work, you don't get lost. We meet you halfway," he said.
But with Hollywood keeping its distance no matter how accessible and diverse it's been, LCP has taken matters into its own hands. "If you want something done, you've got to do it yourself," says Villegas. The troupe created a showcase for itself, inviting other Latino artists to join them making it a brighter beacon. "We did it as a platform; instead of waiting for people to hand us that opportunity, we said, 'Let's make our own opportunity.' And it worked."
Seven years in, the Fiesta is hosting two sketch troupes joining LCP for a second Fiesta will be its younger and saucier San Antonio neighbor, Comedia a Go-Go and three solo performers from across Texas: Howard Beecher, Patrick Candelaria, and Ruby Nelda Perez. Beecher, who has won the Funniest Person in Austin title and appeared on SíTV's Latino Laugh Festival: The Show and Galavision's Funny Is Funny, is half Latino, which led him to ask Villegas, "Am I Latino enough for you?" "I had to consult the International Latinicity Conversion Chart," Villegas jokes, "and found that he fell within the acceptable parameters of comedic ethnic and Latino categorization. Just barely." Candelaria, aka Beaner Schnitzel, hosts The Big 600, a morning radio show in El Paso, and has palled around with George Lopez and Tommy Chong. One of Texas' few Latin comediennes, Ruby Nelda Perez has toured her one-woman show, Doña Rosita's Jalapeño Kitchen, from coast to coast. "[Her show] was inspirational to me personally," notes Villegas, "because it was funny, multifaceted, yet it dealt with real behavior and family issues. The characters she re-created on stage were all recognizable, yet there was a kind of serious subtext that came out at the end. That influenced me a lot when I started doing one-person shows."
The success of the Fiesta has led LCP to create more opportunities for itself. Almost three years ago, it started touring the nation, cultivating fans all across America. And it's made some 16 videos of commercial spoofs and parodies of sitcoms and novellas, which have been posted to the LCP Web site. Aside from being a great promotional tool, the videos are exactly what satisfies Villegas for now, putting LCP on the screen.
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