By Noe Gutierrez
Spotlight 29 Casino will be hosting Paul Rodriguez and The Latin Kings of Comedy on Saturday, September 23, 2017 at 8 p.m. You can still purchase tickets at the Spotlight Showroom box office or online. We all know Rodriguez from his successful career as a stand-up comedian as well as his numerous films and television show ‘a.k.a. Pablo’. He starred in and was the executive producer of the 2002 comedy concert film the “Original Latin Kings of Comedy.” Rodriguez has been voted one of the most influential Hispanics in America by the National Council of La Raza and Comedy Central has ranked him as one of the “100 Greatest Standups of All Time.” Joining Rodriguez are Manny Maldonado, Joey Medina and Jackson Purdue. Maldonado has been on shows like ABC’s Comics Unleashed and Comedy Central’s Comedy Rehab. Medina has his own Showtime comedy special “Joey Medina: Take Off The Gloves.” He was also part of the “Original Latin Kings of Comedy,” still the highest grossing Latino stand-up comedy DVD of all time. Perdue has written two books, several screenplays and released an album, Half White Trash.
Coachella Valley Weekly spoke with Rodriguez from his home in Los Angeles. Despite his comedic expertise, Rodriguez is intensely passionate about the insufficient representation of the Latino culture in television and film. Below is our conversation.
CVW: What can you tell us about your connection to the desert?
Rodriguez: “I used to go to Palm Springs quite a bit. I was a good friend of tribal elders at Fantasy Springs. If it weren’t for Indian casinos the Temptations would hardly work. Now the festival has become huge. The very name Coachella is huge. About ten years ago you could go to New York and say Coachella and they wouldn’t know what you were talking about. Now that festival has put that part of the country on the map.
As a kid we used to harvest asparagus in Northern California. My folks, that’s what they did all through that area and the Coachella Valley.”
CVW: You have a play at the Los Angeles Theater Center called ‘The Pitch: How to Pitch a Latino Sitcom That Will Never Air’ showing from 9/7 to 9/17. Tell us about the premise.
Rodriguez: “It’s basically a protest because six of us had different deals with different studios and none of our projects went to pilot yet they had 12 African American shows. So the picture investigates this. The Hispanic numbers have gone up. If you look back to the 70’s and 80’s you had Ricardo Montalban, Erik Estrada and Chico and the Man. You had representation. Even the Addam’s family had Gomez and it seems from there to now we’ve moved in the wrong direction. Although our population has grown, very few pilots have come out. So I got together with all my friends to ask, what’s the reason? And they really don’t give you a reason other than their survey says that Latinos will watch black programming. They figure that we don’t complain so they figure the market is being served, but the market is not being served. We need our leaders to pull a Jesse Jackson on them. To remind them we are not being served. Every time you go up there and tell them, how about this project or that project, well no, they feel like the market we are watching is Telemundo, Univision or Galavision. I try to explain to them our parents are watching those, but our kids and my generation are totally American. We’re growing up in English. They don’t have an answer. We’re just the brown elephant in the room and ignored because there are no repercussions and there’s nobody to walk in to the heads of the studios to have this problem addressed. Year after year you just get lip service and they throw a couple of dollars to each us and they go on with the same thing. I think we’re taking a page from the activism of African Americans, if you remember, a couple of years back, they complained that the Oscars were too white for example. And then they put on Chris Rock and he went on for two and a half hours about the lack of blacks in movies. Don’t tell me it didn’t work because this last Oscar’s, I’ll say it, they were too black. One thing they have never been is too brown. We’re becoming the squeaky wheel. Johnny Gusano had a very articulate article in Billboard magazine and the National Council of La Raza has complained about this as well, we’re here and there, scattered, no unity, consequently they continue to ignore us, and when they do put a Latino program on, it’s written by white writers. The union hasn’t really opened up for Latino writers. So it’s all bad from the very top to the very bottom. In these studios, Latinos are put in marketing where they have very little power to put programs on the air. I guess the only answer we have is to protest in any way we can. We run the risk. A lot of my fellow Latino actors didn’t want to participate or help me because they don’t want to be labeled as troublemakers, they don’t want to be blacklisted. I’ve got nothing to lose. What are they gonna do to me? Not give me work? They’re doing that already. It’s really frustrating because we have good projects and good ideas. I went to CBS about two years ago with a project, “Three Generations”. It involved Edward James Olmos, me and my son. I was driving down the street the other day and I saw a billboard for “Me, Myself and I” which is basically the same thing. It’s an older guy, a middle aged character and a younger guy who even looked like us. So I don’t know what to do. Have my lawyer send them a letter? I know the person I pitched it to was the very producer who is producing this. I looked into it and they said, well, it’s about an Irish family. Big deal, it still seems to be the same thing. It’s frustrating because if you threaten suit then you’re blacklisted and blackballed. But I might just have to do that because they continue to like the idea then write it in their own way. I think it’s about time to rock the boat. They’ll just call me some disgruntled old comic.”
CVW: How long have you fought this fight?
Rodriguez: “With me it all started with my sitcom ‘a.k.a. Pablo’ a long time ago. I knew there was a problem there because they cast Joe Santos as my father, and I had a Puerto Rican brother, a Cuban sister and a Dominican sister. It proved to me that they didn’t care about cross-pollinating the show. These programs are made by Anglos for Anglos. They’re not made for us. And it’s sad because we have no place to take our grievance. You can’t go to your union because the union just cares about your working hours and pay. So who do we go to? What leader do we have that can go in there and put the fear of God into them?”
CVW: How do you feel about the our emerging Hispanic/Latino population
Rodriguez: “When I first started doing this it wasn’t necessary for me to cross the Mississippi. There were Hispanic populations but they were negligible. Some 37 years later, I have been to Nebraska, there’s a huge population there who dress cattle. You go to Little Rock there’s a large population of Mexican laborers who clean chickens and then there’s Bangor, Maine. You can’t go a day without seeing a brown face. When you have populations that are less in numbers, like Asian Americans who have more shows than we do, when people from India have more shows. I’m not saying these shows shouldn’t be on, but they have more visibility than us. A long time ago, one of the executives I was friends with, later he became president of Columbia, John Peters, said, ‘You know Paul, maybe it’s because when I go to get my car washed it’s a Mexican and I’ve got Consuelo at home taking care of our kids and I’ve got Jesus my gardener.’ That’s not the fault of those people doing those jobs; I’m not offending those people. Those are hard working people and they deserve respect. They’re out there. There are attorneys, real estate agents, in every facet of America and we are represented to a certain extent. But nobody’s writing a television series. The really insulting thing is that when they do write a pilot, for example, right now John Singleton has a project that I read for, we’re the bad guys, we’re the cartel bosses, and unfortunately in our culture those people do exist. They always put us in tertiary roles.”
CVW: Give us a specific example of our misrepresentation.
Rodriguez: “There’s a movie coming out about Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American Supreme Court justice. Everyone is familiar with Brown v. Board of Education, but what people don’t know is the case eight years prior to that, Gonzalo Mendez went back east and hired Marshall to represent his daughter Sylvia Mendez who was turned away from a California public school for ‘whites only.’ Marshall used some of the same arguments from Mendez to win the Brown case. They took four school districts to federal court and won. Latinos should know this. I don’t know if this will be covered in the movie but I’ll raise holy hell if it isn’t.”
CVW: How are things going in your career?
Rodriguez: “I’m going through some tough times. I can’t’ put my finger on it but I do feel it. The jobs have become scarce and I read for less parts. I guess I’ve been labeled as a troublemaker. I had this idea for the Emmys that all of us Latinos should dress in brown and stand silently at the doorway. But a lot of my friends said they’d like to help me but they said, ‘my agent this and my manager that, I got a family, I’ve got kids.’ I told them I have kids and bills but I understand their risks. It’s hard to get anyone to do anything. Even the actors I have in the play don’t want to use their real name which is a real shame. It’s a real fear. My own agent told me to expect less and less gigs.”
CVW: What do you want to communicate to your audience?
Rodriguez: “Come and see me at Spotlight 29! It might be the last time. I’m no Cesar Chavez. I’m no martyr. I’m gonna continue to do my show until I can’t fill a phone booth. Does it mean I got less funny? Was I ever funny? I assure you that it hasn’t been my act. My act is better. I’m older, I know better. I think I’m funnier. I think eventually Latinos will wake up and realize that not having Latinos represented on television and film has repercussions. My grandchildren see the television and they don’t see anyone who looks like them which tells them that they are not part of the fabric. I call upon the Latino leaders who are well represented in Sacramento and Washington, DC to address this problem. The studio heads are not gonna do it. They’re only gonna do it if we boycott Coca Cola, Proctor and Gamble, or the sponsors that really run television. I don’t know what the answer is. I’m just one guy. But I know that every Latino thinks the same way. We’re the largest ethnic minority according to the census. How can we be more people and be less on television. Latinos have to get into a situation of real power to green light. If you have a choice between putting on a African-American show and a Latino show there’s no risk putting on a black show because Latinos will watch African-American programming. That’s what their studies say. I just want to be on the record that in ten years the next generation will ask what were we doing? Were we asleep at the wheel? I’ll tell them I did all I could.”
CVW: How do you feel about being “The Latin King of Comedy”?
Rodriguez: “All those titles are good and well but you can’t rest on your laurels. The truth is in the pudding. Now when we go do the Univision or Galavision, their programming comes from Mexico. They’re not gonna spend on us because they’re buying novelas and it’s a lot cheaper and they’re accustomed to that. We want to be a part of the mainstream in this country. We want to have an opportunity no more and no less than African-Americans. Latinos are where African Americans were in the 60’s when Bill Cosby broke the color barrier. A brown face should be on TV. It should be a commonplace as it is in real life.”
CVW: What influence does television have on future Latino generations?
Rodriguez: “Sheriff Arpaio should be under the jail. He was convicted. He gets a presidential pardon. What message do you think this sends out to the far right? It sends out there that it is open season on Mexican Americans and anyone whose last name ends in a ‘Z’. Our leaders are asleep. Television has an undeniable influence on our children and our culture and what we do because it comes right into our homes, even more so than movies. Television shapes the mind and the thinking of those people who believe they know who we are. When others write our culture it’s an insult. I know Antonio Banderas. He’s a friend. He’s a decent man. I’ve met him many times. I’ve been to his home and broke bread with him. But he has no business being cast as Pancho Villa. Pancho Villa did not talk with a lisp. Pancho Villa was not 4’ foot 5”. Pancho Villa was a behemoth and monster of a man. For them to cast someone who doesn’t even resemble him, it’s an insult. It’s ridiculous to for Latinos to buy a color TV. It’s still black and white for us.
We have to have the opportunity to tell our story by writers who are us.”
CVW: What else can you do to fight for Latinos in the industry?
Rodriguez: “Why can’t the studios go to Christian Sesma and say listen, here’s a project, here’s some money, go out, direct something. We’ll believe you. We’ll stand behind you. Latinos will watch Latinos if they put us on television. They don’t. I took a loan on my house to do this play. Don’t tell me about funding. I felt it’s really important. I got actors sleeping on the floor in my house. I tell them all. It’s important. This is all we can do. If all we’ve got is a stick to fight with, then we’ll fight with a stick. But we’re gonna fight. We’re not gonna sit here and take it and have them just bastardize our culture.
I want your readers to know that I am funny and I’m not gonna beat you up for an hour and a half about this problem. Once I’m on that stage, I’m there to make people laugh. I’m not there to rally the troops. I’m there to entertain. There’s a time, a season and a place for everything.
I hope that I don’t go to my grave without seeing a sitcom, a pilot or a drama where we are portrayed as what we are; hard working people who make this country function. A day without a Mexican would be a nightmare for everybody.
What we’ve been missing is unity. We should see each other as nothing more than soldiers fighting the same battle. They’re never gonna give up power. No one in our history that’s been in a position of power has voluntarily given it up. I think our attack should be straightforward, our strength should be the truth and we should not continue to pity, fight and criticize each other.
I’m using whatever platform I have to make a noise and bring on the attention. Our final goal is to have Latinos on the air. This is for the young actors coming up. Hollywood ain’t got no need for a 62 year old vato. I’m not fighting for that, I’ve had my day. I go to a lot of universities and students come up to me and ask ‘how do I get in?’ I tell them to let me know when they find out because I’ve been trying to have an answer to that question for decades. There’s too many of us to ignore.”