It’s undeniable: Paul Rodriguez is a pillar of standup comedy.
Rodriguez has drawn the ire of some of his fellow Latino comedians in recent years because of his support of the Republican Party. Party affiliation aside, however, his loyalty to the Latin community runs deep—no question.
Rodriguez will be stopping by Spotlight 29 on Saturday, Sept. 23, as the headliner of the Latin Kings of Comedy Tour, along with Manny Maldonado, Joey Medina and Jackson Purdue.
During a recent phone interview, Rodriguez said that he still enjoys standup, and tries to keep doing it, no matter what other projects in which he’s involved.
“I’ve been preoccupied with a play I’ve been doing that’s getting some attention called The Pitch. It’s funny, but it’s not a standup show,” Rodriguez said. “In between—to pay the bills, and what butters my tortilla—are standup shows. When I do standup, it feels good, and it’s therapy for me.
“It’s the reason why I’m in show business. There’s no danger of me winning an Academy Award or anything like that—maybe an Emmy. … Standup is what I really enjoy. I never feel as free as I do when I’m onstage. It’s like therapy; you get whatever angst you have inside of you out. I try not to burden the people who come to see it with my problems, and they’re not paying for that, but tragedy and comedy are next-door neighbors.”
One of Rodriguez’s closest friends is Cheech Marin, who put Rodriguez, unknown at the time, in his 1987 film Born in East L.A.
“We remain friends to this day, and I talked to him a couple of days ago. Hardly a month goes by when we don’t talk about something,” Rodriguez said. “We were set to do a TV series with Cheech, my son and myself called Three Generations. It inspired the play I’m doing right now. I’ve always looked up to Cheech, and he’s been one of the most generous people I know. Everyone always says I’m the first Latin standup comedian, but in reality, he was. He precedes me, and he’s maintained his presence, and our friendship has endured. When I met him many years ago, he said he had an idea for Born in East L.A., and he promised me a part. He kept his word, and our friendship has remained strong. I look up to him, although physically, I’m taller.”
The absence of positive Latino representations in film and TV has long irked Rodriguez. One of his 1990s HBO standup specials featured a rant about his hatred of the Taco Bell Chihuahua commercials.
“There have been a lot of great Latino films, but if you look at the credits, the stories aren’t being told by us,” he said. “I would rather have a mediocre story than a fabricated story. It’s a syndrome I call, ‘America loves the taco, but they have a problem with Paco, who invented the taco.’ Case in point: Antonio Banderas is a close friend of mine, and he played Pancho Villa. Pancho Villa was not 5 four 4; he was a monster of a man, and he didn’t talk with a lisp, either. It was Hollywood’s idea of it. Marlon Brando played Emiliano Zapata, but there were others who would have made a better Zapata. Hollywood picks and chooses the things that they want. It’s an ongoing struggle. But if I’m the only squeaky wheel, I’m glad to do that. … I was just reading an article on the Associated Press wire (about how) at the entire Emmy Awards, the Latino community is a blank. There are no nominations, no stories, and yet we are the largest minority. How could this be? There was actually more representation of us in the past. Today, we’re hard-pressed to find something.”
He mentioned that he and other Latino actors such as Marin, Gabriel Iglesias and Anjelah Johnson have had deals with studios for TV shows—yet the projects never even made it to a pilot, staying at script level.
“There are 12 African-American TV shows, and we’re out of the picture,” Rodriguez said. “I don’t know why, because our numbers keep growing, and our presence in television diminishes, but yet in other art forms, we dominate. Our music is so strong that we have our own Grammys. … These studios don’t have any Latinos in any position to green-light projects. Their idea of a minority helping a minority is always an African-American person who is able to green-light. Now, I’m not insulting or demeaning the African-American struggle; they deserve what they have because they have protested. What I’m saying is it’s our fault that we’re very passive. … It’s bad for our kids when my grandchildren sit down to watch TV, and they only have Dora the Explorer. We shouldn’t be an apparition or a surprise, but it should be like how it is in real life, where you can’t really go anywhere in any major city and not run into a Latino.”
In 1994, Rodriguez directed and starred in the film A Million to Juan. The film tells the story of a man, in the United States illegally with his son and two brothers, who sells oranges; he encounters a mysterious man who gives him a $1 million check, with the condition that he must give all of the money back after 30 days. It remains Rodriguez’s only film-directing credit.
“That is one of my favorite movies, not just because it was one of the only times I directed, and it was profitable,” he said. “That idea came from a Mark Twain (story) that I read in college called The Million Pound Bank Note, and it was based on the idea that a fool and his money will soon be parted. I got that idea, and it’s an American idea, but it fit into the idea of where Latinos are today. Especially with the DACA thing, for example: There are circumstances that happen where legitimate people born in this country, though no fault of their own, are being displaced.
“One of the biggest Latino icons was (longtime Cathedral City resident) Lalo Guerrero, who wrote the music for Zoot Suit, and people don’t know that despite the fact he was born here, the Eisenhower administration deported many people like him to Mexico. Here’s a story that explains that: Lalo Guerrero, who was born in America, had the right to be an American, and yet was deported. People say, ‘Oh, that’s a made up story!’ No, it’s not a made up story! It happened to Lalo Guerrero! The Million Pound Bank Note was an inspiration, but I turned it and Latinized it into something that I knew about. It has found a place in the hearts of a lot of Latinos. Every Cinco de Mayo, I see that movie played, and it has stood the test of time. I’m proud of that movie. That was my graduating thesis just to prove I could do that.”
Rodriguez also talked about one thing that makes his blood boil … something you may hear about in his comedy show.
“Parking tickets: I don’t understand why 25 cents will give you 15 minutes, but if you’re late, you have to pay $50. Those numbers aren’t even in line with the crime: $50 versus a quarter? That’s a higher rate than the mob would give to you! I now understand why meter maids are now internationally disliked. It’s a civil-service job, but I don’t anybody who wants to have a fundraiser to help meter maids, and they’re just working Joes!”
Paul Rodriguez and the Latin Kings of Comedy will perform at 8 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 23, at Spotlight 29, 46200 Harrison Place, in Coachella. Tickets are $20 to $35. For tickets or more information, call 760-775-5566, or visit www.spotlight29.com.