I recently tweeted “How to piss off a Mexican Comedian: Book him on only Latino shows even though he doesn’t do Latino jokes.” Someone asked me to explain, so here it is.
Or even if you didn’t expect an answer.
One of the most upsetting moments in my comedy career so far happened in 2009 or 2010. My roommate was requested to feature for a popular headliner at one of my favorite clubs. He couldn’t do it and recommended me. I called the manager from the club who had known me since the beginning of my comedy career. This manager was always supportive and we would talk at great lengths about comedy. I asked about working the upcoming weekend in place of my roommate and was told I couldn’t. “The headliner doesn’t want to work with Mexican comics. It’s in his contract.” To add more salt to the wound, not only was my roommate Hispanic, so was the headliner. “But I’m not a Mexican comic” is all I could think. Some of you probably raised an eyebrow when you read that. It should make sense soon enough.
It’s not about how funny you are, it’s about how many seats you fill!
When a comedian becomes a headliner, they usually have little to no audience. Comedy clubs need to find a marketing angle in order to fill up the seats. “What audience can we market this comedian to?” If that comedian happens to be ethnic, the simple solution is market them to their race. Makes sense on paper. If you add a few more comedians from the same ethnic background, now you’ve got a themed weekend. Find a holiday that their culture celebrates, book these comedians and BAM… you’ve got something to work with. So a headliner of Mexican descent is booked with other comedians of Mexican descent on Cinco De Mayo weekend. “Why would this bother them?!? Don’t they like performing with their own people for their own people?!?”
Quick side story because there is a reverse of this. I remember working with Tom Rhodes at a comedy club in Corpus Christi and hearing him be told by the owner, “You know, you would have had a bigger audience tonight if you had a Mexican last name.”
Now, I can’t explain to you how every comedian feels about this. I can only offer my views and how I understand where that headliner was coming from.
My first joke was about the word melancholy (which some comedians still remind me about). The joke included 4 examples of the word melancholy ending on a joke about my melancholy sex life. I was told, “You don’t look old enough to talk about sex.” So I wrote a joke describing how I looked at the time, like a Mexican Eddie Munster. It was around this time I was asked to do my first show. A Mexican booker was looking for Mexican comics to book at a Mexican restaurant for the very Mexican pay of a free meal and free beer. So I started to write Latino material. Very basic jokes about drinking out of the water hose, how the Mexican “8 Mile” was Selena and so on. I told the jokes, people laughed and I started getting booked on other Latino gigs. This led to my first important show: The Addison Improv’s Latino Jam. By then I had a handful of Latino jokes and I sprinkled them with a bit of Spanish. As an ethnic comic, you learn pretty quickly that ethnic audiences laugh more when you say a phrase or two in your ethnic language. I can only explain it was a “recognition laugh”. People laugh really hard when they recognize languages, references, movie lines and the like.
All of a sudden, I was being asked to do more gigs… now at Latino nightclubs. I even came up with a catchphrase, “Pinche Raza!” I made 100 bumper stickers and still have 80 of them somewhere. Some comics started to joke with me, “Man I wish I was Latino because then I could go on the road.” Then I started to hear a little criticism about typical Mexican jokes. I didn’t want to be typical though, so I wrote Latino jokes that I believed were really about pride. I wrote jokes about how Scarface isn’t a real Latino gangsta, Desi Arnez is. I started to say I was Mexican because I could do this, I could do that and then I could do something stereotypical. (Sorry, I don’t remember the jokes) But then I would take racial stereotypes and flip them. I started to do, “If we say this about one race, we should say them about them all” type jokes. I remember talking to the comic I was going on the road with about how it’s okay that we were Latino comics even when being told that it was too easy. “I’m from one of the most Mexican parts of the US, the Rio Grande Valley. Plus it’s funny. Isn’t that the point?” I was happy performing my Latino material. I wrote for a Latino magazine. I was looking forward to my Latino Jam gigs. I even did a taping in Houston where I couldn’t wait to tell my little Latino jokes. I wanted to be accepted as a Latino comic.
Then I got invited to work a real road gig.
Shreveport, Louisiana. I was brought on the road as an opener for a nationally touring comic. On the first night, two celebrity comedians stopped in to film a TV segment for their own tour. So I had a chance to work with 3 headliners that night with a tiny possibility of being on TV. The club provided its own host so I just had a guest set. My guest set will go down in history as not needed. They didn’t get my Mexican jokes. They enjoyed my other jokes but the Mexican jokes fell flat. After the show, the headliner and one of the celebrity comics were drinking at a bar in the hotel. The headliner, who was also just a prick, started to ridicule my Mexican jokes. He was getting the other comedian in on it. They pointed at me and said, “This guy is doing Mexican jokes?!?” Then they started doing all the hacky Mexican jokes they could come up with. It stung even more because they were Latino too. The headliner started telling me I need to change my material, change my name (Nick Valentine) and drop every Latino joke (even though he kept his Latino name and material). I was about to argue but he made a great point, whether it was his or not and that was, “Can you perform that material everywhere? Can you perform it in Chicago? Can you perform it in Virginia? People don’t believe you are Mexican anyway.” He was right. All of them were right. Crowds didn’t believe I’ve had sex and they didn’t believe I was Mexican.
Although, I was mistaken for Alex Reymundo by a redneck at one show.
I should have known it because it’s been like that my whole life. I mean I grew up in the most Mexican part of the US and everyone thought I was white. I’ve never been any other shade than pale. Also, my parents don’t have heavy accents and they spoke mainly English in the house so I don’t have an accent. I spoke minimal Spanish when asked to prove it and I always had to prove it. In fact, when people spoke to me in Spanish, I answered in English, much like Johnny Depp in “Once Upon A Time In Mexico”. I’m 2nd generation American. I’m a sequel! And you know what they say about sequels. I am one of the kids that older Latino comics joked about minus the weird surfer accent. I work so hard to prove my ethnicity that sometimes it’s easier to not even bring it up.
Before you guys start getting upset, you have to realize this: Standup comedy is about being as honest as possible. And honestly, I’ll never be a “Mexican comic”. I had a very American upbringing. So after 2 years of writing Latino jokes, I scrapped them all. I put the “Pinche Raza” bumper stickers in a box and I told myself until I learn how to speak Spanish fluently, I will not use a word of it for a cheap laugh. I did one thing though; I stopped being announced as Nick Valentine. Nick Guerra is my name… honestly. (I stopped working with the headliner that forced the name change on me. I always hated it and I despise him.)
Now I was getting genuine laughs. I was relating to all kinds of audiences. I even exempted any jokes about race from my performances. I wanted my material to be more about my human experiences and bringing race into the mix splits the audience. As much as comedians hate to admit it, when race is brought up onstage, some crowds tune out. I worked hard on my new material. I remember going back to Dallas after this change and one comic saying, “You actually got funny. No More Melancholy!”
I still get booked for Latino shows every now and then but I don’t go back to my old material. In fact, my hometown, McAllen, started having regular comedy shows. I kept hearing comics say when they performed in McAllen, they would dumb down their material and make it more Latino, because that’s the only thing the audience would laugh at. When I heard this I thought, “I’m from McAllen and I don’t need jokes dumbed down for me.” So to prove them all wrong, I made sure not to do any ethnic jokes. To my delight, I made those crowds laugh at exactly the same jokes I’ve been performing all over the US. “You see,” I thought to myself, “We don’t need no stinkin’ cheap laughs.” I learned that if you treat the audience like they are smart, even the few dumb people will rise to the intelligence you’ve set. After all, no one wants to be the dumbest one in the room.
I’m not the only one.
There are a slew of other Latino comics that pride themselves on not being stereotypical. Many of us are tired of the Latino label. We just want to be labeled funny. We are tired of being told, “Too many Mexicans on the show, I can’t put you up.” We are exhausted with fighting for the supposed limited spotlights for “Latino comics”. We are running out of silly Latino themes for shows. What’s a Latino Jam anyway? The majority of us never had any instruments.
This is an actual Latino Jam.
It’s not personal, it’s show business.
I get it. They have to put us somewhere. Ethnic comics will always face the ethnic niche. For every comic saying he is tired of the ethnic fight, there are three ready to take his gig for less money. (Some of them aren’t even that race.) Stereotypes are like roaches and any stage time is better than no stage time. We’ll take the theme shows. We aren’t hypocrites; we just don’t want to go broke. The only hope we have is to keep writing funny material until we have an audience so diverse and large that the only label we get is “popular”.
I am happy to say that my fan base has grown and they are from all different walks of life. A year ago in Dallas, I put on my own headlining show to see if I had any kind of draw. I invited family to make sure at least 8 people would show up. To my surprise, the audience was quite a bit larger than expected. The best part of the show was when my older sister came up to me and said, “You had a really diverse audience! I couldn’t believe all these people wanted to see my little brother!” I took that as a tiny milestone in my little career. Now I know I’m years away from really striking the American mainstream but I will be proud to get there with an audience that laughs for all the right reasons. And because I occasionally dance onstage. (That was for you Thai!)