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toward EQUALITY : EXPLORING A WORLD OF DIFFERENCE : At Last Laugh, a Sigh

February 13, 1989|ROBERT A. JONES | Times Staff Writer and There has been ethnic humor as long as there have been ethnic groups. Sometimes funny, sometimes vicious, ethnic comedy has grown more widespread and more controversial. Paul Rodriguez talked to Times staff writer Robert A. Jones about his feelings toward the comedy he uses

I've been on a couple of talk shows where the host asks me why I do jokes about low-riders, gangs, stuff like that. And you know what? That host always wants to hear me making excuses, like how I think that ethnic humor is really aimed at improving race relations. Like how it's a safety valve or something like that.

I won't say those things because it's a cop-out. What purpose, pray tell, does it serve when you make jokes that do nothing but reinforce stereotypes? What purpose does it serve for you to trash your mom, your dad, your culture, the people you come from, those who you love? I've looked for that purpose, and I've tried to justify it to myself. But here, going into 1989, I can't see it. I can't see it. And I'm tired of passing the buck. The blame is mine. I make those kind of jokes because that's what makes 'em laugh.

But if you will, what other options did show business leave for me? You know, it seems to me that I have two choices: I can either be on the fringe of show business, doing Chicano jokes, or I can be off the Santa Ana Freeway selling oranges. And in my opinion, that's not much of a choice.

When I started as a comic, I originally started with very lofty goals. I wanted to do material about the commonality of our situation. I'm serious. I wanted to do material about being human, and I wanted to do material about universal things that were more than just 7-Eleven, K mart, Arab-Chicano, low-rider material. But they wouldn't buy it from me. I developed routines that purposely stayed away from that. They wouldn't laugh.

It's like the audience insists on you doing it, and if you don't, then you're not in the business. They're saying, "Wait a minute. If we want to hear that kind of intellectual high-brow material, we'll go see Woody Allen. Or go listen to Mort Sahl. But you, Rodriguez, have no right to talk about that. What we want from you, Paul, we want hub caps, taco, gang member, that kinda stuff. We want the kinda stuff that we don't get in suburbia. We're coming into the inner city. We want you to exaggerate. We want you to reinforce our stereotypes. That's your function. Make fun of your condition in life. Go ahead, Paul, go ahead. How many tattoos does your sister have?"

OK. Fine. I'll do it because those are the rules of the game. But while they're laughing at me, I'm laughing at them. That's right. Yeah, exactly right. Because now, thank God, I probably make a better living than 98% of those who come to see me. That's my only revenge. That's all I got. They're gonna walk out of saying, "Didn't I tell you Brad, huh Biff, huh, huh whitey? Didn't I tell you? I told you those Chicanos are hilarious people goddammit. You know, they low ride. They're 60 of them in a car."

But I'm driving home, too. In a better car. So sometimes I do feel like one of the guards at Auschwitz, you know, just doing my job.

I don't want to pretend that everyone agrees with my position. I'm not the only stand-up Hispanic comic around. There's other guys around who wouldn't do what I do. Who used to be my friends and aren't anymore. The reason is they find what I do disgusting, you know. They find what I do absolutely disgusting.

And I find what they do sad. Because their approach doesn't go nowhere. The world doesn't know who most of these other comics are. I mean, these guys probably are gonna go to their graves having some great material. But nobody's gonna hear it.

When I'm on stage sometimes I think about the deal, the unspoken arrangement, that exists between the comic and the audience. It has a lot of layers to it. For example, a black comic can make all sorts of jokes about whites but not vice versa.

And there's the business of someone like me standing up and making my jokes to a white audience. It's all about guilt. And it's all about who has the last laugh. When I get up on the stage, I am capitalizing on the fact that the whites are not gonna do anything about my jokes because they're so guilt-ridden already. You know. They go, "Oh what the hell? We run the goddamn world anyway, so if this guy wants to poke a little fun at us, fine. We'll show him how liberal we are. We'll show him we can take it."

But they are also thinking, "Tomorrow morning some guy like him is gonna clean my house. Some other guy like him is gonna mow my lawn." So ultimately they have the last punch line. They think.

Except I'm not so sure. See, I have this goal. I want to take all this money I am making and invest well. And by the time another Paul Rodriguez comes to replace me at the Improv, I will have retired somewhere up north, to my winery. I want to own a winery where I grow grapes and hire Caucasians to pick 'em. Sure, I'll have to pay them a little more. It's worth it. But I want to find a bunch of Caucasians and have grapes. I want to walk around the vineyard, supervising.

The Caucasian pickers will see me coming and start to pick real fast. One guy will say, "Look out, Biff. Here comes Rodriguez." And they will start picking the grapes and crushing the grapes in those big, old barrels with their feet.

I want to see white legs purple up to their knees. Smashing grapes. Because I used to tell jokes, they used to laugh, but they're stomping the grapes, now. And I hope they don't sit on the job.

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