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Taking Comics Seriously

February 11, 1993|JULIO MORAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The walls of comedy clubs around the country are decorated with names and photos of major comedians who have performed there: David Letterman, Richard Pryor, Robin Williams, Eddie Murphy, Steve Martin, Arsenio Hall, Roseanne Arnold and even a Russian, Yakov Smirnoff.

Except for Paul Rodriguez, and perhaps the late Freddie Prinze, Latino names and faces are noticeably absent.

But if a growing group of Latino comics has its way, clubs will soon have to find room on their walls for the names of Gilbert Esquivel, Carlos Mencia, Rudy Moreno, Ray Martinez, Quentin Gutierrez and Gracie Soto, among others.

"There are a lot of funny Chicanos out there, we just don't have the exposure," said Esquivel, 30, of Pacoima, a winner in a recent Latino comedy search at the Ice House in Pasadena, one of the oldest comedy clubs in the country.

Ready to join Rodriguez as a major star is comedian George Lopez, who has played in most of the major clubs in the country, appeared on both "The Tonight Show" and "The Arsenio Hall Show" and recently completed shooting his second movie.

The improving outlook for Latino comics results in part from a drop in attendance at comedy clubs nationally because of the lingering recession and the saturation of comedy shows on cable TV. That has forced some owners to search for new ways to attract paying customers.

In Southern California, club owners are also looking at census figures showing that Latinos make up about one-third of the population.

Bob Fisher, owner of the Ice House, makes no bones about the reason for holding Latino comedy searches at his club. "I looked around (during a regular show) and noticed that about two-thirds of the audience was Latino," Fisher said.

At competitions in November and December, Fisher sold out the 75-seat Ice House Annex at $5 a person with a two-drink minimum. He has scheduled another Latino comedy night for Feb. 14, and said he hopes soon to put on weekly Latino comedy nights.

The Comedy Store in West Hollywood beat the Ice House to the punch when it started its weekly Latino comedy nights Jan. 28. Comedian and dancer Ludo Vika performs and is the host of the Thursday night shows in the club's main room, featuring a variety of Latino comics. There is a $10 cover and a two-drink minimum.

At the club's smaller Belly Room, less experienced Latino comics get an opportunity to develop their skills every Sunday night in front of an audience. Admission is free, but there is a two-drink minimum.

"This is an opportunity for our people to practice their material," said Gutierrez, who owns and operates an auto repossession firm by day and is the host and organizer of the Sunday night showcases. Gutierrez does not get a salary for his efforts and the comics are not paid either.

One recent Sunday night, Soto climbed on stage with her jokes written on index cards.

"Today is my fifth anniversary . . . of being engaged," she said as laughter rang throughout the room.

"That one worked," she said as she scribbled a note on the card.

Mitzi Shore, the owner of the Comedy Store, said she made the room available to Gutierrez because she believes in nurturing young comics. The arrangement also allows her the first look at some developing comics.

"Every nationality has had its time," Shore said. "The Latino time is coming out now."

Such a prediction has been made before. The 1980s were supposed to have been the Decade of the Latino. It didn't happen. But there are signs that the '90s are more likely to make that prediction a reality.

Unlike the past, when Anglos were creating Latino characters and dialogue--including three failed TV series starring Rodriguez--Latinos are moving into decision-making positions to create and write about Latinos.

Rodriguez and Lopez are probably the best--and perhaps only--nationally known Latino comics. Rodriguez recently signed a deal with HBO Independent Productions under which his company, I Was Framed Productions, will produce television programs and feature films.

"Advertisers go where the consumers are, and Latinos are the fastest-growing segment of the population," said Jeff Wald, Rodriguez's manager and partner.

HBO has also become a partner with Tropix, a multimedia development company that will focus on new business opportunities in the English- and Spanish-language markets in the United States and Latin America.

Nely Galan, a Tropix partner, said the entertainment industry is now focusing on Latinos because they finally realize there is money to be made.

"People have completely opened their eyes to a new market, and we are going to make a lot of money for people," Galan said. "The breakout is in comedy. It's the only place where you have a universal message."

In another sign of the growing Latino comedy field, the first pay-per-view program featuring Latino comics in Spanish was shown Jan. 29 and 30 by Viva Television Network.

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