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Color TV . . . With a Brown Tint : Television: Two L.A. stations will present an unprecedented amount of all-Latino entertainment--'Culture Clash' and 'Comedy Compadres'--in the coming weeks.

July 29, 1993|STEVE WEINSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In his act, Latino comedian Jeff Valdez says of his culture: "We invented math, the calendar and brain surgery, but we just can't get that wacky sitcom format down."

Despite making up nearly 40% of all Los Angeles-area residents and rapidly becoming the largest minority group in the entire country, Latinos have been television's invisible people. As Richard Montoya of the comedy troupe Culture Clash observes: "There are Latinos on TV. You can see us every night with our hands behind our heads on 'Cops.' "

But suddenly this summer, local viewers will have an unprecedented feast of Latino writers, performers and sensibilities to choose from as both KTTV Channel 11 and KTLA Channel 5 throw all-Latino entertainment programs on the air in the coming weeks.

"Culture Clash" stars Montoya and his partners, Ric Salinas and Herbert Siguenza. The sketch variety show, featuring skits and characters culled from the trio's ethnically irreverent and satirical work in the theater, premieres Saturday at 7 p.m. on KTTV. Produced by the Fox Stations Group, which also created such shows as "Cops" and "Studs," "Culture Clash," taped live at the Mayan Theater in downtown Los Angeles, will air for six consecutive Saturdays here in Los Angeles before a possible roll-out to other Fox-owned stations around the country. If it's a big smash locally, it could make a direct jump to the Fox network.

"Comedy Compadres," produced by Valdez, hosted by Carlos Mencia and taped live at Las Palmas Theater in Hollywood, features three Latino stand-up comics each week. Premiering Aug. 6 at 11:30 p.m., it will air eight Fridays on Channel 5, and the hope is that the show will score big enough ratings to be syndicated as a continuing series.

"It's about time," Valdez said. "There are 27 million of us in this country and we have no representation on TV, or we've been totally misrepresented. The only time you see us is as maids or gardeners or gang members or running across the border on the 11 p.m. news, but now it's time for the rest of us to have a voice and explore the diversity of the Latin culture."

It hasn't been easy.

Following many years working in theater, the three guys in Culture Clash scored a deal to star in a sitcom for Fox a year ago, resulting in what they call "a bad pilot" that never aired. Other all-Latino shows have been in development for years at the networks, but none have ever been seen by the viewing public.

Valdez, who owns a comedy club in Colorado Springs, Colo., tried to sell his show for four years before KTLA finally agreed to give him a tiny budget and eight air dates. He said he met with producers, cable channels and studios and, despite the success of several other stand-up comedy programs, got no takers.

"One producer attended a showcase of some comics and said we weren't angry enough," Valdez said. "He wanted us to make more fun of the religion. I was in another meeting and the guy wanted us (to tape) in a jail. I said no. Then he said, 'OK, we'll shoot it in the sewer (the L.A. river) with the wall and the spray painting on it.' I told him we wouldn't do that either. We won't do graffiti. We're not going to write in low riders or guys selling oranges on the corner. I want people to see some positive images of Latinos."

The trick is control. In the past, Valdez said, Latinos have not been in executive positions either at the studio or network level or even on individual programs. These mostly Anglo executives, Valdez said, don't understand the Latino audience, and even though that audience is growing in size and economic clout, television executives have been afraid to pursue something they don't understand.

Culture Clash faced a different problem at Fox once they convinced the network to take a shot on them. Previously, they had written, produced and performed their own material onstage, but for television, Siguenza said, "We were told, 'You guys don't know anything. You aren't the experts. So just do what we tell you and nail the lines as actors.' " The resulting failed pilot, Montoya said, had very little that was Latino about it.

The group licked its wounds by returning to theater and touring the country. Executives at Fox Television Stations Productions--a production entity separate from the network--saw their new show at a little theater in Hollywood and hired them for this six-episode experiment, giving them executive-producer credit and last-say rights in the bargain.

"We will always voice our opinion if there is something that we don't understand, but so far there hasn't been an issue of 'Who has the final say' or 'You can't do that,' " said Brian Graden, vice president of program development for the Fox group. "They are strong entertainers and we wanted them to try to take what makes them great in the theater and throw it on television.

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