Comedic television writer Carlos Aguilar remembers watching Spanish-dubbed versions of sitcoms such as "Bewitched," "Gilligan's Island" and "I Dream of Jeannie." Aguilar waited expectantly for the jokes to catch on, for them to spark a wave of laughter throughout the room of the family's Mexico City house. But the grown-ups sat in bored silence, and the programs bumped and trotted across the screen.
"It didn't really work. No one could relate to the characters," he said.
One of the most confusing aspects was the nonsensical characters' names, like "Gilligan's" Thurston Howell III. In a language where the H is silent, "Senor Howell" sounded hollow and sometimes just plain creepy to the young Aguilar, and that nose-crinkling memory of bad television is exactly what helped land him on a team of writers of the first original U.S.-produced sitcom for Univision.
For 13 months, Aguilar and his colleagues studied the anatomy of the American sitcom, determined to produce a replica for an audience that has never gone wild for the situation comedy. They attended a seminar in Toronto and another at Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank, where they learned a bit about the technical aspects, like how to alter the set and lighting for a program shot on video, not film.
But more significantly, they say, they learned how to make jokes within a format that is unfamiliar to their audience.
"The American public has 40 years of learning process leading up to that. They started with 'I Love Lucy,' and they've advanced to [NBC's] '3rd Rock From the Sun,' " said one of Aguilar's writing partners, Gerardo Benavides. "We can't give them high concept. We gotta give them 'I Love Lucy'--basic family comedy."
The result is "Estamos Unidos" (United Always). It premiered Dec. 1 in the Friday 10-10:30 p.m. time slot, and draws a respectable average of 1.66 million Hispanic households each week, according to Nielsen Media Research.
"We're going to try . . . a very American concept--situation comedy," said Mario Rodriguez, Univision's programming president, who is widely credited with homing in on the subtle viewing trends of audiences across the country that have helped make Univision the dominant Spanish-language network.
"[The sitcom is] not something they're familiar with, unlike the novela or the news or sketch comedy which everyone's parents have watched," Rodriguez said. "Situation comedies have never clicked, but we owe it to ourselves to see if it can be done. If ever there were a network . . . if it's going to work, this is the place."
Univision already plans to distribute "Estamos Unidos," through television partners in Mexico and Venezuela, and the network will retain exclusive worldwide syndication rights outside of those two countries. If the show is a hit, it could be seen in countless countries and possibly be dubbed into other languages, Rodriguez said.
"We would hope that the comedy would be universal comedies," Rodriguez said. "We're not aiming just for the American market, but just like 'I Love Lucy' could be enjoyed around the world. Funny is funny, regardless of the setting."
The title, "Estamos Unidos," sounds similar to Estados Unidos, Spanish for United States. It's a play on words that Univision executives think gives a positive twist to a frequently heard phrase in Latin America.
The show's Mari and Arturo Perez and their 8-year-old son are middle-class immigrants in San Diego who endure the misadventures of annoying relatives. Mari is played by Alicia Machado, a former Miss Venezuela who won the Miss Universe competition in 1996. Mari's mother calls collect almost every day from Venezuela, while Mari's father (played by Carlos Bonavides, a Mexican actor known for his 20 years of roles in telenovelas) lives with Mari and watches every young woman he sees with an admiration that rivals Benny Hill.