Pity the network executives. In what amounts to an epic fail to adapt, they're racking their little dinosaur brains, according to a recent New York Times article, trying to figure out how to "appeal to Hispanics without using stereotypes." So far, no luck. Consequently, they can't seem to come up with any Hispanic shows that we Hispanics will actually watch, embrace, claim proudly as our own. Wow, I bet they have nightmares about it. The biggest demographic ever just waiting to be tapped, taunting them like a big giant piñata they keep missing.
Did I say piñata? Boy, it is hard not to use stereotypes when it comes to Hispanics, isn't it?
The article was forwarded to me by friends and colleagues. They seemed to think I might be able to help these network executives out -- as if I, being a kinda creative, television-minded, showbiz-type person with certain bi-cultural insights, might have the very hit show these clueless execs are looking for, sitting idly on my laptop, just waiting to save the day. Hey, maybe I do. But why should I share it with a bunch of networks bent on proving themselves unworthy?
Then the BBC called. They wanted my take on the New York Times article and more generally about whether Hispanics in the United States are accurately represented either in this country's news coverage or its sitcoms, which seems to cover the gamut of television exposure for la raza, if you don't count on-demand cock fighting. Oops, I did it again. Not that I'm in the habit of quoting Britney Spears. But how did that damn stereotype sneak in there? I mean if marginalizing cliches are going to impose themselves so insistently despite all efforts to steer clear of them, maybe we're too quick to blame network honchos for a disproportionate number of jokes about nachos.
Maybe the problem of negative bias traces farther back, to the media's main source of information about Hispanics: The Pew Hispanic Center.
How come most of the data being put out there about Hispanics comes from a center named Pew? I hate to raise a stink about it. But why couldn't our info come from a less malodorous sounding source, say the Daisy Fresh Center for Fabulously Fragrant Latinos? Every time some new statistics were released, people would follow us down the street hoping to get close enough for a whiff. It might establish the groundwork of appreciation and respect that might be eventually be reflected on la pantalla chica.
In the meantime, the questions remain.
Just where is the Latino Cosby Show? Where is the show that will defy stereotypes and offer a non-caricatured depiction of Latinos in the full bloom of professional success, grappling with the family struggles of the upwardly mobile, offering an in-your-cara alternative to one-note, intellectually stunted, socio-economically disadvantaged portrayals with a blue-collar ceiling? When will we see our own rainbow-vomit sweaters worn in prime time?
Did I hear someone say ponchos? Please, we'll never get anywhere if we can't resist such cliches, however powerful their sophomoric sway.
Where is the show that will favorably update perceptions of Latinos by authentically mining the still virgin goldmine of humor inherent in our broad cultural experience? Where is the show that will set the stage for a greater national profile, just as the Cosby show presaged the family currently occupying the White House?
By the way, Obama rode into the presidency using a classic Spanish slogan, "Sí se puede," simply translated into, "Yes we can." And, in case you missed it, he's doing it again, with his latest slogan for a second term, "Forward." Which, of course, is translated from another classic Spanish call to arms, "¡Pa'lante!" Although, I'd personally suggest that he switch it up to "Un pasito pa'lante, un pasito pa'tras." Latinos, at least, would appreciate the humble candor and sign he's not delusional.
Now, I question whether the networks are truly looking for a Latino equivalent of the Cosby Show, as the New York Times article suggests. Because the same article pointed out that "CBS hoped to have a cross-cultural hit with the show ¡Rob! featuring the comedian Rob Schneider." That's like looking for sushi at a donut factory. And I, for one, will not settle for a ring of fried dough glazed with wasabi.
The pilot for "¡Rob!" a cringe-inducing half hour, went above and beyond the call of stereotyping, attaining new heights of oblivious condescension. And, it wasn't funny, adding insult to insult. In other words, it was right in keeping with many of the perfunctory efforts by networks to "diversify" their programming with a winking eye toward courting more Latino viewers.
Take, for example, Chuy from Chelsea Lately, a Mexican midget (excuse me, little person) touted gleefully by Latina magazine as "TV's First Late-night Latino Sidekick." What? They couldn't even get a full-sized Latino to fill their tokenismo quota? ¡Por fa-vor! Not for nothing, but a snack-sized Chicano (and former porn star), serving as nothing more than an embarrassing Latino-loompa target for Chelsea's constant berating, doesn't swell my heart with pride.
Mere inclusion doesn't cut it. Listen up, Networks. If it comes off as gratuitous, patronizing or just plain demeaning, you can't count that kind of representation as a feather in your diversity cap. That goes for Latinos and the estatura-challenged. Yet that's exactly what Chelsea Lately and other programs are getting away with.
On The Jimmy Kimmel Show, we are nightly treated to the gales of laughter provided by cast member Guillermo Díaz's broken English. Man, who can get enough of that silly Mexican mispronouncing the host's name as Yim-ee? And while Guillermo happily plays the menial, minimum-wage fool with Sambo-esque complicity, I'm sure somebody over at ABC is checking off a box indicating the network has dutifully kept its commitment to multiculturalism.
Subliminally, both shows practically glamorize the idea of how much fun it would be to have a cuddly, eager-to-please, tail-wagging Mexican at home, for a pet.
Servile and or dimwitted Mexicans have been a stock device of late-night TV for decades. But when Bill Dana (a Jewish-Hungarian comedian) did it in the 60's on the Ed Sullivan Show, at least his character, José Jiménez, enjoyed the prestige of being a Nasa Astronaut.
Still, recognizing in his later years that the character did nevertheless offend, Dana declared José Jiménez dead before a crowd of thousands of Mexicans, culminating in a mock funeral for the defunct spaceman on Sunset Boulevard.
And it's not that Guillermo's buffoonery on Kimmel isn't good for a few chuckles. I'm happy he and Chuy are raking in the bucks and enjoying their questionable celebrity status. The problem is that the Latino images most likely to get TV exposure are precisely those that reinforce stereotypes affirming the establishment's sense of superiority.
Comedy Central took one stab at a Latino-fronted issues show with Mind of Mencia. Which, predictably, could not have possibly been more mindless. The man's guttural rants, vacuous bluster masquerading as edgy commentary, often about racial stereotypes and people with disabilities (mental mostly), lamentably gave the impression this was the best satire Latino comedians had to offer. And believe me, I give it up to any comedian who can get that far. It's not easy, even if you are stealing material. But I refuse to accept que los comediantes cavernícolas shall inherit the earth.
Is it that hard to imagine a Latino Daily Show? I know, I know. Don't be ridiculous. A truly clever, savvy, educated, universally appealing Latino host of a newsy comedy show with his or her finger on the political-pop-cultural pulse across the bilingual divide? A Latino comedian who can tickle the mind as well as the funny bone? Get out of here. Would anybody watch? Everybody knows smart comedy and Latinos are mutually exclusive. Let's give them a fat guy who can make funny noises! At least if we give them an oversized Latino, it'll make up for the self-proclaimed Mexican nugget on that other show. America is getting more Hispanic, more obese and more simple-minded every day. Where can we find a comedian who can represent all those trends simultaneously?
Humor is subjective. God knows. But networks shouldn't assume that by offering lowest common denominator fodder they've got their Latino bases covered.
At least The George Lopez Show tried. It did break stereotypes, but questionably so in the contentious, often disrespectful relationship between George and the character of his harshly drawn mother, Benny. It may be based on his real life relationship with his mom. But as a rule, mothers are venerated across the spectrum of Latino culture. And the sarcastic, mean-spirited barbs zinging back and forth between the two, struck me, at least, as off-putting. Am I alone on this?
Cosby would never talk to his mother like that, of course. But the magic of the Cosby show might be attributed to the fact its laughs were not provoked by any individual lines of dialogue. It wasn't written as if for a laugh track. Rather, the relationships and cumulative effect of the story lines charmed viewers into laughing. That's a huge difference. Even when you weren't laughing, you were amused, smiling all the way through. By comparison, the Lopez sitcom seemed to expect viewers to laugh because the writers had clearly taken pains to craft the boilerplate punchlines.
Also, notice that neither in The Cosby Show from the 80s nor The Bill Cosby Show, which ran from 1969 to 1971, was Cosby named Bill Cosby in the show. The characters he played were named Cliff Huxtable and Chet Kincaid, respectively. Maybe that's the secret! Note to self: if I ever get my own sitcom, call it "The Bill Santiago Show," but play someone with a different name in the show. I'm leaning toward Dr. Heathcliff Del Toro.
Ugly Betty is certainly a standout. Pushed the envelope. I mean a scripted network TV dramedy revolving around a Latina main character, trying to make it in the big bad Anglo fashion world, complete with her Mexican immigrant family life in Queens as a backdrop, doesn't happen every day. Yet there she was, America Ferrara, as la pobrecita desamparada with a chance to make it in a big corporation, if only it weren't for her evil boss standing in her way. ¡Novela-tastico! Producer Selma Hayek pulled off a mega win by reconfiguring the original Spanish-language Colombian novela, Betty La Fea, a hit in Latin America, into a success in U.S. prime time.
But let's face it. It was more of a gay show, than a Latino show. Go back and check it out on Hulu. It makes Glee look homophobic. Either way, groundbreaking.
Then there's Sofia Vergara, carrying the Olympic torch of Latino stereotypes as Gloria Delgado-Pritchett, a preternaturally sexy, acutely-accented, primal-screaming, Colombian trophy wife on Modern Family. But I'll tell you what. If you think her accent is exaggerated or that she's too loud and over the top, you haven't met my mother. No slouch in the looks department either. At 17, Mami won the Miss Five Boroughs beauty pageant. That's boroughs, by the way, not burros.
The thing with Modern Family is that the stereotyped facades of all the characters are multi-layered beneath for a harmonious humanization, and the show is pretty brilliantly written. No, she doesn't represent all Latinas. And she's not going to get the "Latina Empowerment" award for picking up Charo's "cuchi cuchi" mantle anytime soon. But we could do far worse than to be represented by her within the cast of characters in such a quality hit.
It's not like she's playing a cardboard walk-on vixen in one of Conan O'Brien's "Noches De Pasion" (they always forget the accent on the 'o' in pasión) sketches, as the love interest to O'Brien's sendup of novela machismo, Conando. I couldn't exactly point a finger then, either, as I myself have played an extra in a few of those same sketches. Guy's gotta eat.
Conan likes to joke that the Conando sketches are his and his network's (originally NBC and now TBS) way of acknowledging his show's Latino viewers. If the motive were genuine, they might start by featuring Latino stand-ups on the show. It's perfectly fine to spoof Latino culture (granted novelaspractically parody themselves), but to let a Latino comedian take center stage for four and a half minutes to do a stand-up routine of authentic insights from that culture, that would have cross-cultural resonance, somehow that would fall outside the show's sensibility.
Makes me want to give Team Coco a great big cocotazo. Me, bitter? I prefer to say not entirely un-disgruntled.
On the other hand, Team Lopez wasn't much better. When George's talk show Lopez Tonight was on the air, appearances by Latino stand-ups were rare. Rumor is he paid back a few favors to comedian buddies and then shut down the pipeline.
For a guy who seems permanently scarred by the fact that Erik Estrada supposedly wouldn't shake his hand when he met the Chips star as a boy, you'd think Lopez would make it a point to give a hand to as many Latino comedians as he could with that kind of a platform. Although, I remember that when I was starting out as a comic, George once kindly let me have a guest set when he was performing at The Punchline in San Francisco. I gave him a tape of my stand-up. He checked it out and let me on the next night. I'll never forget the advice he whispered to me right before I went on stage. "Don't fuck up." Words of wisdom I try to follow to this day.
Networks are just one tier of an entertainment industry that is mostly rigged to reinforce stereotypes, often negative, rather than offer edifying portrayals that build up a culture. I've had some up close brushes with the distortion machine myself.
Once, I was contacted by some Hollywood producers. They wanted to develop a sitcom. They liked my work and put me in touch with Jamie Masada, owner of the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles, and an industry impresario who had helped many comedians make the coveted leap to TV.
The conversation went something like this:
Jamie: So OK, you're Puerto Rican, right? So how about we do a show about you still trying to get out of the same neighborhood where you grew up with your poor family in el barrio?
Me: Actually, that wasn't my experience. My father was a lawyer.
Jamie: Lawyer? That's not funny. What did your mother do?
Me: She was a school bus driver.
Jamie: OK, that's funny. So how about we do a show about you riding around with your mother on the school bus picking up poor barrio kids in el barrio?
That's how narrow the narrow-mindedness is. It wasn't that having a lawyer dad didn't have humor potential. But the very idea was rejected out of hand because it didn't fit a preconceived notion about being Puerto Rican.
I never even got a chance to tell him that my lawyer father, who worked on Prospect Ave., in the Bronx, often accepted payments from his clients in blocks of welfare cheese. Or that his office featured one of those enormous black public pay phones, with the money-box busted off so he could make long-distance calls reusing the same quarter over and over again. Or that there was a door between his office and the social club next door, allowing him instant access to happy hour. Or that he would write our absence notes for school on his legal letterhead, starting out, "To whom it may concern: my client..."
Why are we not listening to the true stories and letting those guide character development? If what you want to do is entertain with genuine stories that are funny, heart-warming and thought provoking, it doesn't make sense to filter show concepts through the stereotype paradigm.
It's also true that because I didn't follow in my father's footsteps, and decided not to become a lawyer myself, I actually am a resident of el barrio today. More accurately, I live on West 144th Street, in New York City, on the border between traditional Harlem, and bachata territory, where you can walk into Starbucks and order an Aventura frappucino. It's me, my significant other, our even more significant Mexi-Rican baby other, all living in a one-bedroom, rent-controlled apartment, where I am one month behind on the rent. My landlord would kill me if he knew I was writing blog posts for free.
More recently, I was in talks with Bruce Helford, a producer instrumental in creating numerous hits, including the Drew Carey Show, The Bernie Mac Show, and The George Lopez Show. Again there was interest in developing a Latino family-based sitcom. I sketched out a detailed pan-Latino ecosystem of characters in a diverse Latino neighborhood of a US city. The specific nationalities were key not only to the characters' own personalities, but the nuances in how they all interacted with each other. But I was told that networks wouldn't be interested in those nuances and that it was best to let them decide the characters' nationalities.
Which meant, the entire cast, myself included, might end up playing Mexicans, because out of the twenty or so Latin countries you can choose from, television executives seem fixated with the one immediately south of the border.
I flinch whenever I personally have to deal with casting. Remember casting is short for type-casting, which is synonymous with stereotyping. If you don't fit the stereotype, you can show yourself to the door, amigo. I break stereotypes as a stand-up, apparently, by the sheer fact that I am Puerto Rican and have a vocabulary. Or as one club owner summed it up: "A Hispanic who uses big words. What a gimmick!"
While Latino actors would love to play roles that break stereotypes, generally they won't get cast to play Latinos unless they fit the stereotypes perfectly. Starting with the accent. What's the point of casting a Latino actor to play a Latino unless he's got a bonafide, English-mangling Latino accent? The thicker the better. I speak Spanish, well. But I do not have a Spanish accent, Puerto Rican or otherwise, when I speak English. Yet invariably that is exactly the expectation when a casting director says, "Next," and you're up for the role of Hispanic #3. It doesn't hurt if you look like you've done some jail time, either.
Ironically, most of the voiceover auditions I get called in to do are for Spanish-language commercials. No matter how many times I explain to the agency, in English, that I would also like to be considered for commercials in English, because clearly I speak English, it doesn't register. Inevitably the next time around, there I am in the studio recording: "¡Los nuevos Sizzling Skillets de Denny's ya están aquí!" Maybe they should update their ethno-profiling algorithm so you're not automatically tagged as incapable of inglés, just because you've been entered in the database as Latino.
Luckily, as a stand-up I get to play myself. Which I am pretty good at. And audiences, Latino and non, are able to appreciate the multi-dimensionality of humor from a guy who happens to have a bead on being Latino in the good old USA. I don't just do shows or material for Latino audiences, nor did I begin doing stand-up with that in mind. But along the way I discovered the joy of performing for Latino audiences, as a part of what I do, because I could speak to them about a background and heritage and mother tongue we have in common, in a way that bonds performer and audience together as if we were family. It's entirely different than being appreciated by a mainstream crowd solely because you are hilariously clever. Which I also happen to relish, mind you.
I always thought if I could just apply the highest standards of stand-up as an art, by emulating heroes like Carlin and Seinfeld and Cosby and Allen and Mooney and Hicks and Mason and Izzard, so as to articulate the Latino experience as I know it and live it, I'd get to put out there what I thirsted to see other Latino comedians doing. And in the back of my mind, I thought that it might even lead to creating a television show out of the same sensibility, reflecting the Latino experience I personally yearn to see in prime time.
Now, I just spent a weekend in Barryville, New York (Los Boonies), where you are as likely to hear someone speaking Spanish, as you are to hear a Justin Bieber imitator on "Sábado Gigante."
A friend, Marcelo, a doctor who works at an AIDS clinic in the Bronx, and happens to be Chilean, invited a group of us up to his new getaway home there. Altogether, there were four couples: myself and María, an education spokesperson, and the Mexican mother of our one-year-old daughter Cielo Ixchel; Livia, a Mexican-American lawyer, and her husband Ron -- half-German, half Guatemalan -- who works as a financial analyst, and their two children; Marcelo, and his two daughters by his Colombian ex-mujer, and his new girlfriend, Christa, a hotel concierge, who is African American; and Marcelo's younger brother Rodrigo, who just married Odalys, a Dominican preacher.
I found the situation, get this: normal. A houseful of Latinos (one honorary), who are perfectly integrated into the fabric of this country, making strides towards the American dream their parents sacrificed to make available to them, now trying to pass along their gains to the next generation, while holding on tight to a heritage they hold dear and in common. English, Spanish and Spanglish equally ubiquitous. Although, to the kids it was almost exclusively Spanish, because it's the prime conduit of a culture we don't want them to miss out on. Salsa music played in the background right along with rock and roll. Hotdogs from the barbecue were being chowed down along with tacos. And everybody joined in to play badminton as well as soccer. Excuse me, fútbol. Oh, and lest I forget, the little white dog (not a chihuahua) yapping away at our feet, was named Flojito, aka Perro Bueno.
But you would never know this to be normal by watching mainstream TV. Because such a depiction is conspicuously absent. It's almost as if there has been an embargo on exposing this every day reality, this parallel universe of Latinos as we live and breathe even in the most non-Latinoesquinitas of Gringolandia. Meanwhile, it represents exactly the current and growing bilingual, bicultural Latino demographic that networks and their advertisers are driving themselves nuts trying to figure out how to capitalize on, monetize and otherwise exploit.
And it's not just entertainment media dropping the ball, either. Last month, ABC made a self-congratulatory announcement that it was joining forces with Univisión News to provide"uncompromising coverage of current events with a unique perspective," aimed at US Hispanics, in English. Notice serious-minded organizations always use the word "Hispanic" instead of "Latino" because it sounds more serious. "Latino" sounds way more fun and fashionable. Hence no Hispanic Grammys. I use both interchangeably and like to say I'm half-Hispanic and half-Latino. That way I'm good no matter which way the semantic winds are blowing.
First thing I noticed about the ABC announcement, was that while George Stephanopoulos, and his three co-anchors at the Good Morning America anchor desk, enthusiastically plugged their network's new covenant with Latino viewers, there were, count them, zero Latinos behind that same anchor desk. You'd think they could have at least substituted in a Soledad O'McGillicuddy for the occasion. Oversights like this tend to undermine credibility with the very viewers whose collective culosyou are puckering up to smooch.
Obviously it was deemed by the new alliance, combining the "expertise and brand strength of Univisión News with ABC New's leadership," that under some unwritten "close enough" clause, Stephanopoulos would do because of his Greek heritage. No one can deny there's plenty of cultural affinity. My mother threw plenty of plates in her day. Not at the actual wedding celebration. But for decades afterwards, china flew overhead in our house like it was being launched for target practice at a very busy shooting range.
Networks, according to the New York Times, can't understand why bilingual Hispanic viewers would ever choose to watch TV in Spanish over their English-language Nielsen front runners. Well, I'll tell you, maybe if NBC had let me know about all the Latin American athletes competing and winning medals at the London Olympics, I wouldn't have had to keep turning to Telemundo to find out. It's not always a language preference. Sometimes the choice is based exclusively on content or lack thereof.
On Telemundo, it was like watching a completely different Olympics. What, Colombia took a gold in BMX? I didn't even know BMX was an Olympic sport, much less that it was safe enough in Colombia to ride around on a little bicycle.
You should never underestimate the pride that Latinos (even generations born in the United States) maintain for their origin countries, and not just their specific nationalities, but the collective nationalities of Latin America as a whole. Watching Telemundo's final London Olympics montage tribute, I was getting teary just as much at seeing athletes from Cuba, México, Brazil, Dominican Republic, Colombia, Spain, Argentina, Venezuela and Guatemala take the podium, as I was when was it Puerto Rico's turn. That's right, Puerto Rico competes as it's own country in the Olympics. Little concessions like that keep the island from revolting.
Such trivial geo-political details aren't common knowledge in the United States. For the most part, the Latin American experience has been expunged from our basic school text books. And in Arizona, they are proposing compulsory Latin American history lobotomies.
This all contributes to a lack of familiarity with our culture, resulting in the cluelessness we see reflected on TV. With African American history, at least the average person knows the basics: slavery, civil rights, hip hop. Would that average Americans were even that familiar with us Latinos. Then they'd just have to learn a little Spanish.
Networks that want to get on the good side of the 50 million Latino viewers in this country shouldn't miss no brainer opportunities to stay relevant -- like Olympics coverage. Or... Hispanic Presidential Debate moderator anyone? Do the right thing and give the competition a run for their advertising dollars. And it's dollars, not pesos, we're talking about.
Follow the lead of CNN en español, which rebranded itself to stay relevant to its Spanish-speaking viewers. How? By ditching the "en español" tagline altogether from their logo.
They had the unprecedented cojones to replace it with a single tilde (that squiggly line over the "n" in español). They've got it swishing blatantly now over both of the N's in CNN to form a double eñe.It looks like a huge María Felix ceja arched intimidatingly over Ted Turner's legacy logo. As the doubleeñe doesn't actually exist grammatically, this makes no literal sense whatsoever. You can't even pronounce it. But it's understood instantly by viewers as melding the orthography of Spanish with the letters CNN, the globally recognized acronym in English, to mean "CNN en español." Only in a more efficient graphic vernacular. Plus, the eñe also doubles as a symbol of Latino identity!
Whether or not CNN en español is ready to own up to it, that is an example of pure Spanglish.
I tried to point this out once during an interview on CNN en español and was cut off mid-sentence by the reporter who segued immediately to a Denny's commercial. I guess they were afraid that being outed as participating in the erosion of castellano might undermine their position as the world's go-to Spanish news source. But the new logo earned them a lot of street cred. And since then the wordespanglish has even been adopted officially by the Real Academia Española (the Spanish nazis). It's now in their dictionary. So resistance is futile.
Bilingualism can't be ignored if you want to tap into the Latino audience, especially in the United States. It's a fact of our existence. A fun fact. And, aside from everything else that I have been mentioning, any TV show that is expecting to appeal to Latinos should not be afraid of having fun with Spanish and Spanglish in their English-language programming. Desi Arnaz set the standard as Ricky Ricardo back in the 1950s, before anyone had any hangups or agendas about multiculturalism. And no one ever had a problem understanding what he was saying.
But if you're going to use Spanish and Spanglish in your shows, remember there's a right way and a wrong way to do it. Make it authentic and organic, not ridiculous and condescending. I urge you on this point to heed Lopez's aforementioned advice: "Don't fuck up."
Finally, Networks, and I hope by now I've got your attention, keep this in mind. Latinos love being Latino but we don't want to be limited by that label. We don't only want to be seen through that lens. (What I like the most about my CNN Saturday Morning segments is that my Latino background has nothing to do with their bringing me in to contribute humor commentary on the news at large.) Nevertheless, we want that lens to be properly focused. And your shows aimed at courting Latinos should not be satisfied with just representing. Set your goals a little higher. Aim to elevate.
Personal career aspirations aside, I'm not that worried about whether or when the Latino "Cosby Show" will come along. I know that as a culture, we are too big to fail on TV.
Why? ¡Porque because!
Follow Bill Santiago on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@billsantiago