The first and perhaps only time I heard Spanglish on primetime TV growing up was in 1995, when John Leguizamo broke into an aggressively rapped love song.
I love you, love you, Previa!
Like an engine I’m gonna rev-ya!
Arroz con pollo, café con leche
[Hips thrusting into the air]
Chuleta! Chuleta! Chuleta!
The Spanish bits don’t mean much ― they just rhyme. “Arroz con pollo” is a Caribbean dish of rice and chicken, one that abuela made monthly throughout my youth. Café con leche means “coffee with milk.” A “chuleta” is a pork chop.
But to hear those farcically nonsensical rhymes in primetime from the overwhelmingly Anglo suburbs of Virginia in the ‘90s felt like TV was participating in an inside joke with my Cuban family. My mother and I still sing the words to each other from Leguizamo’s sketch every now and then and still crack up when we do.
Those were the days before the 2010 U.S. Census showed that the 50 million-strong Hispanic population wielded more than $1 trillion in purchasing power, leading to a series of clumsy attempts by the entertainment industry, news media and political campaigns to attract the growing market’s attention.
But when Leguizamo rented a theater off Broadway more than two decades ago to pioneer the new sketch comedy show to succeed the Wayans brothers’ “In Living Color,” appealing to Hispanic viewers on English-language television was still a novel idea.
“Up to that point, I just never saw anything about Latin life,” Leguizamo told The Huffington Post. “We have such a great sense of humor and such a great history. There was nothing about us and I was seeing us everywhere ― in New York, L.A., Texas ... It’s like the only funny people in the world were white people.”
“So that’s what I did,” Leguizamo went on. “I picked up all my friends and we did the show.”
The result was “House of Buggin,’” a hyperactive sketch comedy with only one white cast member.
Reaching Hispanic audiences is harder than it might sound. The multiracial ethnicity encompasses a broad swath of people with origins in two dozen countries, unique histories of arriving in this country and varying degrees of fluency in English and Spanish. But both Hollywood and television ― not to mention the news media and political campaigns ― have often tried to approach their diversity problem by treating Latinos as an undifferentiated mass.
Leguizamo took the opposite approach with “House of Buggin,’” caricaturing different groups of Hispanics from across the map, often playing against stereotypes.
“West Side Story” got an update when the Sharks confronted a modern-day gang. The “Chicano Militant Minute” interrupted regularly scheduled programming to offer bizarre reinterpretations of Latino history in a Los Angeles accent. An infomercial hawked “illegal alien makeovers,” promising to turn undocumented immigrants into Kevin Costner lookalikes by giving them a blond wig and an English accent. Several sketches involve voguing.
Whether or not a Hispanic theme emerged in any given skit, the show was anchored by Colombian-born Leguizamo’s unmistakably New York Latin sensibility, drawing influences from Nuyorican culture, hip-hop and Broadway.
The show brought solid, though not Earth-shattering, ratings, debuting in its first week at No. 58 ― the best among the three new shows Fox released that season. A mixed review from People magazine awarded the show a “B,” praising Leguizamo as a “good mimic” with “energy and comic flair to spare,” but criticizing the consistency of the writing and the quality of the cast, with the exception of character actor Luis Guzmán. “It’s already funnier than ‘Saturday Night Live,’” the review reads. “Then again, so is ‘Meet the Press.’”
By around the 13th episode, Leguizamo says Fox executives called him into a meeting and asked him to stay on, but dismiss the mostly Latino cast and start over with new faces. Leguizamo refused and “House of Buggin’” got canceled.
“They gave us an opportunity, so I’m thankful in a lot of ways,” Leguizamo said. “They were fantastic. They really loved the show. Then they didn’t love it as much … Maybe I should have been a lot more Trumpian and cared only about myself and fired everybody, but that’s not the way I work.”
A Fox representative declined to comment, noting that the decision was made two decades ago by people no longer with the company. The channel retained the only white cast member, David Herman, along with some of the writers, producers and directors, and created “MadTV.” Herman declined an interview request for this piece.
“It was before its time,” Fax Bahr, a former “House of Buggin’” writer, told HuffPost. “I remember being really proud of the show ― we did some really funny stuff. Obviously, any time you don’t get picked up it’s disappointing.”
Several people echoed the notion that “House of Buggin’” flamed out early largely because it landed well before TV executives gave much consideration to reaching Hispanic audiences. But even now that the Hispanic market is hot, many say that television shies away from the cultural specificity that made the show unique.
“When I think about the content that’s being developed right now to reach the Latino community, I don’t see that it has this originality or this authenticity that John had in 1995,” Felix Sanchez, the CEO of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, told HuffPost. “He was masterful at all those different characters that he could create and have them all be relatable to people who were both in culture and out of culture.”
Robert Gonzales, a San Antonio artist and animator, has learned firsthand how hard it can be to take a Latin-themed show to market when it revolves around specific cultural context. He recently went to Los Angeles to do a series of pitch sessions for “The Ernie Show,” a show he developed with Broadway Video’s Más Mejor studio.
“The Ernie Show” is both unabashedly Mexican-American and Texan. In one episode, a character named Lil’ Jojo demonstrates in erotic detail how to tell the contents of a breakfast taco without ruining it by opening the foil. In another, a plump father named Javi calls to complain to a nearby barbecue that the smoker is polluting his house and slow-cooking his daughter, setting the stage for an attempt at a discount.
But you don’t have to be Tejano to understand the show any more than you’d have to be black to get “In Living Color,” or white to understand “MadTV.”
“Good drama, good comedy ― it has specificities to it,” Gonzales told HuffPost. “Even though you might not know all the details about it ― you understand the authenticity of it.”
Even so, when Gonzales pitched the show to cable TV networks, he walked away wondering how well they understood it. He knew his show would appeal broadly to Latinos, but in all the pitch sessions, the only person sitting across the table from him who was a person of color, he said, was African-American.
“Everyone was really great and really gracious and laughed at everything,” Gonzales said. “But I could tell that they really don’t know what to do with me. … They don’t understand where this fits. If you live on either coast, then you’re not going to understand what’s going on in between.”
He wondered whether “House of Buggin’” got canceled because it faced a similar challenge.
“I’m sure that the people at Fox at the time understood [Leguizamo’s] amazing talent, but just didn’t know what to do with it or how to market it,” Gonzales told HuffPost. “Because he himself had this specificity ― very New York, very street. But he himself was Latino too ― it was this combination of flavors that we hadn’t been exposed to.”