Paul Rodriguez, the original Latin King of Comedy, still delivers the laughs
Making jokes about a commanding officer in the military is an easy way to get your ass shipped off to someplace freezing. Just ask comedian Paul Rodriquez.
“There is an Air Force program called Tops in Blue, and you get to do the USO circuit,” says Rodriquez, who received his conscription notice two months before President Nixon ended the draft. “I did a routine about my commanding officer, who was very highly decorated. He had a limp caused by ejecting out of I think an F-105. Well, I said his limp was sexy, that he had a smooth walk like Ricardo Montalban. Everybody at the Air Force Base laughed, but my next orders were to Keflavik, Iceland.”
The Mexico-born, Compton-raised comedian avoided fighting in Vietnam by enlisting in the Air Force, and cold weather aside, he believes his six years of service changed his life.
“Getting drafted gave me an opportunity to get out of Compton and travel, and it opened up my ambition to do something,” says Rodriguez, who also lived through the Watts riots as an adolescent.
Down with Brown
“The military was a good experience that I don’t regret at all. Oddly enough, I have been to more war areas as a civilian than I ever did in the Air Force. I have been to Iraq and Afghanistan entertaining the troops. I remember when the USO would come entertain us. I saw Kool and the Gang in Keflavik, and it was appreciated. When I am asked to go, I make the time, and I go out there and do what I can.”
Rodriguez, who headlined the 2002 “Original Latin Kings of Comedy” movie, is currently headlining venues in mostly warmer climates as of late. The Latino star is performing material from his new comedic routine: “Fifty Shades of Brown.”
“‘Fifty Shades of Brown’ is just a moniker for the different kinds of Hispanics that are here,” he explains. “I do a routine about how easy it is to take for granted that someone is a Mexican and the surprise when they are not. We are becoming more and more Central American, and the funny [element] is in the customs, the Chicano light as I call it. It encompasses all the things in the media right now … the immigration policies, the amnesty, the anchor babies, the whole thing. It’s just a view from my perspective of change, which is never easy. It’s all of us trying to get along on this small piece of real estate.”
Regarding the literary allusion, he adds, “People recognize the spoof of “50 Shades of Grey,” and I touch on that, too, [such as] the differences between how the rich enjoy their sexual proclivities. It is a family show. There are no F-bombs, no profanity. It is a show that I could take my mom to. I have done about eight shows now in different places, and it is going good. I am trying to get enough material for a special on one of the networks, and I think it is good to go.”
The lucky Juan
Since his breakthrough appearance in 1983’s “D.C. Cab,” Rodriguez has been a regular presence on television, the movies and the comedy tour circuit. Over the years, the comedian claimed several “firsts” for Latino comics, even if the ventures were not always successful. Norman Lear, arguably the greatest sitcom producer in history, chose Rodriguez to lead the 1984 ABC series “a.k.a. Paulo.” Though short-lived, the Smithsonian-enshrined series was the first about a Mexican-American family on a major US network. A few years later, he became one of the first Mexican Americans to host a major TV game show when he replaced Bob Eubanks on “The Newlywed Game.” On the big screen, Rodriguez appeared in nearly 50 movies, and he became one of the first Mexican Americans to write, direct and star in his own US feature film, 1994’s “A Million to Juan.” His cram-packed resume even includes an international Spanish-language talk show on Univision and part ownership of Hollywood’s famed Laugh Factory.
Throughout his career, Rodriguez has also been an activist for several causes, including the Hispanic Scholarship Fund, Juvenile Diabetes Foundation, League of United Latin American Citizens and The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, among several others. Most notably, he is a tireless advocate for water conservation, serving as chairman of the California Latino Water Coalition and earning the Humanitarian of the Year award from the City of Fresno.
Rodriguez also addresses another hot-button issue: immigration.
The comedian continues, “I was at the Arnold Schwarzenegger conference where Sens. [John] McCain and [Michael] Bennett spoke about immigration. Like I told them, you cannot pass a law in America and expect it to work when the other side of the border is not being patrolled. Mexico is broken. There is a river of money and guns going over there, and it has created tremendous hardship. What happens with money, it corrupts officials on both sides of the border. I watch “Border Wars,” and I find it ironic that American immigration officers named Gonzales, Garcia and Hernandez are stopping guys named Gonzales, Garcia and Hernandez from coming over. It is really a very difficult problem that neither the Democrats nor Republicans seem to want to face. What the solution is to that I don’t know.”
Rodriguez, who recently called attention to kidney transplantation with the 2012 award-winning Web series “Fixing Paco,” might use comedy to help a cause, but he avoids getting political in his comic routines.
“I am not a preachy guy [on stage],” he adds. “My shows are sheer entertainment.”
Rodriguez can easily transition between his advocacy and entertainment because he has spent over three decades dividing his talents in productive ways. He is a multicultural, multigenerational star who has performed on stage and on television in both English and Spanish. The first Macintosh computer was not even on the market when he debuted in “D.C. Cab,” yet he has quickly transitioned into the digital age, which includes competing for search engine hits with his superstar skater son, Paul Rodriguez Jr. The digital revolution can be difficult for veteran performers, but just like seeing the positives in getting drafted, the elder Rodriguez embraces the challenges of new technologies.
“You used to have time to work on a five-minute bit for the Johnny Carson show,” he explains, “but now it is immediate. You are up on stage, and by the time you get home, it is up on the Internet. In a sense it is good because it forces you to think fresh, and it weeds out those who have [old] material. A comic [joke] is not like a song where it becomes your favorite the more you hear it. The first time you hear a joke, it’s funny, and the second time you might giggle, but the third time you wonder why it made you laugh. It all depends on the surprise on the punch line. For an older guy, it is a lot harder to stay hip and relevant and keep up with all the new languages and intricacies. In my case, I try to come up with material that suits my age. I try to explain gray hair, which is God’s way of saying you’re running out of ink.”
Nevertheless, the comic whose work spans generations has shown he can reach them all.
“My audience has grown with me,” he remarks. “I can look at an audience and tell they used to be the young ones that used to come. Now the baby boomers have bloomed and they bring their kids to the shows. It really is so rewarding.”
A version of this story first appeared in Culture Magazine.
Paul Rodriguez appears at the Ice House Comedy Club, 24 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena, at 8:30 and 10:30 p.m. Aug. 23 and 8 and 10 p.m. Aug. 24. Tickets are $25 and $32. Call (626) 577-1894 or visit icehousecomedy.com.