After 40 years as one of the biggest standup comics in America, Paul Rodriguez has seen it all. He was the star of the first Latino-centric sitcom ever with ABC’s “AKA Pablo” in 1982, and has hosted the “Newlywed Game” and his own Univision talk show in addition to appearing in dozens of films and TV shows.
But his greatest focus remains in making audiences nationwide laugh in clubs and casino shows, and he’ll be doing just that when he appears at the Ice House at a special 8 p.m. show this Friday. Taking a breather from a hectic schedule that included recent shows in Oregon and Hawaii, as well as filming a movie role in Miami, Rodriguez looked back on the long, strange trip of his career journey.
“In almost 40 years of this I’ve had everything from a shootout between gangs break out outside a club during the middle of a show to drunk women hecklers, who are the worst because even if you get back at them, the audience will turn on you,” says Rodriguez. “But playing San Quentin prison was the scariest. The first time I went there was part of a show on Fox called ‘Sunday Night Comics,’ with Richard Jeni, George Wallace and Elayne Boosler.
“They briefed us not to get off stage, warning us that the audience was real prisoners, not actors,” he continues. “I was second to last, and nearly all tension was played out. I don’t know what possessed me, but I jumped offstage and went up to the biggest guy I could find, a seven-foot-tall Samoan. I simply walked up to him and said, ‘If I ever wind up in this place, I want to be your bitch, because I’ll only have to deal with you, not these other guys.’ Thank God everyone laughed. All comedy is risk. If you succeed, you’re a genius, if you don’t you’re an idiot. There’s no middle ground for us.”
Rodriguez, 63, was born in Cullacon, Sinaloa, Mexico to Mexican agricultural ranchers who later migrated to Compton. He enlisted in the US Air Force and was stationed in Uruguay, Iceland and Minnesota before embarking on his comedy career in Hollywood.
Ranked by Comedy Central at number 74 on its list of “The 100 Greatest Standups of All Time,” Rodriguez’s affable personality has carried him through decades of change in comedy. He is a part-owner of the Laugh Factory comedy club in Hollywood in addition to owning several farms in California’s Central Valley. He’s also a vocal Republican, but he generally steers clear of politics onstage these days.
“I guess politics has played out in my mind, because the jokes about Trump are overwhelming,” explains Rodriguez,. “I like to concentrate on minutiae, the small things in life, things that annoy you, and there’s a lot in relationships, friends, borrowing money, lending money.
“You never know what can happen night to night, and I just had a show where I was interrupted by a lady who had a seizure of some kind,” he continues. “People continued to laugh, because they thought it was part of the show, even when the paramedics were there. I was concerned about her life. It was the weirdest show of my life. They took her, the show must go on and it did. Why they thought I would have a woman fake a seizure to be funny is shocking. It was a learning experience for me because I never experienced something like that.”
While he has had countless great nights onstage where everything went well and the clubs were filled with laughter, Rodriguez also had the odd and unsettling experience of being onstage at New York City’s Playboy Club as the news that John Lennon had been shot dead shocked the city.
“I was the comedian in a big burlesque show between the dancers at their flagship location at Fifth and Madison avenues,” says Rodriguez. “In the middle of the show, they announced John Lennon was shot down the street. People cried, the girls didn’t dance well, my set was really hard, but I went out and did what I could. I got no laughs, and the girls took their clothes off and nobody paid attention. That was the weirdest night ever.”
While Netflix and other streaming services have created a new golden age for comics, Rodriguez notes that the Internet has also made life harder for comics. The fact that a routine can be filmed in a club and wind up on YouTube later that night leaves comics constantly scrambling for new material.
He is also saddened by the fact that the nation’s polarized political climate has made it difficult to just be funny about current events without blatantly taking sides. But as he recounts his greatest career moment, he finds the silver lining in it all.
“My favorite moment was appearing at Harvard with Tim Conway and Alan King at the Hasty Pudding Club,” says Rodriguez. “One of the deans asked if I was impressed being at Harvard. I said, ‘Hell yes, I’m impressed! Harvard is where all the South American presidents go to learn how to screw their people. The last three Mexican presidents came here to learn how to stick it to us.’ The truth is always the funniest.”
Paul Rodriguez performs at 8 p.m. Friday at the Ice House, 24 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena. Tickets are $20. Call (626) 577-1894 or visit icehousecomedy.com. To hear the full audio of this interview, visit https://bit.ly/2GoZOYw.