On Bicultural Comedy
An Interview with Herbert Sigüenza
As one of the founding members of the Chicano Latino ensemble Culture Clash, Herbert Sigüenza has recently branched out as an independent writer, writing solo pieces, farces, adaptations, and tragicomic plays. He is currently in his fourth year as playwright-in-residence at the San Diego Repertory Theatre, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, where his new play Bad Hombres/Good Wives, an adaptation of Molière’s School for Wives that I dramaturged, enjoyed a successful run.
In addition to my role as dramaturg, I work as the assistant director for the Center for Comedic Arts at Emerson College. Collaborating with Sigüenza on this adaptation, I marveled at the speed with which he wrote, the wild bravado of his sense of humor, and the keen insight he brought to rehearsals. Ideas for bits, jokes, callbacks, and lazzi seemed to pile on as he and his castmates put the play on its feet. I realized what I was watching was the culmination of thirty-five years of experience creating comedy and performing in a variety of locales, including churches, prisons, community centers, and LORT theatres all across the country. Written in Spanish and English, his works often cross cultural divides and provide a frenetic mishmash of contexts.
In this interview, Sigüenza discusses his process and approach to comedy. The broader themes he touches upon concern the unique dynamics of bicultural comedy. He frames the comic writer as a type of diplomat whose plays yoke together divergent ideas, jokes, characters, and languages, while managing to get a diverse group of people to laugh at it all the same.
Matthew McMahan: How would you define your brand of comedy?
Herbert Sigüenza: My old 1989 Culture Clash sketch “The Return of Che Guevara” is a blueprint on how I still write. I tend to mash up history with humor. In that sketch I put a historical and cultural icon like Che Guevara in a contemporary context and juxtapose him against the apathy of the nineties. From the beginning, we’ve always incorporated music we enjoyed, like the Beatles’ Revolution, songs we’d hear on MTV, and scores from movies. Fellow Culture Clash member Richard Montoya is a real soundtrack junkie, so we would use a lot of that music to give it grandeur—a filmic feel—even when it wasn’t. It was agitprop with big intentions.
That’s always been a part of Culture Clash’s appeal. Just when you think we’re getting pretentious, we sabotage it with something funny. People, the lefties, were really upset when we made fun of Che Guevara, but we were like, “So what?”
Matthew: What’s your typical response to that kind of reaction, when you’ve offended someone?
Herbert: Culture Clash has never been idealistic or dogmatic. We are Chicanos surfing the binational, bilingual waves of national and political ambiguity. Like good satirists, we’ve always been on the outside, reporting back through a Chicano lens. And we’ve always taken that position, where everyone can get skewered. Left, right, white, and brown. Everyone can be made fun of. Except mothers. Mothers are sacred. We learned that the hard way!
I have that other weapon, too. I use a lot of Spanish.
Matthew: You’ve performed comic pieces for thirty-five years now. What has that experience given you?
Herbert: It definitely gives you confidence as a writer. I know what works; I know how to create and construct a joke or a funny scene. Thirty-five years of doing it gives you a skill that’s typically hard to master. I have read and seen very clever intellectual work but there are very few comedies out there, and very few comedic writers, because it’s hard to make people laugh genuinely—like getting belly laughs from people and making them cry. Quite frankly, I don’t know how I do it; academically, I cannot describe what that is. It’s kind of an instinctive feeling, and that’s just from doing it for so long.
Matthew: It’s hard to intellectualize humor.
Herbert: Yes! The minute you do, it’s not funny anymore. It’s an instinctual thing. It’s tactile. You’re creating something and boom, you’ve got the punchline. I’m not reinventing the wheel here. I’m basically a traditionalist, using double entendre, the rule of three, pratfalls. My work harkens back to the comic heroes I grew up watching like Red Skelton, Carol Burnett, and Cantinflas. Later on, I enjoyed Mel Brooks, Monty Python, and Richard Pryor. I’m certainly dating myself here, but I can’t name a performer under forty who has those skills.
My most recent play, Bad Hombres/Good Wives, is a good example of all those influences. There is drag, pratfalls, disguises, and a striptease featuring guacamole. We used classic bits, like the mirror scene from the Marx Brothers, and added them in. They’re like greatest hits, and when you perform them again, you’re gonna get a laugh. I know it’s funny because I’ve seen it done a thousand times and it always gets a laugh. Why not go back to that? There’s no reason not to. I just dress it in other clothing.
Matthew: Building on the notion of using time-tested jokes, you’ve now done two adaptations of Molière. When approaching an adaptation, how do you update the humor of the piece?
Herbert: I come up with the theme first. Where am I putting this old dusty play and in what new context? In Manifest Destinitis, for example, it was in early California. In Bad Hombres, it was narcoland. Once I decide on the theme, that dictates the style of comedy. Manifest Destinitis is set in early California, so it should use early vaudeville makeup, floor lights, and Western melodrama. Bad Hombres/Good Wives was written in a campy TV novela style. There are narcos, nuns, and a foul-mouthed female mariachi by the name Lucha Grande. The performance is filled with banda songs, which feature roguish cowboys and tales of lovelorn narcos.
In those cases, I can’t throw a contemporary joke in because it wouldn’t be true. It’s the easiest way to get a laugh, throwing something in that’s a total non sequitur, but it pulls you out. I’ll still do it once in a while. It’s partly how I comment on the play: “Don’t take this so seriously folks.” Even I don’t take it seriously. I like to remind audiences that they are a big part of the experience.
We hear about whites appropriating Latino culture, well I appropriate white culture and make it relevant to us.
Matthew: How do you decide what to keep from the old comedy?
Herbert: What I kept from Molière are those universal, very human moments. When I read these old texts, I can see there are jokes, and they probably killed in the seventeenth-century, but they’re not funny anymore. So I take the essence of the joke and I’ll heighten it. I’ll make it nastier or bilingualize it. Something to make it new.
I have that other weapon, too. I use a lot of Spanish. Culture Clash’s comedy is bicultural and inclusive—we really do use humor that appeals to both a Latinx audience and a mainstream audience. Sometimes we include jokes that are only funny to a white audience, jokes that are geared to the subscriber. That’s why I throw in the classics, like Molière. To tantalize them. But then I switch it on them, I put it in Spanish.
It’s appropriation. We hear about whites appropriating Latino culture, well I appropriate white culture and make it relevant to us.
Matthew: What’s happening in the interplay between Spanish and English that works comically?
Herbert: It’s a rhythm thing. There’s just the rhythm—the sound of certain Spanish words are funny already. I’ve always said that you can mention the word “carne asada” and it will surely get a laugh! I’m bilingual, so it’s really natural for me to write like that. And I’ll get complaints: “There’s too much Spanish.” I know if there’s too much Spanish people won’t get it, and I don’t want people not to get it, but I think there are certain jokes that are just for bilingual people, and that’s okay. There are millions of us. And that is America’s future audience, too.
I’m not apologetic about it. It’s important to get people’s ears used to it. It takes me a while to understand Shakespeare, and then, little by little, my ear gets accustomed to it.
Matthew: In that case, a bilingual comedy is performing an important social role. It’s getting an audience used to hearing Spanish on stage.
Herbert: San Diego Rep is fifteen minutes from a Spanish-speaking country. Fifteen minutes! Why wouldn’t there be Spanish in my play?
I got two reactions to Bad Hombres: “There was too much Spanish, I was left out,” or, “Thank you for putting Spanish in the piece. I was on the edge of my seat and it made me concentrate more.”
Matthew: I’m curious how the rehearsal process helped shape Bad Hombres.
Herbert: I try to get as close as I can to comedy on the page, but I knew we would find a lot of physical comedy once we staged it. It was screaming for it. It goes back to style—that heightened style requires physical comedy. We used people’s fortes, whatever they are. For example, we found out that Jose Balistrieri—Mario in Bad Hombres—is super athletic, and we used that throughout the whole play. Dancing, fighting, jumping through windows. It was so easy for him, and people loved it.
Whatever people can do, I’ll use. You can sing? I’ll give you a song. John Padilla—Don Ernesto in Bad Hombres—sings well, so I gave him another song, which ends the first act. I didn’t see that coming until I heard him sing during a reading.
Comedy is a real collaborative process. I don’t think my text is sacred, that it can’t be changed. If someone has a better idea, we’ll do it. Culture Clash has always been that way when working with directors. We’ll suggest something, but if their ideas are better, we’ll go with it, always. Don’t be stubborn.
I don’t think my text is sacred, that it can’t be changed. If someone has a better idea, we’ll do it.
Matthew: What about in performance? What do you learn in previews that helps you hone the jokes?
Herbert: Previews are all about finding the rhythm, the musicality of the play. You know there is a laugh there, but it’s not happening. So you go back and say, “Okay, what are we doing that’s not provoking that laugh, or what are we not doing that’s not provoking that laugh?”
As performances go on, I’ll checkmark a page and go back to the original script, and sure enough there’s a word in there blocking the joke, or someone didn’t do a double take or a pause. It’s all these little things. And then after two or three previews, you start hearing the rhythm. Every show should sound the same. Text, laughter. Text, Laughter. Like a symphony. Some nights are bigger and more boisterous, of course. In my plays, it depends on how many Latinos I have in the audience.
Matthew: Do you mind touching on that more? What’s the difference?
Herbert: Bad Hombres is a great example. We had an invited dress rehearsal where it was very diverse, and it was great. We thought, “Oh man, we’ve got a hit here.” And then the next night was the first preview, and it was all older white people—your traditional subscriber preview audience—and it was quiet. Really quiet. And we were like, “What the hell? What happened? I thought it would be funny for white people, but they’re not laughing. What’s going on?” The next night we papered the audience with forty or fifty Latinos, and the room suddenly became boisterous and alive. It’s like the Latinos laughing gave the white audience permission to laugh as well.
Also, for the first preview, we didn’t have a pre-show recording. And then I said, “Culture Clash always uses a funny pre-show recording that warms up the audience and gives them permission to laugh.” The recording we did for Bad Hombres is done in a mock Ricardo Montalbán accent. It says, “If there’s an earthquake, please allow the Anglo patrons to exit first.” So people go: “Oh, I see where this guy is coming from. This comedy is going to be irreverent. It’s going to be okay to laugh.”
Matthew: There’s a little diplomacy happening there.
Herbert: Yeah, it’s almost like an overture that warms up the audience. We get four or five good laughs out of it before the show even starts! And it makes a big difference. We played the pre-show announcement before the third night of Bad Hombres, and the audience kept laughing the whole night.
It’s very rewarding when you have Latinos and Anglos laughing together at each other’s particular cultural nuances. I have been doing this kind of work for thirty-five years and it’s more important now than ever. Laughter is a human reaction that sounds the same in any language.
Matthew: In a lot of ways you can rely on the intermingling of those two audiences, Latinos and Anglos, in a San Diego context. What about when your comedy travels? What sorts of challenges have you faced in adapting your work, your jokes, in different contexts?
Herbert: I think San Diego audiences are a microcosm of general theatre audiences everywhere: well-educated Anglo audiences from different parts of the country with a sprinkling of middle class local people of color. It’s a perfect testing ground for shows that are going somewhere else. A lot of artists like John Leguizamo test their material here first. Both Culture Clash and I have started shows here and have not felt the need to change them later. In fact, Bad Hombres/Good Wives is going to have a student production at NYU’s Tisch theatre this spring, and I don’t think I will change a thing. Do East Coast writers change their dialogue to appease a West Coast audience? Nope.
Matthew: The word bicultural often makes me think in terms of ethnicity, race, and nationality. But you’re also performing for an intergenerational audience. You've already mentioned that your sensibilities grew out of a different era—what’s it been like bridging the gap between an older and younger audience?
I’m glad you asked that because the fact that multiple generations come and see my shows is very gratifying. There are people who saw Culture Clash in college in the eighties and now come with their grown children. Culture Clash does monologues that are sometimes twenty-five years old, which the parents remember and relive and the children find fresh and funny. Both generations get something out of it.
We don’t feel like we’re putting on an oldies act of greatest hits because we are constantly updating the material. And we have changed as performers as well. Getting old in the comedy world is not a bad thing actually. We have gained so much comic knowledge and expertise that only thousands of performances can give you. I always said we are like seasoned jazz musicians who can read an audience and improvise and adjust the tone to fit the vibe in the room. Cool, huh?