Culture Clash’s Sitcom Saga : Television: The comedy trio’s failed attempt to launch a prime-time comedy series illustrates some of the obstacles facing Latinos, they contend.


Last summer, Culture Clash was “the great brown hope”--the three-man comedy troupe that was finally going to break through and conquer network television’s persistent refusal to beam Latino-flavored shows and characters into living rooms across the country.

Today, their Fox sitcom dead before it ever got out of rehearsals, Richard Montoya, Herbert Siguenza and Ric Salinas are left asking a question that network television seems unwilling to address: Why are there no Latinos on TV?

“Can you believe that there are four networks, 75 hours of prime-time programming a week and there is not one continuing Latino character on any show anywhere?” Salinas said in an interview. “The hardest part is everyone asking us, ‘When is your show going to be on?’ This was a step up for my mom, who always wanted me to be on ‘Star Search.’ Here I was with my own TV show.”


“And now we’ve been kicked back down to ‘America’s Most Wanted,’ ” quipped Montoya. “Our peers and people in Hollywood understand what we went through and that there’s a lot of sitcoms that don’t make it. The only people that don’t understand are the family members, who pooled their money to buy a 35-inch TV. They’re still at home, along with millions of other Chicano consumers, waiting for us to come on.”

What they went through, the trio agree, is part hell, part humiliation, part blessing in disguise. And it illustrates, they contend, at least some of the obstacles Latinos must overcome if they are ever to get a prime-time TV show of their own.

Their odyssey began when Cheech Marin, half of the former comedy duo Cheech and Chong, saw Culture Clash’s satirical show at the Los Angeles Theatre Center last year and signed the group to star in a sitcom bankrolled by Twentieth Television. His goal was to vanquish the Latino invisibility that had plagued prime-time television ever since “Chico and the Man” ended in the 1970s. Since then, the few Latino-spiced series that made it to the air, such as “Popi” and “A.K.A. Pablo,” lasted no more than a few episodes.

Fox ordered a pilot, which, though written by others, was based upon characters Montoya, Siguenza and Salinas had created on stage. The initial show contained several “T&A;” jokes and references to lettuce picking and rampant barrio crime, and Fox decided against putting it on its fall schedule. Instead, the network took the unusual step of ordering six additional scripts, and then “workshopping” them without cameras at a local theater.

As actors--or “the talking meat,” as Montoya said they were called--the three stars, who had previously written all of the material for their stage productions, basically had no voice in the content of their show. They said that they were handed the scripts by a writing staff hired by Marin and the studio and had to make the best of it. After performing only three of these scripts in workshop, which they claimed became more and more bland and reliant upon Latino stereotypes, Fox pulled the plug.

“I wouldn’t have minded people writing for us, but they didn’t develop a hip sitcom,” Siguenza lamented. “They developed what we call ‘Bosom Beaner Buddies.’ It was just a lot of rehashed, cliched TV material.”


Montoya, who said the show was so bad that Fox was “definitely smart to kill it,” complained that he and his partners were removed from the creative core of the show by a “closed-shop, men’s-club mentality that says, ‘These guys haven’t ever written for TV before so we’ve got to get them experienced TV writers.’ ”

The assistants to the writers had more input into his show than he did himself, Montoya said. One of the writers, he added, actually brought her Salvadoran maid to a writing session. “I thought that said a lot about their sensitivity to what we were all about.”

“These people in Hollywood have only seen stereotypes for years and years,” Salinas said. “They don’t realize that the Latino middle class owns homes, that their children are third- or fourth-generation American and speak fluent English. They see us as foreigners with a different language. They see us as the maids, the bus boys, the troublemakers, the gang members. That’s their view. It’s very narrow and it’s damaging and it’s not letting us move forward.”

While Marin, a Latino, was executive producer, the rest of the staff of writers and the development executives at Twentieth and Fox were not Latino and did not understand the peculiarities and the humor involved in being Chicano, Montoya said.

In a telephone interview, Marin expressed disappointment that a year of hard work on the show had ended in failure, but he refused to place blame on any one thing in particular. In some cases, he said, he thought the scripts were improving.

But he also said that in the current environment, a Latino show is handicapped by a lack of understanding about the realities of Latino life today among the Anglo executives who ultimately decide which shows are produced. It will be a “freak,” Marin stated, for any Latino show to overcome that millstone and slip through the process.


Marin is writing a pilot for NBC that will star himself. He said that it just might take a sitcom centered around someone with his celebrity to finally break the Latino barrier for all the other up-and-coming Latino talent.

“I think there is still fear at the networks about Latino shows,” agreed Luisa Leschin, who--along with her three partners in a Latino comedy group called Latin Anonymous--has written a comedy pilot that is under consideration at ABC. “We do feel that. We’re an unknown commodity, so they tell us, ‘Is this line politically correct? Is it OK to say that?’ Black shows have a history so they know what’s acceptable. A show like ‘In Living Color’ can get away with making fun of themselves and risky stuff because blacks are not a foreign language on TV. With Latinos, they get squeamish and it’s just easier not to deal with us.”

Indeed, after its would-be series died, Culture Clash wrote a script for a sketch comedy, but Fox turned that down too.

Peter Chernin, president of the Fox Entertainment Group, refuted the idea that Fox rejected any of the Culture Clash scripts because they were “too ethnic.”

Fox went into the project wanting “an ethnic show,” he said. It simply turned out badly, he added.

While Chernin acknowledged that the failure of the project probably is a source of great frustration for a Latino community that is eager to see itself represented positively on the small screen, he insisted that it would have been a much larger source of frustration to put the wrong show on the air.


The cancellation “is not an indictment of all Latino shows,” he said, and he denied that Latino shows--at least at Fox--are subjected to an extraordinary amount of scrutiny.

Fox is developing another Latino comedy, and the network met recently with Culture Clash to discuss a Cinco de Mayo comedy special. Fox has also had some success this year with two comedy specials starring Paul Rodriguez.

Such developments are encouraging, the Culture Clash members said, but the trio also believes that they and the Latino artistic community must step up the pressure to force any significant progress.

“Here we are in the shadows of ‘Splendor of 30 Centuries’ and the Mexican art exhibit and we’re still looking for 30 minutes of splendor on TV,” Montoya said. “L.A. seems to accept Mexicanism or multiculturalism. But the people who hold the key to the rest of the country have decided that this just won’t work in the Midwest. For God’s sake, why is it in this town that Latinos can park your car, baby sit your children, garden your garden, wait on you at a restaurant, but for some reason they are denied access inside your home, inside your television?”

All three actors wish now that they’d been more militant about demanding better material, but they were reluctant to do anything that might have jeopardized their big chance to get on TV and become a symbol of hope for other Latino writers and actors. They insist that they won’t make that same mistake next time.

Culture Clash is editing a “Great Performances” piece of the stage show they presented at LATC last summer that will air on PBS March 4. They have also recently performed small roles in two movies: opposite Dustin Hoffman in “Heroes” and with Pauly Shore in “Encino Man.”


The trio has also received a National Endowment for the Arts grant to write a play about Christopher Columbus for the 500th anniversary of his first trip to the Americas, which they plan to perform in several cities next fall, including Los Angeles. They are talking too with several television producers in an effort to create another sitcom.

At a meeting with Michael Jacobs, the executive producer of the ABC comedy “Dinosaurs,” they told him: “You’re the guy who was able to put an extinct species on TV, maybe you can be the one to get Chicanos on too.”