Focus : Clashing Worlds

Steve Weinstein is a frequent contributor to Calendar and TV Times

Each Saturday on KTTV, the local TV audience is treated to such skits as American Border Gladiators, in which two contestants from Central America--one is a man dressed as a Kung fu-fighting housewife--attempt to outrun and out-muscle two athletic Anglo gladiators at a fake international frontier.

Meanwhile, most nights next month at the Mark Taper Forum, several hundred theater lovers will be treated to three Chicano brothers reflecting on the death of Cesar Chavez, the relevance of their Latin heritage to their Americanized lives, the history of L.A., communism and the place of politics in art in a long narrative corrida filled with song, pathos and satire.

Though such contrasting artistic visions may seem as incompatible as chorizo and caviar, the fact is that the same three guys are responsible for both.

Culture Clash--the 10-year-old comedy trio of Herbert Siguenza, Richard Montoya and Ric Salinas--is surfing on waves no Chicanos have surfed on before with the weekly comedy-variety show named after the group. The show, produced by Fox Television Stations, is perhaps the only series in TV history that features an all-Latino cast doing all-Latino-flavored material. (KTLA's "Comedy Compadres" features all Latino comedians each week doing their comedy club stand-up routines.)

Members of the group, who have written and performed live theater pieces everywhere from obscure art galleries to college campuses to New York's Lincoln Center, claim that while finally gaining a beachhead in TV Land, they have simultaneously reached a career pinnacle in theater. And, even if they have to work day and night switching back and forth between the two divergent forms and sensibilities, they can't give either up.

"Sometimes it does get a bit schizophrenic because half of our day we're working with Mark Taper dramaturges and directors at this slow, very respectful pace where you let the work build itself, and then the other half we're here (at Fox) where the big question of the day is, 'Where's the funny?' " Montoya says.

"And the people at the Taper just laugh because funny is not even a noun. You can't do the deeper, darker, more personal themes of the theater on TV where it's boom, bam, punch line, it's done. But we love the fact that TV is more instantly gratifying. It's a more populist form, and we're now finally reaching all those hundreds of thousands of people out there who could never afford an expensive theater ticket."

The TV sketches, the group insists, are not watered-down versions of previous stage work. "We're doing dangerous TV," says Salinas, who, along with his two partners, also serves as executive producer of the series. The half-hour show features characters and bits culled from theater productions as well as new material, such as a bit called "Chicano Surf Party" that parodies both the old beach party movies and traditional racial turf battles a la "West Side Story."

Culture Clash recently did a skit called "The Middle East L.A. Peace Treaty," in which the cast dressed up as Hasidic Jew cholos and Yassir Arafat-looking cholos, divvied up sections of the West Bank of the L.A. River, the Boyle Heights and the Montebello mall and signed the treaty in the White House Rose Garden with cans of spray paint.

The TV show began as a six-episode test last summer on KTTV. When it proved popular, occasionally winning its time period, Fox ordered 12 more episodes and sold the show to Fox stations in Houston and Dallas. But Culture Clash had hoped that more stations would have picked up the show by now or that Fox Broadcasting would have grabbed it for prime time.

The problem, the group says, is an age-old battle for Latinos, who have struggled for years to break into television. (Culture Clash made a sitcom for Fox last year that never aired.)

Some station managers fear that the group's irreverent humor, which pokes fun at all kinds of Latino icons--from Julio Igleseias to Frida Kahlo to math teacher Jaime Escalante ("Stand and Deliver") to the Catholic Church--might offend more conservative Latinos, Culture Clash says. And some, the group adds, fear that other minorities and whites won't get the ethnic humor or references.

"They are making assumptions and deciding for people," Siguenza says. "What is funny is funny, and the show is funny. They don't know that it won't play to non-Latinos. It does. Here, we get all kinds of positive reaction from all kinds of people who like the show. We need other Latinos and groups to get behind us and write letters and tell TV stations that they want to see some Latino programming."

The trio often find themselves frustrated over the immigration debate and other political policies affecting Latinos as well as what they see as offensive media images. That frustration finds its way into their act.

"So while we are enjoying some success, we can't ignore these other images," Montoya says. "People are fed up with it. So we will take something like 'American Border Gladiators' and mock the whole bit about Mexicans trying to cross the border, but at the same time it takes a serious subject like immigration and disarms people. I don't know if our skits can change any minds, but every now and then it is important to us to slip in some of our shots while making them laugh."

"Culture Clash" airs Saturdays at 7 p.m. on Fox. The group appears in "Carpa Clash" at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles Dec. 2-23.

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