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COMEDY : Culture Clash Wants to Raise Our Spirit--and Consciousness

<i> Rick VanderKnyff is a frequent contributor to The Times Orange County Edition</i>

Culture Clash keeps hitting new levels of success, but so far the comedy trio hasn’t become spoiled.

Despite a popular weekly TV series (syndicated through Fox Television) and the recent signing of its first movie deal, the troupe is committed to keeping its political consciousness intact. That’s especially true when it plays universities--as it does Friday, with a show at the UCI Bren Events Center.

“Our primary focus is to entertain and to make people laugh, but running a very close second is our desire to politicize people, and that’s really important at the college level,” said group member Richard Montoya.

Montoya, with colleagues Ric Salinas and Herbert Siguenza, uses satirical sketch comedy and more-serious theatrical vignettes to explore the state of what they call Chicanismo in the United States, but they say their message--nonviolence and activism--plays to a broader audience.

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“It’s just a matter of being proactive rather than complacent,” Montoya said. “Everyone should have a little bit of consciousness in them. We’re trying to keep people on campus involved in this kind of stuff.”

Besides their evening performance, the trio will offer a free workshop at 1 p.m. in the campus Cross-Cultural Center. One of the goals, Montoya said, is to give students the inside scoop on Hollywood, especially the lack of successful Latinos and how Culture Clash is bucking that trend.

The group’s sketch-oriented TV show--called, appropriately, “Culture Clash"--is seen locally on Saturdays at 7 p.m. It started as a six-week experiment in July and is slowly adding cities across the country. Still, the show has yet to break into New York and Miami, two cities with huge Latino populations, and Montoya is starting to wonder why.

“It’s really doing well in each of its markets,” he said. “We’re kind of thinking it’s time for it to make the leap to the (Fox) network. . . . We watch ‘In Living Color,’ and we watch ‘Saturday Night Live,’ and this show stands show up there with those.”

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In the meantime, the group continues its theater projects, including a commissioned work to be called “Culture Clash Does Miami,” about the Cuban experience in that city.

“It’s really one of the first pieces that takes us outside the Chicano experience,” Montoya said.

Working on the TV show has actually changed the trio’s live performances for the better, Montoya says.

“The stage work has kind of gotten edgier and more urgent,” he said, referring to the tenor of its political and social commentary. “It’s still funny, but the stage is becoming a forum for what we can’t do on TV. . . . When we’re on the stage, it’s just a different animal all together.”

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The UCI show will feature skits and some more somber set pieces, set against the funeral last year of farm labor organizer Cesar Chavez.

“We look at militancy and Chicanismo and where has it gone, and what will be its place in the 1990s,” Montoya said.

A central question raised is whether the Chavez legacy of “nonviolence, pride and unity” still has a place or whether Latinos should focus on matters economic and leave issues of identity unexplored.

“We’re just trying to lead the way as far as discussion,” Montoya said. “Are we all going to become middle class and complacent, or do we find a place where our militancy works hand in hand with our daily lives?”

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* What: Culture Clash.

* When: Friday, May 13, at 8 p.m.

* Where: Bren Events Center on the UC Irvine campus.

* Whereabouts: Take the San Diego (405) Freeway to Jamboree Road and go south. Turn left onto Campus Drive and right onto Bridge Road. The Bren Center will be on the right at Mesa Road.

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* Wherewithal: $15 general, $13 for UCI faculty and staff, $6 for UCI students.

* Where to call: (714) 856-5000.

MORE COMEDY:

County comedy clubs seems to have hit their impressionist phase. Craig Shoemaker’s stable of impersonations includes some familiar names, but he likes to give them an unusual twist, as in a signature routine offering various celebrities at the moment of birth. Through May 22 (except Monday) at the Brea Improv. (714) 529-7878.

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Greg Travis’s impressionist’s repertory runs from Robin Leach to Jack Nicholson, and includes some less celebrity-oriented fare, such as a take on a mall kid having a “major low blood sugar attack.” He plays the Irvine Improv through Sunday, May 15. (714) 854-5455.

Bob Nickman made what has to be one of the more unusual transitions into comedy--from harmonica playing. His musical skills come into play in his act, which comes to the Centerfield Sports Bar & Grill in Huntington Beach on Tuesday, May 17. (714) 848-0113.


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