Long before drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman escaped from a maximum security prison in July, Internet comedy star Chumel Torres had joked with viewers that they should lay bets on when it would happen.
More than a million Mexicans subscribe to Torres’ YouTube channel, El Pulso de la Republica, the country’s most successful independent satirical show.
Twice a week, Torres, 33, uses the ample supply of public corruption, embarrassing mismanagement and other hot-button issues that plague Mexico to script his show, delivered mainly straight to the camera with an array of props such as wigs and glasses.
On the recent extradition of 13 drug traffickers to the United States — including the notorious Edgar “La Barbie” Valdez Villarreal — Torres was sanguine.
“All we can do is go wave off his plane, and hope that our prison system improves enough that we don’t have to outsource it to the United States,” Torres said.
On the issue of immigration, he joked, “Migration is like smoking weed: If you don’t have papers, it’s going to be a bitch.”
Over the last three years, Torres has built himself into a Web sensation doing the kind of satirical material online that wouldn’t make it onto the airwaves in today’s Mexico.
“We used to have programs like Chumel’s on national TV, and they were funny, brave and fun, but they’ve gradually come off air,” said Alvaro Cueva, a media columnist for the Milenio newspaper. “It’s because of fears: Brands didn’t want to advertise there for fear of reprisals, and so we’ve been left without political humor on TV.”
Working out of a tiny green-screen studio in the south of Mexico City, the slight, energetic Torres and his four-man team launch into tirades, punctuated by guffaws and laughter breakdowns.
In establishing the show, Torres left behind a popular weekly political column he wrote for a local news website.
“We never did any market research or anything like that,” Torres said. “We just thought it would be so cool.”
Not a bad way to make a living, which he does, with enough funds from advertising to leave a budget for travel and investment, no easy task in a country dominated by a government-friendly media landscape. But Torres thinks that has worked to his advantage because the Internet is outside the reach of government censors.
“I think people have really enjoyed watching El Pulso flourish, which is cool because we’re not Televisa.”
It is only on the Web that one can find entities like El Pulso and El Deforma, Mexico’s answer to the Onion.
El Deforma, which features text, not video, launched in 2011 and now gets 1.2 million hits a day. (The name is a play on that of one of Mexico’s main newspapers, Reforma.)
When Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina resigned this year over corruption allegations, El Deforma ran a mock story about how Mexicans are now braving the journey south in search of the “Guatemalan dream.”
Financially the site is breaking even, according to one of its team of four writers, Daniel Castillo, and Mexico’s reality requires comedy reading.
“We believe that one of the best ways to live calmly is to know that bad things happen but to be able to laugh at them. There’s nothing more healthy than that and it’s seriously lacking here in Mexico,” he said via email.
In August, Torres launched El Pulso US — an English-language show aimed at Latinos north of the border.
“These are educated Mexicans we’re talking to — chingones” (badasses), he said enthusiastically.
Having grown up as a cross-border kid in the northern state of Chihuahua, Torres slips comfortably back and forth between English and Spanish. The people he wants to reach aren’t the generation of Latinos in the United States nostalgic for home, and faithful to Univision, but their children.
“The ones in college, making art, the ones who don’t care and have been Americans since Day One but are proud of their Latino roots.”
But why should Americans care what a Mexican, in Mexico, thinks of the U.S.?
“We’re not television and I think that changes things. Internet allows you to do more.... It’s more free when you write or say bad words. Our strength will be that — people will look at the show and say, why is a Mexican analyzing U.S. topics? But then our analysis is really good.”
Gustavo Arellano, author of the column "¡Ask a Mexican!” in the OC Weekly, said that Torres is a breath of fresh air in Mexico but will have to do his homework if he wants to crack the U.S.
“The challenge, if he wants to take on the United States, is he’s going to have to learn those idioms and nuances of American English,” Arellano said. “The market on accented foreigners sending up the news is already taken by Trevor Noah,” Jon Stewart’s replacement on “The Daily Show.”
Bonello is a special correspondent.
Cecilia Sanchez in The Times’ Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.