Señor Funny

Paul Rodriguez

Mexican comedian Paul Rodriguez paved the way for Hispanics in the entertainment industry. Twenty years ago, Rodriguez could reliably find work only on Cinco de Mayo and Sept. 15. Today, he’s selling out crowds in places where his paycheck used to be a free meal. He’s also an actor, director and writer, and, in 2002, produced The Original Latin Kings of Comedy. Rodriguez performs at the Silver Legacy May 8, just three days after Cinco de Mayo.

Where are you right now?

I exist here in smoggy Los Angeles. If I could, I’d move out of here. I’d get a house along Lake Tahoe. You should move to San Diego. Why? Because it’s about 98 percent Mexican, and at night it’s 99 percent. I’m shooting a picture right now. We’re shooting at night and I get home around 5 in the morning. Then I get up early and start doing interviews. I’m shooting a movie called Cloud Nine. It’s about four people living lies. I play a Mexican gardener who pretends to be Chinese because if you’re Chinese you’re a landscaper, which means $1.25 more an hour. The movie also stars Burt Reynolds, Gabrielle Reece and D. L. Hughley. I also worked on A Cinderella Story with Hillary Duff, which comes out in June. … … My kid never wanted to get on the set with Russell Crowe or Clint Eastwood, but when I’m working with Hillary Duff, he says, “Do you think you could get me a pass? She’s hot.” … I’m also in an independent film called Baadasssss! that is winning all these awards at indie film festivals right now. The whole cast is black except for me. I play an angry Puerto Rican cinematographer. … I tell my agents to give me any role, just make it different. I don’t want to be a character actor.

Not having seen much of your stand-up, especially recently, can you give me a taste of some of the Latino stereotypes you joke about?

Well, you know, that was early on in my career. I’m ashamed, and part of me is proud, to say that I came up with the joke that Taco Bell is a Mexican phone company, or that the first words a Mexican hears are “Attention K-Mart shoppers.” You know you’re getting old when people start telling you your own jokes. What my act is now would be hard to say. I don’t sit down and write. It depends on what’s happening when I’m there. I’m not there to preach, change your mind or change political philosophies. I’m just there to make you laugh. It’s a family show. Bring grandma, bring grandpa. Dig them up. My show is PG.

So many comedians are venturing into politics these days. Are you one of them?

I don’t find it funny especially in these times. I’ve been overseas to perform in Baghdad, Afghanistan, Kuwait, on the aircraft carrier the Abraham Lincoln. I went three times to perform for the troops, not because I’m a patriot. I mainly went because the Dallas Cheerleaders went. I’m being facetious. No, they did go, but I think it was my civic duty. There are so many Latinos there. I know there are all types of people there, but maybe it is because my heart leans a little to the Latino side that I sure see a lot of Hispanics. I guess it’s because of a lack of jobs that so many of us are going into the service, and so many of us are dying. I don’t really talk about that in my jokes. I’m just telling you that. With political humor, you turn people off. If you’re paying money to come and see my show, I would feel like I was cheating you if I went into politics. I don’t want to make you think. I want to make you forget whatever is bothering you—that you have a car payment, that you have diabetes. If I don’t take you out of your misery, then I’m not doing my job. I talk about mundane things, like why is it that people with bad breath always want to tell you secrets? I guarantee when you walk out of my show, people won’t say “He’s a republican” or “He forgot where he came from.” I do like to throw in a little bit of Spanish sometimes. I will go as low as I have to and as high as I can to make you understand that I’m your professional clown.

Do you intentionally plan tours around the time of Cinco de Mayo?

You know, I think I was the first Mexican-American stand-up. Yes, there was Freddie Prinze, but he was Puerto Rican and Hungarian. Cheech and Chong were way before me, but they basically did other types of material. I think as far as Mexican-American comedians, I was first. Although, that doesn’t mean I was the best. Cinco de Mayo and Sept. 15 were the only two days that I used to work, and that was in Las Vegas and Reno. It was like Black History Month, except they’d try to get Latinos. Cinco de Mayo and Sept. 15, I guarantee you I was working somewhere. Things change, though. Now I’m allowed to work all times of year. That’s because our numbers have grown so much. … I also got a lot of jobs in Vegas because of Oscar de la Hoya. There are so many Latinos that now I’m playing places like Seattle, Wash. The last time I played Seattle, there were maybe 60 people in the club, now it’s sold out. It has to do with the fact that our population is growing. We’re spreading like a cold.

That makes it sound bad.

I didn’t mean it in a bad way. That’s how it’s happening.

Have you been to Reno before?

I think it’s the biggest little city in the world. I may be wrong. No, no, I’ve been to Reno many, many times. The very first time must have been 1981. I was trying to showcase for Fitzgerald’s. They used to have an open mic night, and I don’t take it personal, but I didn’t get on. I don’t mean to play the race card, but I don’t think I was what they were looking for. I took a bus to Tahoe and didn’t get into the showcase there either. Back then, being a Mexican comic was a novelty. Sometimes, I would work for food, and I would ask, “If I’m really good can you put me up so can I sleep here.” A lot of people treated me nice. I would like to tell some mean racist stories, but that didn’t happen. People are mostly good. Later, I got in with the Silver Legacy people in Reno, the Caranos, through the Buzby Golf tournament. A buddy of mine said, “If you can get on the golf course, all the owners and players are there. You could work there, and if you’re any good, they might give you a break.” I got up there, sort of as a caddie, and holy cow, the Carano guy liked me, and he hired me.

One in 5 people from Reno are Latino, and that number is growing. Do you pay attention to those demographics when planning your tours?

No. Basically, my agent is nothing more than a pimp, and I’m his call girl. He says, “Hey go there, be good, bring me the check, and I’ll split it.” I don’t really have any say so. You know, The Indian casinos have been great in giving comedians work. There used to be about five of us comics, and there was hardly enough work for all of us. Just this year alone, I’ve been to Montréal, Canada. We sold out the Apollo in Harlem. Atlantic City would have never hired me before now. Before, the only time they would hire me in Atlantic City would be to open for Julio Iglesias. I opened for Gloria Estefan at the Hilton in Vegas where I now have a contract. The Hispanic audiences are so well represented now. I do shows in Topeka, Kan., and Omaha Neb. You get other audiences members aside from Latinos, blacks and whites, but that’s mainly because there is nothing else to do in Topeka. The government guess-timate is that there are 37 to 40 million Latinos in the United States. I would say add another 10 million who are working illegally. For our numbers, we’re always under-represented. That’s what kept me going in the beginning. I knew one day that this would come. We’re not taking jobs away. We’re not here for any other reason that that we’re dying and starving in Mexico. All we want is just a better life. I hope we have been an asset to American and not a detriment. That’s why I go to the Middle East to do my routine, that’s why I was in the Air Force, why my brother was in Vietnam. There are not that many Mexicans in Mexico who have a swimming pool. You can’t even say anything against the government in Mexico or you’ll disappear. Hopefully one day, Cesar Chavez will be another holiday.

When you type Paul Rodriguez into a Web search engine, at least 25 percent of the hits belong to your pro skateboarder son. What do you have to say about that?

Isn’t that a shame? I’m jealous. No, he’s the only reason God put me on this planet. I’m so lucky to have a son who paid no attention to me at all. I got him skateboarding at 12. I was always making jokes about how my father never saw something special in me. When I wanted to be a comedian, my father said “Are you crazy? What kind of a career is that?” Well, I committed the same mistake as my dad. At 14, my son said he wanted to drop out of school and skate full time. I wasn’t happy about that. I said that an education’s important and that he had to finish school or I would put him in military school. He said, “Dad this is what I was meant to do.” He said, “How long do you think I could last in military school? I’d walk away just like you.” Then, he started to get a lot of attention. Last year, he signed a deal with Nike for a million a year. He won the X-Games. He makes far too much money. He scares me. My kid thinks that everyone in the world is nice. Basically, what I’m trying to tell you is I’m jealous. I wish I was him. I love him. I’m very proud, and he’s also very funny. He said, “I’m twice as good at skating as you are at being a comedian.” He said if he has a son, he’ll support him. He said, “If I ever have a son and he wants to be a ballerina, I’ll tell him I’ll buy the best tights I can for him.” I get 200 to 250 e-mails a week and about 50 are for me. … He’s making so much money now that I’m afraid to have a DNA test. No, no, I know he’s mine. I knew that the moment I saw him coming out of his mother. I knew that a head that big could only be my son. He just turned 19, and he comes over to my house sometimes with a girlfriend, and I sit there and go “Oh my god, they didn’t make girls like that when I was your age.” He’s a great kid, and he gets propositions for marriage every minute.

How are you involved with the Latino community other than making jokes about it?

Don’t’ get me wrong, I don’t apologize for jokes I did in the past. I didn’t have Richard Pryor to pattern myself out of. And Freddie Prinze died in ‘76. There are a lot of things I’m not proud of. Some of my jokes are stupid. I didn’t know who to be. I had to invent myself. I used to get a lot of hate mail. I was trying got be funny. My intention was not to try and put us down. Back to the question, I am one of these guys who believes that if you are for everything, you stand for nothing. I only work for one organization, which upsets other organizations. I work with the National Hispanic Scholarship Fund. I have done some things for diabetes because Hispanics suffer at a disproportionate rate. Once a year, we do a big show and we take all the proceeds and give a check to [the Scholarship Fund]. I’m not a big fish, but I do know some big fish. We’ve got Jimmy Smits, Carlos Santana, Linda Ronstadt, Gloria Estefan. Over the years, [the money] has piled up. It is one of the most lauded and respected organizations. Less than 3 cents goes into overhead. Close to 97 cents goes toward the scholarships. Since the fund started, a lot of youngsters have graduated. It would do us no good—if in the coming years we are a substantial majority—to still be doing the same jobs. The best way I can help is to use whatever celebrity I have to help get Hispanic kids into the big schools. To go to Stanford isn’t cheap. To go to Yale isn’t cheap. To go to Harvard isn’t cheap. I was astounded at how much it cost. I don’t raise enough money to make a tinker’s damn, but I try, and I hope that’s my legacy. I hope people will look at my work and say "Maybe he wasn’t that funny, some of his jokes were offensive, but he did his best to try and educate kids." I hope that’s what I’m remembered by. I have no ambitions of a Tony, Emmy, Grammy or a Stanley Cup—that was a joke. I may get a Heisman, if O.J. sells his. But my heart is in the right place. That’s really the only charity I have. I don’t want to be famous for a disease [cause]. I think I help all the causes by supporting education.