- Michael Barnes American-Statesman Staff
Can it really have been 20 years?
Since 1997, the Latino Comedy Project, the brainchild of visionary cultural activist Maria Rocha, has been saying what nobody else in Austin would say. And making people laugh every step of the way.
To celebrate the double-decade landmark and to remind folks of a one-weekend-only revival of “Gentrif*cked” at the Santa Cruz Studio Theater, we asked some of troupe long-timers about their funniest LCP moments.
About 10 years ago, we had a gig at the University of Texas for a Latino student organization. It was basically a large classroom auditorium we were performing in, so they had set up a pop-up pipe-and-drape-style dressing room on the stage. Our tech guy was set up at a table next to the stage with his laptop.
The show was going really well. I had written this musical parody called “Shave My Legs” to the tune of Destiny’s Child’s “Say My Name.” It was a goofy piece bringing light to society’s obsession with women’s bodies being hairless and the plight of hair removal.
About a third of the way into the song, I noticed a man in the back of the auditorium gesticulating wildly. Then he started running down the aisle right at the stage. I just continued singing and dancing like nothing was going on.
Then, the guy started telling our tech guy to “Shut it down! Shut it down!” And I was just thinking to myself, “What in the world is going on?” The man started pulling at the cords.
And that’s when the music just stopped.
I still continued to sing and dance until the man declared to the audience the show was over. The three of us ladies that were in the number retreated back to our pop-up dressing room and rapidly started packing up our costumes and wigs and props.
In our rush to get out, the pop-up dressing room came crashing down, exposing us like the Wizard of Oz. We grabbed our gear and made a swift exit. Once outside, Adrian said, “Hold on. I’ve got to get our check.”
We stood outside as the entire audience filed out. Adrian emerged with check in hand and then we bolted.
Nothing like this had never happened to me before. Someone censored my work. It was thrilling! I definitely have a new definition of the term “showstopper” now!
I’m a big fan of sketches that work without using any dialogue at all. One that we used to perform was called “The Short Beautiful Life of the Piojo,” which was a very silly choreographed dance piece about a head louse relishing in life, reproducing and dying in the space of three minutes. Spoiler: He’s killed by a giant fingernail projected on screen.
The entire thing is set to the famous “Flower Duet” piece from the opera “Lakmé,” which in the pre-Spotify, pre-iTunes days must have required a lot of creative Yahoo searches to find since I know nothing about classical or opera music.
What I remember most about the piece is that it required the construction of costumes my mother helped make that included foam swimming-pool noodles wrapped in black material and held together by yarn to create the illusion of six insect arms that we’d wave around on stage as Patricia Arredondo and I did our lice dance of love.
There were also little maggotlike lice babies made of white Styrofoam balls swaddled in baby pink and blue blankets.
This was a lot of effort for a really dumb idea, which was never more evident than when we performed the sketch on the historic and gigantic Paramount Theatre stage. I remember huffing across the expanse of that space, leaping my little piojo (louse) heart out and playing those foam arms to the back rows. My death scene yelping and spasms strained my voice and gave me back pains after the run was over.
I’ll never forget that out-of-body moment in that huge, classy venue, wondering how we were getting away with a romantic head-lice tragedy on the same stage where Miles Davis, Harry Houdini and Chita Rivera had performed.
Every now and then someone who remembers the sketch will tell me they heard the “Flower Duet” on a commercial and their mind went straight to seeing a guy in tights with six arms and pipe-cleaner antennae leap around a stage to it so many years ago.
That’s what I associate it with, too.
When we were first getting started, a lot of us had varying degrees of experience. I’d come up through the St. Edward’s University theater program while also cutting my teeth at Esther’s Follies. Others had no stage or stagecraft training.
Omar Gallaga wrote a piece called “La Femme Lupita” about a maid who doubled as a spy with some very ambitious set demands. When we asked him how he planned on making a trash can on wheels, he paused and said, “Maybe out of chicken wire?”
We laughed hard. We ended up borrowing the trash can from the Dougherty Arts Center. Since then, when a script is too ambitious technically, we joke: “Lights up on the Sahara Desert. The stage is covered in sand, fashioned out of chicken wire.”
The funniest moment I can think of was definitely not funny at the time, but in retrospect pretty hilarious.
In 2004, we began shooting videos and incorporating them into our live productions. Back then — and even still today — we would shoot in a very run-and-gun style. No budget, little to no resources, and definitely no permission.
One cold late night, we were shooting a scene inside a convenience store off of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in East Austin. The father of one of the troupe members owned the store and was happy to let us film there. The scene involved a masked gunman trying to unsuccessfully and somewhat hilariously rob the clerk.
Before filming we had locked the door and put up a sign that said, “Store closed. Filming in progress.” But, you know, people don’t read. During one take we noticed a real customer try to open the door and then look inside the store. They see one of us swinging a fake gun around and yelling.
Jump to five minutes later. The next take was interrupted by the store’s phone ringing. “Cut! Who’s calling at this hour?” The store owner picks up the phone, “Hello? … Yes. … Uh huh. … OK.”
He hangs up and looks at us. “That was the police. They have the store surrounded. They want us to walk out with our hands in the air.”
After a second of disbelief we look out the window and see no less than eight Austin police cars surrounding the store with guns drawn and pointed at us. We all exited the store, dressed in our ridiculous sketch comedy costumes with hands in the air and trying not to laugh at the ridiculousness of the situation.
We were forcefully told to “Get down on the ground!” and “Don’t move!” After a few minutes of confused looks from the police as we explained what we were doing, the guns were put away and we were allowed to get up.
Our run-and-gun style took on a whole different meaning that night. Luckily, we were the only ones doing the shooting.
For our 2005 show, “Citizen Quien,” Nick Walker had the idea of punking the audience with a bad but scripted “improv.” Eventually, what Nick and I wrote together took the following form: The video for the big “finale” of our show’s framing narrative appeared to malfunction, forcing me to come out and sheepishly explain the problem to the audience and suggest that maybe we could close the show with an improv — a format, I explained, we weren’t very experienced with.
So I’d draft an unwilling Nick and Karinna Perez-Cantu from the wings into an “improv” supposedly based on the audience suggestion of the holiday Arbor Day. We had a plant at every show ready to call out that specific “random” suggestion. Then our attempt at improv would unfold — badly. Improv is built on the concept of “Yes, and,” but this is what we did:
Adrian: Mom, get out!
Karinna: Mom? No, silly, I’m your sister!
Nick: OK, uh, sis, get out! Or I’m telling Mom!
Karinna: No, silly! You’re not my brother too, you’re his best friend! Remember? I’m giving you guys a ride because you wrecked your car last week in that drag race!
Adrian: Uh, well, at least I won!
Karinna: No, silly, you lost. Remember?
And so on. Apparently, we were so convincing at being “bad” that friends would later admit they were embarrassed for us, which we took as a great compliment.
So after several painfully awkward minutes of struggling and turning on each other — mainly because none of us seemed to know exactly what Arbor Day was — our “improv” would gradually transform into an elaborately costumed and choreographed musical number, complete with Arbor Day break dancers, a spotlit falsetto solo belted out by an adorable young sapling, and a rap about the importance of trees from the 19th-century founder of Arbor Day himself. All of this was followed by the big finish with all of us on stage:
It’s easy you see, just plant a tree!
Wow, that line just came to me,
We let a suggestion “take root” and grow!
In our completely random, entirely made-up, totally improved …
Adrian: Our first time improvising EVER!
This fake-out ending worked brilliantly every night. Then one night, someone who was not our plant called out “Arbor Day.” We assumed it was someone we knew who was in on the joke or maybe someone who’d already seen the show helping us out, but we never found out for certain.
Flash-forward 10 years to the 2105 Austin Comic Con, where a Latino man with his wife and children approached me and asked if I was in the Latino Comedy Project. He said he used to come to all our shows and remembered one show in particular where we had technical problems and had to resort to improv.
He thought it’d be funny to call out “Arbor Day,” congratulating himself on such an obscure holiday suggestion — then sat, stunned, as an intricate Arbor Day-themed production number rolled out before his unbelieving eyes. For the 10 years since that night, his mind had been blown as he wondered how the hell we’d done that. I laughed and told him how.
Ten years. I have to say, in all my time doing comedy, that’s the longest I’ve ever waited for a punchline.