Still Funny After All These Years
An exclusive interview with Paul Rodriguez
Paul Rodriquez has been on the scene a long time. Born to migrant farm worker parents, he is known for being opinionated, funny and versatile as both a stand up comedian and actor. Rodriguez was working the comedy circuit at a time when Latino comedians were rare and role models even rarer. He has worked with everyone from Mr. T in his first film (D.C. Cab) to Clint Eastwood (Blood Work) while being featured in films like Born In East L.A., Tortilla Soup, Ali and A Million To Juan, which he directed. He also broke ground as the first Mexican American to star in a sitcom, was a featured player in Resurrection Boulevard and has made countless TV and film appearances through the years while maintaining a highly successful stand up career.
Published on LatinoLA: May 19, 2004
In a candid and exclusive interview with LatinoLA, Rodriguez talks about those early years and where he and Latino entertainers are now. A former member of the Air Force, he also has a lot to say about the war and the controversy surrounding the images of American casualties.
Mark Sotelo: You have become an institution in terms of your body of work and how long your have been in the entertainment business. do you see yourself that way or do you still feel there is a lot more you want to do that you haven?t?
Paul Rodriguez: I don?t sit around and contemplate about that. I think anybody that does has way too much spare time on their hands. There is still much I want to accomplish and I remember what George Harrison said in a Rolling Stone interview I read, he said 17 to 57 is a blink of the eye and it?s so true cause I?m about about to hit the big five- 0 myself, and I don?t feel that way. I don?t think of myself that way, but there it is. I do this routine on stage about aging and I say there are certain signs like when you no longer know what the latest songs are but you know what all those pharmaceutical commercials are for.
MS: Is the pressure still the same in the business?
PR: In this business, there?s no such thing as sitting on your laurels. It?s so volatile and it moves so fast that you can quickly go from a big thing, to a has-been, to a never-was. I used to have a manager who would say that in this business, nobody is so in that they can?t be out and nobody?s so out that that they can?t be in.
MS: In 1984 you were on a series called AKA Pablo, which I believe was the first series to ever feature a Mexican American.
PR: It was, it was! As a matter of fact the Smithsonian took a couple of things from the set because of that fact. It was the first Mexican American show on American Television.
MS: When you look back now, do you feel you were too ahead of your time or was it network misperception of Latinos that hurt that show?
PR: Hindsight being 20/20, I know the logical reasons why it didn?t work now and even then I had some idea but at the time I was intimidated, I had never done acting or much of anything, Norman Lear was very generous, gave me a tremendous deal for the time and it was his show. I do remember talking to the director who was kind of upset, like 'How dare you complain, were surrounding you with great actors!' but I really wasn?t complaining. What happened was that AKA Pablo was supposed to be a reflection of my real life but the casting directors were missing the boat, they were casting Cubans, Puerto Ricans Dominicans, Italians and I remember I told Norman Lear that to non-Latinos we all sound fine but to us, well, we know Desi Arnez is Cuban from how he talks and we know these different dialects and if this show is being made for Peoria to introduce them to Latinos your doing them a disservice because they are getting a misperception of us and if this show is being made for Hispanics in America they are not going to buy it because they will say 'That guy can?t be his brother, look how he talks!' but he said 'Paul, I have been doing this 20 years!' Lear had done all these great shows, All in the Family, Jeffersons and I couldn?t kick up a fuss because, A: I didn?t want the rep of being difficult to work with and B: he had been so nice and generous. In my heart of hearts I knew the project was doomed despite the fact that the first airing of it had huge ratings. I remember him (Lear) calling me up and saying ?We scored kid!? Back then, a 28 share was huge but then shortly after it declined.
MS: What do you think of the new breed of Latin comedians?
PR: I see the success that George Lopez has and I?m happy for him. He?s a terrific guy and I will tell you whose next, a guy named Freddy Soto. It seems all the networks are looking right now for a George Lopez. You got Freddy, Willie Barcena, Jackie Guerra, you have four or five sitcoms that I know of that are going to pop and I think some will succeed. I think Latinos will be basically as numerous on Television as African-Americans are on the WB for example.
MS: Do you see yourself reflected in the young Latino comedians who are out there?
PR: In all modesty when I?m flipping through the channels now I see a plethora of Latinos comedians and I see a little of me in them. Not that they are stealing anything but it?s definitely there, a kind of attitude.
MS: Talk about your developmental stage as a comedian
PR: When I was coming up Freddie Prinze was my hero and he had already taken his own life in 1976. I didn?t really start to run until 79, 80 and I knew I couldn?t be George Carlin or Robert Klein and I couldn?t be all these people I admired because I didn?t have their accent or their mannerisms or background. I didn?t know enough Yiddish, and I didn?t want to be them, I wanted to be me but, and I've said this before, and it?s very true, I had to invent the best Paul Rodriguez I could.
MS: You really were kind of out there on your own and you received some criticism for some of the material you did back then. How do you relate to that time now?
PR: Looking back now and it?s almost 50 years, there?s a lot of jokes that I did that were horrible that come back and haunt me. You know your old when people stop you on the street and tell you your jokes that you wrote back in 1981 like 'Taco Bell is the Mexican phone company.' I am ashamed to tell you I wrote that. I remember doing that on the Merv Griffin show, the Mike Douglas show and now people think it?s public domain. People go 'Hey, here?s a joke you can use' and I?m not proud of those jokes. In fact I received a lot of hate mail but what people didn?t know back then was I didn?t know any better. I remember this lady one time accosting me at a supermarket saying 'Why do you have to make fun of us? Those jokes are so pandering, all the Anglos just laugh at us, your in a good situation, why don?t you do something to bring us up, that brings up La Raza.' I wasn?t trying to be a wise ass but I told her, 'I don?t know how! How do you do that?' Then I thought I have to find a writer so I looked for a guy named Hank Garcia who they told me he was a standup comic. He had been in a movie called Fun With Dick And Jane but I never found him. I got so desperate I even went looking for Jose Jimenez only to realize he was actually Bill Dana, an older Jewish man. It was hard. A lot of the time I felt like Pepe LaPew looking for love and finding a cat instead of a skunk.
MS: That sounds like kind of a lonely situation and fortunately one that George Lopez, for example, didn?t have to deal with as much.
PR: I had this discussion with George Lopez. I said to him, 'George, a lot of people expect there to an animosity between us but nothing could be further from the truth. I heard footsteps, I knew you were coming and I mean this from the bottom of my heart, I have a lot of flaws but petty jealousy is not one of them, I will be the first one to tune in, get other people to watch your show or help in anyway to keep it on the air because ultimately your success is good for all of us.' He?s been very gracious, really cool and we worked together many times and on the Latin Kings of Comedy which was a great success and put a lot of money in my pocket, which I?m grateful for.
MS: Even though it?s many years away, do you ever think about the end of your career?
PR: I hope like a boxer, I have the intelligence, the courage, wil lpower and hopefully the money to be able to step away gracefully when my time comes. I have this nightmare where I?ve become this drunk guy in debt in a casino playing a tiny lounge in Vegas, some 65 of 70 year old guy who never was, never quite made, it trying to tell jokes while some young kids in the audience yell out 'Hey, aren?t you Paul Rodriguez, the father of the professional skater?' I saw this happen to a famous guy and it broke my heart and I kept thinking, 'Oh my god, what went wrong? Didn?t you save your money? Why are you doing this?' Some of these guys have vices like drugs and especially gambling. Believe me, the gambling just ruins people. But I have always been frugal. I haven?t lived a (MC) Hammer kind of life. What I have done, out of a sense of security is buy land. We're migrant. Every time I got a good chunk of money I bought acres of land, here there and everywhere. Hopefully I won?t have to live off my kid!
MS: What?s your take on Nipple Gate and the increasing call for censorship in media?
PR: It?s ridiculous. All this because of a nipple? The nipple who gave a ripple? They are over-compensating. I always thought the conservatives in America were dangerous because they were always looking for the right excuse to reverse everything we hold dear about our freedom, like Rowe v. Wade. I wouldn?t be surprised if after they do away with that they go back to the Lenny Bruce-era where some social cop out there is counting how many ?shits? and ?fucks? I happen to say in my show. I?m not particularly a blue guy but I want to have that option.
MS: Your old acquaintance Howard Stern now finds himself in a battle over censorship.
PR: The Howard Stern thing is really a crazy situation. I was never really a fan of Howard and I knew Selena really well and when he said those nasty things about her someone asked me about it and I called him an asshole. That was at Comedy Relief and the next thing you know he said 'That?s a shame, I thought he was the funniest at Comic Relief and I?m a big fan.' Then my phone rang off the hook. I don?t really listen because I?m not up that early but the cool thing about him was when I was in New York he invited me on his show and he told me something I really appreciated. He said, 'You know what, I don?t care if you like me, you don?t have to kiss my ass because you're on the show. I like you anyway for your talent.' Needless to say, after that appearance I sold out all the tickets at Caroline?s comedy club. He has tremendous power but he?s not out there saying or doing anything he should be censored for. The Bush administration is shooting themselves in the foot because the audience he is speaking to is the audience they are for.
MS: As a former military man yourself, how do you feel about Nightline paying tribute to the fallen soldiers?
PR: I was for that, not only as a former service man but I also lost a lot of family in Viet Nam. When I was a kid I remember going to my cousin's funeral. My only criticism of Mr. Koppel and Nightline is that they should also include the people who died in Afghanistan. I have been to Afghanistan, Baghdad, and Kuwait and many other Middle Eastern countries touring with the USO with Wayne Newton and other performers. When I?m not shooting a movie or something if they ask, I go. The truth is that this is beyond a quagmire. First of all we are trying to impose western values on people who are never, ever going to be our friends. Were trying to write a constitution for people who already have one. It?s called the Koran.
MS: How about the showing of the caskets?
PR: All they did was show caskets; it doesn?t say so and so is in there. The argument against it doesn?t hold water. Showing the names has an emotional impact that the numbers doesn?t. When you go to the Viet Nam Memorial and you look at the names, and God forgive me, I look at everything from a Latino point of view, when you count the names that end with Z, I call it the Z factor, Hernandez, Gonzalez, and you count up all these Hispanic names, and you realize these people really got the short end of the stick. First of all these were not volunteers like we have now, they were drafted, some had no idea. My cousin Sunny didn?t know what Viet Nam was when he got his orders. He had no idea what the hell he was going there for.
MS: Tell me about you upcoming benefit concert with Andy Garcia and Arturo Sandoval.
PR: It's a benefit for Tony Plana's East Los Angeles Classic Theatre. Tony is a wonderful actor whose always helping out and in fact if you ask him he will tell you he really directed my film A Million To Juan, which I beg to differ, but he?s been a friend for a long time and basically what he does is raise money to teach Shakespeare in the barrio. Tony is a great actor, he started at the Royal Academy in London and I get parts sometimes and I think, 'Thank God he didn?t read for it!' But what he is even better at is teaching and he always invites me to go down there and tell a couple of jokes, sell some tickets, although I think the girls just come down to look at Andy Garcia and dream. It?s a worthy cause.
MS: It seems you're careful about what benefits you associate your self with
PR: I will tell you a funny story about benefits. I got the people at Save The Whales really upset at me. They had been after me year after year, and I tell them, yeah, maybe next year I?m really busy right now, which most times, I am. I want whales to live but they don?t have a lot of priority in my work. First of all I?m a wealthy Mexican and even I can?t afford property on the beach. There is not a lot of Chicanos on the beach, the only one I can think of is Cheech (Marin) in Malibu somewhere. So anyway, they get mad at me and write 'Apparently you don?t care about the environment, you don?t care about the whales, do you know that these Whales are Mexican?' This is because they breed in the Sea of Cortez. I told them I got cable, I read, I?m not dense. Whales are no more Mexican then a chihuahua is. I want them to live and prosper but I've never met a whale and I would rather teach ten young Latinos to read and write and go to college then, may God forgive me, save ten whales who have no concept in my life. Well, after that I became the Joseph Mengele of whales. I swear I?ve never eaten a whale and if one comes to my neighborhood I will deal with it but that?s a fat chance.
Paul Rodriguez will perform at a benefit for the East L.A. Classic Theatre on May 27th. For information about the event and tickets call 888-465-5488 or visit
For information about upcoming concert appearances visit www.paulrodriguez.com
Mark Sotelo previously has interviewed and/or written articles for LatinoLA.com about Gregory Nava, Los Lobos and about the state of Latinos in media.