At a 'Gente Funny' show, only bilingual audience members are in on the joke
Venezuelan comedian Angelo Colina is on a mission to make Spanish-language material mainstream in the U.S. comedy scene. In the past, Latinx comedians with non-English routines have largely been relegated to restaurants, bars and other spaces where Spanish already dominates. But Colina, 28, is part of a new generation of performers working to change that, one show at a time.
Standup comedy has long wrestled with American identity, and Black, Asian and Latinx comedians have remixed conversations about race and representation with an edge. Some of the nation's biggest names in standup comedy – Cheech Marin, George Lopez, Gabriel Iglesias and Cristela Alonzo — come from Chicano or Mexican-American backgrounds. But the most popular American routines are almost exclusively performed and commercially successful in English.
On a recent Sunday evening, a young, diverse audience filed into a Washington, D.C., club called Room 808 to see Gente Funny (People Funny) – the Spanish-language circuit Colina recently created. During his set, Colina asked people in the audience where they're from. A young guy sitting in the back raised his hand. "I'm from Bolivia, my friend's Cuban!"
"Bolivia y Cuba?" Colina replied in Spanish.
"I'm white as f***k," the Cuban friend said in English.
"No, you're not," Colina smirked. "Pero a los cubanos les encanta pensar que lo son." (But Cubans love thinking that they are)
The crowd erupted into laughter, as Colina continued to shake his head.
In interactions like these, Colina's performances poke and prod at the construction of Latinx and Hispanic identity in the United States, without subtitles. Framing and satirizing that identity is inevitably complicated because it encompasses such a wide range of races, countries, languages and cultural backgrounds. Spanish itself is an colonial language imposed throughout Latin America, where people still speak a variety of indigenous languages. But Colina says for Latinx performers, it can still feel like their identities need to check a certain box or rely on particular tropes.
"But I'm not only an immigrant, and I'm not only Venezuelan, and I'm not only a guy with an accent," he says.
Hispanic people comprise the biggest minority population in the country and Spanish is the most widely spoken non-English language in the U.S., according to the Census Bureau. But Colina says even as more films, TV shows and standup routines incorporate Spanish into their dialogue, it can often feel like the language is used as a decorative and superficial device.
"Because it's a café con leche or it's a chancla, and we're just so much more than that," he explains. "Our voices are different, and we speak differently, and we have a different sense of humor."
Coming to America
Colina first realized his sense of humor could lead to a career when he was studying filmmaking in Venezuela. A professor told him he was bad at writing dramas but good at making people laugh, so he began writing sketches and jokes. He left his hometown of Maracaibo to move to Bogota, Colombia for two years before eventually immigrating to the U.S. in 2018. It was while he was living in Utah that he performed standup for the first time: a three-minute set in English. Language barriers – and mistranslations – became central to his story.
"My mom doesn't speak English, and my entire set was talking to [her] about stuff I did in her bedroom with girls," he says. "She was just clapping, and everyone in the room was dying laughing because they knew she didn't know. And she was just happy to see me doing well."
Colina kept performing and sharing clips of his sets online, and he eventually connected with Venezuelan comedian Andrés Sereno, who invited him to do his first Spanish set in New York City. It went so well that Colina moved to the city not long after. But when they didn't find many opportunities to perform Spanish routines in clubs, he and Sereno created their own circuit called Español Please. Those shows are designed to connect first, second and third generation Latinos — and also dig into the experience of being bicultural and bilingual. It led to an invitation for the group to be part of the 2021 New York Comedy Festival.
By performing in Spanish, Colina says he didn't have to change his voice or justify how he sounds. First with Español Please and now with Gente Funny, he's providing a stage for other Latinx comedians to also share their material in Spanish.
Latinx representation pushes forward
"I think for a long time, there was this perception that in order to be a Latino comedian, you needed to be a comedian that fit the paradigm of what a Latino was for people that weren't," says Venezuelan American comedian and TV writer Joanna Hausmann, who's been making bilingual content for more than 10 years. "I really think there was this sense for a while that bilingual comedy was just not mainstream and there wasn't enough of an audience," says Hausmann.
But the rise of YouTube and social media video uploads changed everything, says Hausmann. Latinx-focused, bilingual content was no longer seen as niche. Soon, her own sketches and rants about immigration, identity and culture were drawing hundreds of thousands of subscribers.
On the larger pop culture stage, there's also the Bad Bunny phenomenon: a Puerto Rican singer who refused to "crossover" and make music in English for the larger pop market and still became one of the most acclaimed and successful superstars in the world. Colina and Hausmann both say there's a palpable new enthusiasm for Spanish as the main language of expression, from both inside and outside the culture. Cuban Dominican comedian Marcello Hernandez brought jokes in Spanglish to Saturday Night Live, and the second season of Los Espookys, from Ana Fabrega, Julio Torres and Fred Armisen, just received a Peabody Award.
The shift in the pop culture politics of Spanish is happening as the demographic makeup of Latino communities in the U.S. is also changing. From 2010 to 2019, Venezuelans, Guatemalans and Hondurans became the fastest-growing groups within the Hispanic demographic category. That shift is diversifying what Latinx communities look like, how they express themselves and how they connect with one another.
For Colina, with both his circuits and his solo headliner tour, "Little Alone" (a purposeful mistranslation of the word "solito"), the point is to foster a space where almost everyone in the audience speaks and understands English but is choosing to speak Spanish and tell jokes from that distinct point of view, with its specific sense of humor. As non-Spanish speakers find their way, Colina's attempts at translating the set into English becomes a punchline — one where only the bilingual members of the audience are in on the joke.
"I think that's our biggest flex as immigrants and as bilinguals," Colina says. "We get to decide how to dictate [the conversation] now."
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.