Rodriguez still has knockout punchlines
All comics bomb now and then. But how many of them end up banished to Iceland as a result?
Irony, thy name is Paul Rodriguez.
“I was born in East L.A., grew up in California, and all of a sudden I find myself in Iceland,” said Rodriguez, who was in the Air Force at the time. “What happened was I was telling jokes about the general. Our commanding officer was Raymond A. Fisher, a Vietnam hero who, as a result of a wound, had the funniest walk we had ever seen. This walk was a cross between John Wayne and both-my-legs-don’t-bend. So I would mimic the walk for all my buddies. It got big laughs, and I’m just a kid, so what do I know?
“Then one day soon after I began doing that, I get called in and told that I’m being transferred to Reykjavik, Iceland. ‘You’ll love it,’ said my CO. ‘There’s a girl behind every tree. The only problem is that there aren’t any trees.’ I was there for a year without any sign of a woman; not even a picture. I read a lot of books. Now, I can’t prove that they sent me there because I was mimicking the general, but it was pretty suspicious. I think that’s what happened.”
As soon as he left the military, Rodriguez began making his living as a comedian; to much more appreciative audiences. One of the first great Latino comics (he was born in 1955 in Culiacán, Sinaloa, Mexico), Rodriguez blazed trails at festivals and at comedy clubs before hitting the big time, and even starred in the first television sitcom featuring a Latino family (Norman Lear’s “AKA Pablo,” in 1984).
Rodriguez is quick to point out, however, that he doesn’t see himself as a pioneer.
“People come up to me all the time and tell me that I’ve done so much for my people,” he said. “But I didn’t do it for my people; I did it for me. I did it to make a living and to get famous and to get women. If in the process I did something for my people, then yeah, that’s cool too. But I was just being funny; doing what I was meant to do.”
As you may have guessed, honesty is something that Rodriguez wears on his sleeve proudly. It carried him through the early years honing his craft, although he was pretty good right off the bat – high-ranking military officers notwithstanding.
“I started in comedy because one too many of my friends said ‘You’re funny, you should do this for a living,’ Rodriguez said. “After hearing that a lot, one day you take a shot at amateur night at a club. I had the misfortune of having a good night, and then you’re in it for a lifetime.”
Rodriguez remembers that first night – at the Comedy Store in Westwood – for a variety of reasons, not the least of which being that the late, great, Sam Kinison was also performing there.
“Another guy making his first appearance there was Howie Mandel, who was on vacation and had come down from Canada,” Rodriguez said. “I even remember the first joke I did that got a big laugh.
“It was about this tragic incident in L.A., in which the police had shot a woman who was threatening them with a shotgun. She wouldn’t let the gas company turn off her meters, and they called the cops. So there was a shooting, and the police killed her; emptied their guns. So it was, “The police ended up shooting this woman 27 times; which means that at least one of them had to reload.”
It was edgy, current, ironic – hitting the funny bone without quite going over the precipice into poor taste. And most of all it demonstrated how Rodriguez had his finger on the pulse of the audience. The community had been on edge following the shooting, and now some of that tension had been released.
Although not overtly political, Rodriguez has always been active in a variety of causes. His main contributions are with the National Hispanic Scholarship Fund, Comic Relief, and as the host of the annual Elizabeth Glazer Pediatrics Aids Foundation celebrity Golf Tournament.
He is also proud of the fact that he has been to Iraq and Afghanistan several times to entertain the troops.
“Wayne Newton arranged the first trip and said ‘Come on Rodriguez, you’re going. You were in the military.’ And if there’s one thing I know, it’s that you don’t say no to Wayne Newton.”
Other influences in his career have been Cheech Marin, Bill Dana, Richard Pryor and George Burns.
“I’ve been fortunate,” he said. “I’ve marched with Nelson Mandella and Caesar Chavez, and met great comics such as Lucille Ball, Bob Hope and George Burns. I’m really the Forrest Gump of my people.”
He has two sons – Paul Jr., 22, who is a world famous professional skateboarder, and Lucas, 7. Paul Jr., in fact, stars in a movie that has just been accepted to the Sundance Film Festival, entitled “Street Dreams.”
“I just saw it, and I have to say that kid can act,” Rodriguez said of his son. “I’ve worked in movies with 14 Academy Award winners (among them Clint Eastwood and director Michael Mann), and I can tell you he’s good. Plus he has his own Nike shoe, which is something I could never do. He’s a great kid; humble, religious and funny. I like to call him the greatest mistake I ever made.”
But Rodriguez Sr. has had quite a career in his own right. He’s starred in three sitcoms, appeared in 30 films, has hosted a number of comedy specials and regularly headlines in Las Vegas. He was voted No. 74 on Comedy Central’s list of the 100 Greatest Standup Comics of all time.
He also is currently in pre-production with a TV series entitled “The Laugh Factory: Very Funny,” which will air on TBS. The show will endeavor to follow standup comedians as they entertain each other backstage at concerts and comedy clubs.
“I got the idea from watching guys like Robin Williams, Rodney Dangerfield and Billy Crystal in green rooms, when they were away from the stage,” Rodriguez said. “A lot of them aren’t the same backstage as they are on-stage, and most of them are funnier. It’s going to be kind of a hidden camera thing where we can catch them being funny and being themselves. Hopefully we won’t get sued.”
Rodriguez has been to Tahoe so frequently that he has lost track of the exact number of visits.
“It’s great there,” he said. “One of the things I’ll do is hang out with my friend Kevin Nealon (who lives on Kingsbury Grade),” he said. “I’ve known Kevin for years.”
Rodriguez is no stranger to gambling: He has even helped design a slot machine.
“It’s the first bilingual slot machine,” he said. “It’s called ‘One Night Only,’ and it’s a game that follows my comedy career. It’s a nickel machine.” (Nope, this is no joke: There really is such a slot machine).
“Most of all I’d like people to know that when you come to see my show, it’s not going to be Mexican this and Mexican that,” Rodriguez said. “It’s in English! People come up to me after shows and say, ‘Hey, I understood everything.’ ”
“The first thing to go with a boxer is his punch, and the first thing to go with a comic is his punchline. I’ve never taken my craft for granted, so I think I still have that knockout ability.”