Friday, March 28, 2014

The Tío Louie Interview: Urban Latino Comedians in Webseries

HOLA is proud to present the Tío Louie Interview, where filmmaker and bon vivant Louis Perego Moreno (also known as Tío Louie) interviews actors and multimedia-makers in the business.

In this edition, Tío Louie speaks to actor-comedians Michael Díaz (also known as Juan Bago), Jaime Fernández, Anthony Palmini (from the webseries "Studio Heads", the Room 28 sketch comedy troupe); and Jesenia and Jenni Ruiza (also known as The Comedy Girls, creators of the webseries "Becoming Ricardo" and the viral video sensation "Latino Stereotypes for Dummies [#StillNoLatinas]").

Michael Díaz (Juan Bago)

     What is the relationship with 
Remezcla? I’ve had a good relationship with them for the last three years. If I had some parody videos, they would post it on their website. My first collaborative effort with 
them was a 10-minute video of me playing handball with Lin-Manuel Miranda.

     Why urban flavor to your stories? I don’t know if it’s about an urban flavor. It’s about us. It’s about Washington Heights. Our intentions were to create something about urban flavor. Who we are as Latinos and it’s set in Washington Heights.

•     What was the best thing you learned from working on "Studio Heads" that surprised you that actually worked? We would plan it out – though sometimes not enough – but it was working with a DP [Director of Photography] who is not normally specializing in comedy. Their background was more into drama, thrillers or dramedies. So it gave our show a different look. It is something that Woody Allen adopted when after shooting in a particular style after his frist few movies he tapped into a different DP who brought a whole other perspective to the picture.
•     The $1 million question: what is the business model to a money-generating webseries when the word on the street is that there is usually no return on the dollar not to speak of to cover production & post-production? In order to monetize webseries you have to approach brands that believe in your work. You have to work with certain websites who have the budget to work on these productions. There are basically three options: 1) work for a brand, 2) a website that gives you the production money, 3) or have enough traffic and bandwidth going on your site with ads that you can make money with that. This is our passion project. So this is phase one for a brand or website to pay for it. It’s not monetizing now, but it will.
•    What’s next for "Studio Heads"? After having created a platform for "Studio Heads", we air aiming to have a budget in which to cover our productions and actually pay ourselves in creating a season 2. Or to get it into shape as a pilot for a series because we have six episodes locked in that are up and running-- not to speak of the ones that we shot that didn’t work out. And what we actually have is 45 minutes and that is worthy of a television series. This is the beauty of a web series, because once it has legs due to trial and error, you have something in shape that has been fleshed out towards a TV series.

Jaime Fernández

     What gave birth to "Studio Heads"? We were spending a lot of time in a music studio in an apartment building in Washington Heights. We were doing a lot of musical spoof comedy and thought it would be funny to 
do a studio like this and don’t know what we’re doing. It 
is sort of autobiographical, but in the show we are a 
couple of IQ’s lower and add a silly factor to it. It’s about 
a group of guys trying to make their mark in the industry.
•    Tell me about "Henry - A Web Series" and how that came about and what you’re doing in it? I met the creator of "Henry", Alain Alfaro and Juan Cáceres, the producer, recommended me. He told me the storyline and I said, "Let’s do it". We shot it quickly. We shot the first episode/pilot in a weekend. And it got into the NY Television Festival and the LA Web Fest. Alain gave me the creative freedom to improvise to find and develop the character. As a comedy guy, I like to improvise. "Henry" is a dramedy that have its serious moments and then would need its funny moments. There are about 6-8 episodes comprising season 1.

Anthony Palmini

     What were you first, actor or 
comedian? I was an actor first. Doing high school plays and then in college stand-up comedy.
     On the production side, this being a 
       low-budget work, what pitfalls would 
       you advise others not to take? We learned that you need to have outsiders looking in. Because we’re in front of the camera and behind-the-scenes, we’re wearing a lot of hats and we’re doing it all. It would have been great to have had a script supervisor. What appears to be good on paper, does not always fly as such. Sometimes we were left thinking, We should have taken an extra B-roll or an extra dialogue shot so that it would have worked better.

Jenni Ruiza

•     Why urban comedy? For me it speaks to
who I am. I am from the Bronx. When I grew up there wasn’t a lot of local talent to look up to. Comedy puts people ahead. It helps people when people are going through a tough time. We need homegrown talent. There aren’t a
lot of comedians from the Bronx. I wanted to make sure that when we use the Bronx as a backdrop that people are aware that we are very proud of where we come from and that it is a contributing factor to our success.
•     Are you an actor in "Becoming Ricardo"? I am in it. It’s my love project. My career goal is to be in front of the camera.
•    What do you behind-the-scenes for the webseries? I am co-producer, assistant director, co-writer and co-editor.

•    What gave birth to the "Becoming Ricardo" project? This was Jesenia’s brainchild and she came to me four years ago. It’s based on her life stemming from this that she had to go beyond the call of duty to get any role that did not reinforce the stereotype and that this was her opportunity to show herself as a woman and as a character.
 •   What gave birth to "Latino Stereotypes for Dummies (#StillNoLatinas)"? We both follow the show ["Saturday Night Live"] religiously and for years. And every time we see a Latina portrayed we don’t see an intelligent girl who knows her politics– we see this angry girl who’s absolutely upset about something and just wants to cut someone up. When we did our research, we learned that SNL has never in its 39-year history ever employed a Latina. The week before the sketch we saw Cecily Strong (an Italian-American) do her impression of a Latina. Seeing that infuriated the two of us. We did our research and incorporated the sketches that did employ the stereotypes of Latinos. Jesenia went home and wrote it and we knew that we had to get it out in a week while it was fresh– as well as develop a marketing plan. “Latino Stereotypes for Dummies” is the banner title, but it is interchangeable with "#SNL". This is beyond SNL, it was created for other networks who play us the same way to have their eyes opened.
•    How are your hits happening? We do self-promotion on lots of social media. We don’t have a publicity person. We’re doing it on a grassroots level. We’ve received about 5,000 hits on the pilot episode.
•    What’s next for you? I am focusing on my comedy range. I am doing standup. I am studying improvisation at The People’s Improv Theater (a.k.a. The P.I.T.). I will continue to write, co-produce and star in our Comedy Girls Productions.


•    What advantage do you bring to the table over male comedians? Female comediennes bring the female perspective to the table. Being surrounded predominantly
by men in my family, that is where a lot of my influences come from. I love men and respect them. I find that my characters are relatable
to both men and women and on two different planes.
•     What advantage do you bring to the table over non-Latino comics? Being able to speak to my people is very important to me, but being a comedienne who can speak to others of all other nationalities is very important to me. If you only speak to one group, it boxes you in. It’s almost important to bring in my flavor without being limited to being called a Latina comic. I don’t want it to be an inside Latino joke. I want it to be relatable to all. I want the understanding that, “Yes, I am Latina but I am not limited to doing Latino comedy.”
•     Women in front of the camera are often relegated to being objectified. Let’s face it, you are not the most attractive woman on the planet as Ricardo on "Becoming Ricardo". Why are you doing this and how do you see this enhancing your career? Ricardo was a dare to myself personally. I was having a conversation with a booker who said that there was a Latina who plays a really good man. I looked up her video and she looked like a lesbian woman. I felt, she doesn’t look like a man at all. I felt, this is not the level that we should be executing. There must be a Latina out there who could do a better portrayal and then I realized, “Why not me?” I started off with a sketch comedy routine and I found that I totally immersed myself without shame or regret. I felt that I needed to do justice to men by properly portraying a man. When I dress up like a guy, men and women gravitate to me and they have both accepted me. Women flirt with me and men want to give me a high five. It’s very interesting. I feel that this has enhanced my career by doing this as a webseries/TV show. This was when people got to see my range. After releasing this webseries I have made people comfortable with the fact that a Latina can portray a man.
•    What is your role behind-the-scenes in the production of "Becoming Ricardo"? I conceptualized it– I wrote it. I developed the character Ricardo. I wrote  all the other episodes with Jenni Ruiza. The pilot episode was written solely by me. At the time, Jenni was not familiar with writing webseries/TV Shows. I brought in a consultant who has vast experience in that realm. We realized that my first stab at it was complete garbage. I also produce, co-write all the episodes, I act as assistant director, though they tell me not to. I also do wardrobe, catering, etc.
•    You call it a "webseries-slash-TV show"– what are your aspirations for this project? I would like to get it on TV. I find that webseries are 5-7 minutes long and our [webisode]s are longer because we’re trying to have decision-makers on the other side visualize it as something on TV. After all, if you miss a TV episode, don’t you watch it on the internet? So, I did not feel the pressure to keep the episodes short.
•     What is the most challenging part about balancing being both an actor and producing "Becoming Ricardo"? It’s so personal to me because I wear all these hats to not focus on everything else around me– irrespective of the role I am playing whether in front of the camera or not. Furthermore, most actors are not involved in the behind-the-scenes. It gives me another perspective in the roles others serve, whether it’s the other actors or anyone else on the production team. It enables me to appreciate the process as an actor and producer.

* * * * 

        Louis Perego Moreno (Tío Louie) is an interactive content producer and educator 
who for 32 years has owned Skyline Features, a bilingual multimedia and educational production company developing documentaries, television programming and advertising commercials featuring Latinos, blacks, women, urban youth and LGBT people. He has trained 1,500 Latino and 
African American youth over 10 years to produce 70 documentary shorts. For documentary features he was the producer and director of Latina Confessions (2010) and co-producer of American Dreams Deferred (2013) on PBS.

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