LIZ: We’ve talked about representation in media a lot here on the Pulso Pod, and it’s because it matters. The images we see or don’t see in the movies, commercials, TV shows, on billboards, in magazines, those formulate ideas in our minds about what is possible for us. Seeing people who look like us, sound like us, lived our own lived experiences in the entertainment we consume helps shape who we are. Especially in a country like ours — where even though Latino music and food is widely consumed, and Black culture shapes what’s cool — it’s still mostly White faces that we’re seeing on our screens. When producer Mark Pagán was coming of age in the 90s, he didn’t have many Latinos in his life to look up to. It was even more rare in those days to see Latinos on TV. Then, he found Paul Rodriguez.
This is the story of how a groundbreaking comedy special starring a Latino changed Mark’s life during a time when he was still trying to understand what it means to be Latino.
MARK VO: I’m sure at some point in 2020, I muttered the words “I’m never moving again”.
Late in the year, my fiancée and I had gotten notice that our landlord was selling our building. I hate moving as much as the next person and I was determined to donate, trash, or recycle AS MUCH AS I COULD.
And then, I came across something that made me basically say a mixture of “oh” and “awwww” — a VHS tape that had some TV shows and specials written in my adolescent penmanship, with one title that stood out: A television special called Paul Rodriguez: Crossing Gang Lines.
As a boy, I didn’t draw a distinction between good TV and bad TV. Age has done that for me and, rightfully, I’ve left A LOT of childhood favorites in the past.
But Crossing Gang Lines was a unique kind of comedy special. I taped it off TV when it first aired in 1991 and I’m not sure that it ever aired again. And for years, especially those first years in the 1990s, I watched it maybe a dozen times off of this cassette. As a pre-teen, I thought the special was funny but it wasn’t the comedy that lingered for me.
Out of everything I had shed from my life after 30 years of moving, why was I still holding on to this — a VHS cassette of a forgotten primetime comedy special?
I packed the tape into one of our many, many moving boxes, and began unpacking why I had decided to move with it once again. Over time, it opened up a search for the people who created this hour of TV that in some ways changed the course of my life.
In 1991, I was 12, living in a suburb outside of Washington DC. I think that year was also the first time in my life that I was called an epithet for looking Latino. My family, like others in the giant range of the United States, was a mixed-culture, mixed-generation one. My 43-year-old mom was from the Midwest and my father was a sixty-something Caribbean man from Puerto Rico. My Spanish was basically non-existent and puberty was starting to paint me as non-white and ethnic to the eyes of others. Our town wasn’t super Latine, and the only man I had to ask about Latinidad was my old-ass dad, when he was around. And his references, in English and Spanish, were super dated, out of touch, and proper. Every once in a while, I’d get a “pendejo” out of him but he would never have taught me any curse words or slang in Spanish.
I was left with a deep desire to connect with boys and men who had a familial connection to Latin America, searching for surrogate older brother, father figure types. A guide. Someone who could tell me more about becoming a Latino man and, like, how to curse and say funny shit in Spanglish. And my search was left up to what the TV had to provide. Which didn’t mean much because…we didn’t have cable.
Friends with cable had access to new movies, music videos, and VJs
There were curse words and there were stand-up specials, something that never, ever played on network TV.
HBO Comedy special clips
And something else that cable TV had — that I wouldn’t have been able to pinpoint back then — it had people speaking Spanish and Caribbeans and Mexicans, maybe not a ton, but there seemed to be more people on cable tv that weren’t white.
Instead, I had like four channels to choose from.
Aside from the local independent stations and PBS (the TV equivalent of vegetables in middle school), this led to grabbing Latinidad wherever I could on the major networks. ABC, NBC, CBS, and the new guy in town, FOX.
Established in 1986, FOX was still finding its footing as the revolutionary counterpart and disruptor to the three major networks.
Guillermo: Don’t forget that Fox didn’t come with a news operation.
MARK VO: This is Guillermo Avila-Saavedra, a media representation scholar and professor of Media Studies at Salem State University.
Guillermo: It didn’t come with a baggage of a history of, I dunno, the Walter Cronkite’s or the soaps of the morning daytime, right? And so FOX was able to be more experimental, more transgressive.
MARK VO: Part of FOX’s often jarring approach towards the unorthodox was alternating between irreverent sitcoms like The Simpsons or Married…with Children.
Married…with Children clip
To fear-mongering narratives like Cops, or A Current Affair.
A Current Affair clip
All the while, mixed in with surprisingly progressive TV landmarks. Network TV’s first condom commercial aired on FOX, as did the first gay marriage on a sitcom during the the series Roc.
This lack of established broadcast legacy led FOX to reach for significance in the search for new and edgy. And as it turned out, the words “new” and “edgy” became synonymous with “Latin” and “urban” for some FOX executives.
So one tactic for that edgy, “ethnic” feel — act more like cable. And one area that cable was dominating in was comedy. In particular, the stand-up special.
Guillermo: Cable and network TV played very different roles in presenting Latino comedians and the impact they had. Cable television provided a home for the more politically more outspokenly radical expressions of comedy connected to identity and ethnicity. Cable provided a space for a stand-up comedy.
MARK VO: There was a simple reason why kids like me weren’t watching these raw stand-up specials with our rinky dink network options. Besides the curse words that cable broadcast allowed, stand-up specials were just that — specials. They were one-offs that couldn’t be rebroadcast in the same way the staples of network comedy often were.
Guillermo: We may think of performers as timeless, but the comedy of stand-up comedy is contextual of the moment. And it’s very hard to reproduce in daytime TV to reruns.
MARK VO: In the 80s leading into the 90s, the comedians ruling network comedy were — outside of Bill Cosby and Roseanne Barr — mostly White men. And when you saw Latinidad, it was often pretty grim — think drug dealers on Miami Vice or people being arrested — or, for a lack of a better word, hunted — on Cops. In particular, Latino men were either buffoonish stereotypical side characters in sitcoms, or shown as dehumanized and dangerous paradigms of “America’s crime problem”.
AND…at the same time, some producers were feeling a pop cultural sea change moving into the new decade.
Michael: That was the time when I think everybody was trying to figure out how to get into the Latino market.
MARK VO: Michael Dagnery is a veteran TV producer, director, and editor. He was coming up at a time—
Michael: —where being Latin was, for lack of a better word, cool.
MARK VO: This is obviously subjective and we could use a ton of other words to describe it, but there was a Latin boom in early 90s North American pop culture. In particular, Latine artists in music, from Gloria Estefan to Cypress Hill, were setting some trends.
Michael: I remember in LA going to places and they would say, “Oh, I detect an accent. Where are you from?” And I’m kind of going like, well, “I’m Cuban American.” Most of the response was like, “oh, that’s so cool. That’s great.” Because at that time, that’s when the culture started to just grow. So I would say the early nineties was a transitional era for Spanish television for the mainstream audience in the U.S. which is a very complicated audience.
MARK VO: In the early 90s Michael was working for Jeff Wald, manager and producer extraordinaire who had managed uber-stars like Donna Summer and Sylvester Stallone. Jeff would plug certain names to Michael. One of those names was, maybe, the most popular Latine comedian in the world, Paul Rodriguez. The name on the VHS tape I found while packing.
Michael: Jeff was like, “I want to do something with this guy.”
MARK VO: Paul Rodriguez was and is A Mexican-American, Los Angeles native. Rodriguez rose quickly through the ranks of the esteemed Improv/Comedy Store/Catch a Rising Star club circuit and found fame as a nationally-headlining comic.
I don’t remember where I first saw him. In my memory, he just always existed, even if no one in my family had any idea who he was. He was this observational, and kind of a physical comedian, doing these impressive contortions and facial expressions when mimicking people. He talked smack about a lot of people but was known mostly for talking about being Mexican. Everything from cultural pride to cultural stereotypes.
Paul R: (Comic Relief 1983?) Yeah I’m a Mexican, just like the kind that piss you off on the freeway.
Paul R: (I Need the Couch special) They’re always pulling Mexicans over and they frisk you like it’s some kind of medical test. It’s like you’re joining the army.
Paul R: (Comedy Store Anniversary) I know every time you hear about Chicanos, you hear that we’re gang members, that were violent, that were rowdy. Well, yeah, we may be all of that, but I tell you what, we’re not: We’re not writing letters to Jodie Foster.
MARK VO: Yeah, some of the references are a bit dated, but he was an 80s comedian! Besides all his appearances in comedy rooms and specials throughout the decade, Paul Rodiriguez had a few stops on network television, mostly short stints like a six-episode run on a (stinker of a) sitcom called AKA Pablo for ABC. But he found footing in hosting roles, taking over as host of The Newlywed Show for a season, and leading what might have been the first blingual talk show, El Show de Paul Rodriguez for Univision. This show is where Michael Dagnery first started working with Paul Rodriguez.
This is Paul with singer Julio Iglesias, who is being a handsome bore.
[EL SHOW DE PAUL R CLIP]
Paul: ¿Cuál es tu pasiones, fuera de encanto?
Julio: Pocas, pocas, pocas.
Paul: ¿Y cómo se llaman?
MARK VO: So, Michael’s team had a creative relationship with a hip comedian and a newish network was looking to showcase their irreverence and youthful edge. Part of FOX’s strategy was programming subversive comedy as a way to tap into the Latine market.
Michael: Paul had just done a special for, I think it was HBO.
MARK VO: Paul had had a number of appearances on HBO, including his 1987 stand-up hour, I Need the Couch. Like a lot of comedy specials, I Need the Couch had long stretches of Paul’s stand-up set bookended with a few filmed sketches. But Paul had something else in mind for primetime TV — leaning more into that hybrid approach, but with more of a social impact, and filmed in a very different environment than most specials. It was a pitch that felt, at the time, dicey even for cable.
Dan: It was going to be a comedy special at San Quentin.
MARK VO: That’s producer Dan Guerrero.
Lisa: I just remember them saying, “Hey, wouldn’t that be cool if we did that? And then we did comedy with it, but we went to San Quentin?”
MARK VO: And producer Lisa Rosales. Both Dan and Lisa made up a Latine production company called There Goes the Neighborhood with Michael Dagnery. And one of their first big projects together was pitching this San Quentin special to the suits at FOX. Here’s Michael Dagnery again.
Michael: He wanted to also talk to these inmates. I want to know more about them — how they got here, how they ended up where they ended up.
MARK VO: Now, prison appearances were almost a rite of passage for generations of entertainers. An act of hubris from famous bad boys trying to hang tough with actual bad boys. Johnny Cash to Freddie Fender to even Frank Sinatra all performed in various correctional facilities. And this wasn’t limited to music: TV had a pattern of this from the sobering documentary Scared Straight hosted by Peter Falk, to the somewhat awkward 1973 primetime special Burt Reynolds at Leavenworth Penitentiary, where Reynolds — in my opinion — doesn’t look the most at ease with a pretty tough crowd.
Burt Reynolds: I was here a couple days ago. Played a little pool. Got beat real bad. Played a little ping pong. Got smashed. Then I went out into the yard and played a little basketball. It was devastating, guys. Made me look bad.
MARK VO: But comedy specials in prisons? Even on cable or in theaters, it was rare, rare, rare. In fact, the only example I could find prior to 1991 was 1983’s Belzer Behind Bars, where comedian Richard Belzer is joined by a bunch of comedians to entertain inmates at Arizona State Prison. And who happened to be one of those up and coming comedians?
[Belzer Behind Bars CLIP]
Host: He’s America’s number one Chicano comic. Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome Mr. Paul Rodriguez.
Paul Rodriguez: Thank you Mister Caucasian Person.
MARK VO: To the production team’s surprise, the FOX executives took interest in Paul’s pitch.
Dan: How it came to be that we went to San Quentin, I honestly have no memory of. But they contacted us. They wanted Paul to do a comedy special.
MARK VO: For the special that became known as Paul Rodriguez: Behind Bars, the team brought in veteran comedy director Rocco Urbisci. By 1991, Urbisci had filmed concerts for comedy giants like George Carlin and Richard Pryor. And by association, he was tapped into the world of up-and-coming comedians, including Rodriguez.
Rocco: I known Paul and I’d worked with Paul. He called me. He said, “Hey, um, I have an idea, right? We’re going to do a documentary. And the musical portion and comedy portion is the finale”. So, I asked Liz to direct the concert.
MARK VO: Urbisci’s referring to director Liz Plonka. Who is now retired after a prolific career directing iconic late night comedy shows like The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and Late Night With Conan O’Brien. But around the time that Rocco Urbusci brought her on, she was just starting out.
Liz: My first directing job was 1990. Super Bowl Saturday night and then comic strip live prime time. Very shortly thereafter, it was the Paul specials.
MARK VO: With everything in place the team had to still, you know, produce a show IN A PRISON.
Rocco: We met with the warden and he said, before we talk any further, we need to sign this.
Michael: They had a no-hostage policy. So basically, you know, we all had to sign a piece of paper saying that if anything happened, we were on our own.
Lisa: That was a big wake-up call when we started reading this paperwork. If somebody decides to, uh, take me as a hostage, it’s like, hey, c’est la vie, you know? sorry, you signed the paperwork.
MARK VO: If it wasn’t enough to get a stand-up special set in a prison on network TV — mind you — maybe the first of its kind, the production decided to take even more risks with its format. What the team was trying to avoid were the tropes of prison specials and give some voice to an audience that was often used as a sort of background texture. They wanted to have Rodriguez talk to these guys that were locked up and show some of their humanity.
Dan: Somehow the idea came about that we would do a comedy concert for the inmates. And mix it with hard-hitting docu footage.
Lisa: We would take our cameras out there, shoot different people. Paul would ask questions. We didn’t know what was going to come out of his mouth.
Paul R: Look at you, man. You, you are young. You’re chavaliillo, home. What are you doing here?
Inmate: Doing time, man. Time.
Paul R: What do these bars rob you of?
Inmate: It robbed me of anything that a man can enjoy in life.
MARK: So, the production team tried a hybrid approach — stand-up and live music mixed with interview segments. The live portion would be made up of an up-and-coming opener, James Stephens III, Paul Rodriguez, and a musical performance by one of the biggest gangster rappers of the early 90s — Ice-T.
Michael: And that’s when his song OG Original Gangster was really huge. So here we are in the mess hall of San Quentin with 700 inmates singing along to Ice-T, OG Original Gangster.
Liz: Oh, I thought we made something really special. I thought it was really unique. Never-before-seen kind of television.
Michael: We knew we were doing something really special at the time. I mean, we all knew it. Even the executives at Fox were very much looking forward to seeing what we would do.
MARK VO: Regardless of the team’s enthusiasm, they had a comedy special that needed to be produced for FOX. And it was the comedy, not the documentary part, that they were expecting. Dan Guerrero again.
Dan: Well, we get a call from FOX one day. And I take the call and they are screaming at me. “What the fuck is this? We ordered a comedy special!” They were livid but what were they going to do? It was done. Well, of course, the first one aired and it was a sensation. So then they ordered a second. And that came about because we realized that so many of the prisoners were gang members. So we decided to look at why they joined gangs.
MARK VO: A second special was greenlit called Paul Rodriguez: Crossing Gang Lines. THIS special that was on the tape that I found in my house while packing — an hour of TV I was obsessed with and the reason I started this whole project.
To pull off something different with Crossing Gang Lines, Michael and his team decided to hold this comedy and music event at the John Anson Ford Theater in LA for a specific invite-only crowd.
Michael: Paul wanted to invite as many different gangs in the audience. So we knew that we wanted to combine different gang members from different gangs. So we ended up calling it a night of truce. I mean, it was incredible, I get goosebumps, to see all these people that outside of that venue would be killing each other. And there was not one incident that happened that night.
Mark VO: To be clear, I didn’t see the first special, Paul Rodriguez: Behind Bars when it aired. But I must’ve seen the ads coming in for Crossing Gang Lines sometime in 1991, because I had a videocassette ready to tape it. I mean, the special had all the ingredients I was looking for: A famous Latine comedian, a set by Jamie Foxx, who was a rising star, and a performance from Public Enemy, one of my favorite groups in the 90s.
MARK VO: Looking back, yeah, some of the comedy is dated.
Paul Rodriguez: OPP! Hey, buddy, you know me.
Some of it is corny at times.
Paul Rodriguez: My father didn’t want me to join no gangs. I said, “hey, Dad I want to join the Boy Scouts.”
He said “agh I don’t want you to join no gangs. They wear khakis. They got pocket knives. They go to youth camp.”
MARK VO: But that’s what brought me in as a viewer. What lingered were the moments in between the live show.
Michael: And when Paul came up with let’s do one about gangs, we were ready for it. That was a whole different thing. And it was a lot more intense, actually, than being in San Quentin.
Lisa: I felt more comfortable, believe it or not, doing that show than the prison show. And I felt more comfortable because coming from my little neighborhood where I knew cholos, I grew up with cholas and cholos.
MARK VO: Crossing Gang Lines aired on Sunday November 24, 1991. I remember watching it and feeling hypnotized.
Outside of the concert footage, the rest of the special is very tempered. Paul Rodriguez, who I knew for just being a talented goof, is so present and earnest with these mostly young people. Grilling them about their choices but doing so in a way that came off concerned and invested.
Paul R: I’m talking to you all in the middle of the projects over turf? The (god)damn government owns this. Your parents, my parents, we never owned this. You willing to die for something you can’t sell?
Young person: It all starts way back from about the forties or something.
Paul R: You and I, and nobody in this room was born in the forties. Why didn’t that (?) die there?
MARK VO: The hour that I saw was surprisingly tender and sober.
I couldn’t have articulated this then, but beyond seeing somebody onscreen who was funny and could also maybe pass as a family member, I needed to see somebody that had the attractive, rebellious quality of a comedian but deep down, showcased a masculine patience and care.
And I needed to see Latine peers that were humanized and, in some ways, embraced.
This wasn’t just my experience. There were moments that stuck with the team even 30 years later.
Lisa: Being out there, we felt it. I mean there was such tension there. I was really happy we were doing it because we were finally hearing from the people who were directly in the violence of it all.
Paul R: Do you ever stop to think that that young man that you guys shot seven times in the face, that his mama cried to death? That his sister, that his family, that somebody misses him?
Young Person: Yeah, but that’s, no, that’s not my problem.
Paul R: How does someone like you lose that humanity? How do you lose being human?
Young Person: I’m just as much human as you or anybody else. You know what I’m saying? But it’s like I took a lot of losses. I took a lot of losses.
Dan: One kid that I chose to be one of the subjects — bright guy, young — and we were going to shoot him. Well, if I met him on the Thursday and we were going to shoot Monday, he was killed that weekend.
Paul R: How many homeboys have you lost?
Young Person: [Whistles] Name off names or what?
Paul R: Just, uh, round, round it off of me. Numbers.
Young Person: [Whispers names to self] Who else?
Paul R: It’s all right, man. You’re almost out of fingers.
MARK VO: Paul Rodriguez: Crossing Gang Lines wasn’t just the first stand-up special I saw on network TV. It was the first stand-up special that made me cry.
And there’s one moment that hit me more than others. A moment from television, I think about every so often. I talked about this with Lisa Rosales and Michael Dagnery separately.
Mark: There’s this whole section in that documentary piece about the word “homeboy” and, like, the way, homeboy — meaning, gangster and things like that. There’s that moment towards the end of Crossing Gang Lines where he’s talking to a woman.
Woman: Already my son, he’s four years old. He already throws up Harvest City and goes around saying Harvest City Gang . . .
Paul: You mean he throws the gang sign?
Woman: The guys, all the homeboys around here already gave him a nickname. They call him Little Gumby. And he’s only four years old.
Mark: And then she brings her son to talk to Paul in front of the camera.
Woman: That’s my son right there.
Paul: Hey. I’m Paul. How you doing?
Mark: Paul asks –
Paul: What do you want to be when you grow up?
Boy: A homeboy.
Lisa: I mean, the answer is just astounding. You just– I’ll never forget hearing it, live.
Michael: We just knew we had to end it like that, you know, to have this kid just say…sorry…we just knew. We were…
Mark: What’s coming up right now?
Michael: Just, you know, pain that these kids– some of these kids from the moment they were born, they just don’t have a chance. Cause it’s what they know. That’s what we tried to do. We tried to do things that we knew were going to be impactful. You don’t need to explain that. It just makes me sad.
MARK VO: I don’t remember when I’d seen something like that on network TV. In something that was promoted as a comedy special. And look, I’m not Chicano and I’m not from Los Angeles. Even when I do speak Spanish, my euphemisms are very different from Rodriguez and the folks in this special. In this little temple of private viewings from the age of 12 to now being in my early 40s, Crossing Gang Lines provided an unexpected code to masculinidad; a blueprint for the kind of man, specifically the kind of Latino man I wanted to be. Funny, yeah, but dammit, someone who could listen, offer care, and be present.
Michael: They were groundbreaking. And they always will be considered groundbreaking. And that makes me proud. That my name is on those shows. When I think of my career, it’s like, that one and Crossing Gang Lines.
We just really gave it our heart and soul to these shows.
Paul R: But tonight, man, I am proud of you. I’m proud of you, man. Because tonight we’re gonna show the rest of the world and all those homeboys and all those hoods that are watching us across the country, that this is possible. If we can have a night of truce for one night, maybe we can have a night of truce for a week. And if we get to a week, you know, we can have a month. And once we get to a month, we got a year. And when we get that year, we ain’t never fighting no more.
MARK VO: There were four of these specials greenlit by FOX. The third special Paul Rodriguez: Back to School aired in 1992 to so-so ratings. The final special was scrapped.
Rodriguez moved into the millennium as a sort of elder statesman of Latino comedy.
And television’s relationship with comedy, especially the stand-up special, has changed in the last 30 years. But maybe not in the way we expected.
Guillermo: I don’t even know that this comedy special could happen now.
MARK VO: Media representation scholar Guillermo Avila-Saavedra again.
Guillermo: Everybody’s getting a Netflix special now. Even the HBO special has lost its cultural and social prestige.
MARK VO: The faces and voices in stand-up are wide-ranging, but so are the offerings. The power of a stand-up special, especially for a person of color, may not have the same cultural imprint that it did decades ago.
Guillermo: We’re not going to have another Paul Rodriguez, another George Lopez, to the same degree of their influence or in any bag because everything has been lost in the sea of offerings we’re getting.
MARK VO: Not only that but the format is still fairly universal — highlight the funny person performing in front of an audience. And I get it, that’s what we come to these specials for! But attempting something that’s perhaps a hybrid of documentary or fiction or who knows, in an effort to bring light to community issues or create social change…well, I scratch my head. Documentarians do that. Musicians do, too. But stand-up comedians? I haven’t seen something like these specials in my 30 years as a captive viewer. And definitely, never again on any of the major networks.
Maybe that’s why, even though it’s a forgotten 60 minutes from network TV, I’ve held onto this tape.
Guillermo: If people are watching, then we should get attention, because it has an impact.
If people watch, then it matters.
MARK VO: It does matter. As a 12-year-old, it offered me the best example of a media diet experienced by generations of diasporic Latines in the United States — finding crumbs of representation where we can and making them a full meal. And more than just seeing myself as a Latino man, for the first time I also saw my path. What might’ve been seen as a disposable experiment for network TV, affected the way I approach my work in documentary, comedy, and my career as a social worker and educator. Privately, until today, it’s been one of the most influential pieces of media in my career in media and as a community advocate.
And as much as I’ll claim “I’m never moving again”, I definitely will. But this rectangle of a VHS tape made its way through dozens of moves in my life, and I’m sure it’ll make its way through many more. And yes, my friends. I will still own a VCR.