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Culture Clash Fights Back Through Satire and Political Comedy

Black and white photo of Culture Clash | Harry Gamboa Jr.
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Millions of people nationwide are suffering from a collective disorder borne from the unhealthy overuse of social media. Doom-scrolling, as it’s called, is the act of reading terrible and negative news stories seemingly non-stop, most typically via Twitter. It is a way of staying informed that also buries the user into deep levels of despair and ennui. Thankfully, there’s one solution that doesn’t require completely disconnecting from the internet: “Totally Fake Latino News!”

Culture Clash’s Totally Fake Latino News is on  "Southland Sessions." Watch this episode.
Culture Clash’s Totally Fake Latino News

The Totally Fake Latino News (TFLN) show is the latest creation of the Latino comedy performance group known as Culture Clash. The series features six, 10-minute episodes that offer “doses of levity, poetics and payasadas (clowning), from their homes and streets of SoCal and beyond.”

Each episode is a flurry of jokes, satire and animation interspersed with news clips, original material shot exclusively for TFLN, and old clips of Culture Clash’s sketch comedy television show, which originally aired on the FOX network in 1993. It all seems random at first glance, but there’s a method to the madness. “Totally Fake Latino News!” spotlights the many injustices of our era, while also staying true to the form and style that the Culture Clash trio have built over their decades-long careers.

Founded in 1984, Culture Clash originally made a name for itself as a sketch comedy group armed with jokes and satire mingled with seriousness. It set its sights on culture, identity and politics. The group hadn’t worked in sketch comedy for the past 20 years, but the pandemic, the nationwide protests against police brutality, and their lifelong devotion to social justice pulled them back in.

“What's funny about this ‘Totally Fake Latino News!’ is we had moved very far away from sketch,” says Culture Clash founder Richard Montoya. “We had moved into serious theater and large commissions and being playwrights. That's how we've made our living in the last 20 years is being commissioned writers and doing more thoughtful, sometimes more serious work but certainly not saying we're a Latinx sketch comedy group. That's not us anymore. We're playwrights. We wanted to explore darker themes for longer periods of time.”

Culture Clash portrait | Oscar Castillo, courtesy of Culture Clash
Culture Clash portrait | Oscar Castillo, courtesy of Culture Clash

Montoya and his fellow satirists Ricardo Salinas and Herbert Sigüenza jumped at the opportunity to get back into sketch comedy after the pandemic began. The group was in northern California performing “Culture Clash (Still) In America” at the time and were itching to work on something new to flex their creative, satirical muscles after the Bay Area and Los Angeles enacted their shelter-in-place orders.

“We all came home and then began to wonder like, ‘Well, what do we what do we do now?’” explains Montoya. “And then we got a call from La Jolla Playhouse, and then we got a call from the Mark Taper Forum in L.A. It became apparent that theaters were trying to figure out and willing to roll the dice on how [they were] going to get programming out there to theater people.”

The call from the Playhouse arrived courtesy of its Artistic Director, Christopher Ashley. The pandemic forced him to shut down numerous works then in production, including “Fly,” a musical re-telling of Peter Pan at the Playhouse, and “Diana,” a play about the late Princess Diana, which was nine previews into production on Broadway.

Ashley convened his team at the Playhouse to come up with a plan for the rest of the year, which included ideas on how to change the theater’s annual Without Walls (WOW) series of interactive performances. For the past decade, the Playhouse has partnered with various artists who have performed live with the incentive to create something more immersive than a typical play.

“We’ve been doing that for 10 years,” explains Ashley, who joined the Playhouse 12 years ago. “Every other year, we do a festival. We bring 20 to 25 shows together in a four-day period and do this explosion of immersive and inspired shows. Some of them have you have a headset on, some of them are six-minute shows, some of them are very visual, and there's all different kinds of shows, but they're all contemporary performance happening in about a four-day span. They're all in some ways challenging the relationship between the artist and the audience and trying to reinvent that in some way.”

One performance he remembers fondly was of a puppeteer who constructed a 20-foot high puppet of Aphrodite that rose out of the ocean at La Jolla Shores beach. The puppeteer performed with several surfers for the piece. It ended with the Aphrodite puppet turning around and revealing a sea monster that devoured the cast.

Unfortunately, such a public performance was clearly out of the question now and Ashley, and his staff quickly realized that they would need to take WOW to a virtual space.

“One of the things that occurred to us is, well, virtual and online continues now, so let's reach out to all of the artists who have ever made us a WOW piece for a live performance,” explains Ashley. “Let's reach out to all the artists we've loved working with and see who's interested in making a piece that's really tailored to this moment that could be virtual, that people could experience online, and one of the first groups we reached out to was Culture Clash.”

Though the group returned to sketch comedy with TFLN, there are plenty of serious moments to be found throughout. The introduction to the second episode is a raw, unfiltered look at police brutality during anti-brutality protests. There is a sharp juxtaposition between clips of people in face masks hugging police with cops clad in riot gear tear-gassing crowds of people with impunity.

The introduction to the third episode, to use another example, begins with an animated version of the exchange between CBS reporter Weijia Jiang and Donald Trump that then serves as a quick, visual history lesson of anti-Chinese/anti-Asian racism in the USA.

The end result is a manic, gut punch approach to current events where the past and present collide before handing the torch to the next generation of Latinxs who will build the future during a present moment when the concept of time itself seems to have lost its meaning.

“Things are moving in such speeded up time right now that I as an artist, I also have to move fast,” explains Montoya. “That doesn't mean careless and without regard but, swiftly and with intent. I think artists with some gravitas and some history, those of us that have stayed committed to social justice work, we're well equipped for the moment right now. I feel well-suited for this time.”

THE TOTALLY FAKE LATINO NEWS - Episode Three

“I need to step up my activism and my work to add to the clamor,” he continues, “to add to the roar, to add to the protests, and demanding along with my brothers and sisters, that Black Lives Matter, that children shouldn't be in cages, that people of color disproportionately are dying of COVID-19, that there's madness. The way to fight back the madness is going to be through our satire and our political comedy.”

Top Image: Black and white photo of Latino performance trio Culture Clash | Harry Gamboa Jr., courtesy of Culture Clash

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