You can see it in her eyes, even from the cheap seats: The woman is terrified. An awareness of time growing short adds something like poignancy to her frantic attempts to mime the idea of “gynecologist” with one hand while the other supports a potato that’s rigged to detonate. When the potato explodes, shrapnel rains down in starchy slow motion on the stage, on the actress, on the band, on the audience, and, of course, around the clown at the center of it all, grinning. But then he’s always grinning—because of the makeup, sure, but also because this game and all within it belong to him.
You’d be forgiven, if you were the sort of person who still flips channels, for coming across Noches con Platanito and feeling your personal cultural compass spinning. What manner of thing is this? A commercial? A scene from an alt-comedy? Or is it, impossibly, exactly what it is, a talk show wherein a clown interviews famous guests from the English-speaking and Spanish-speaking worlds and then makes them play ridiculous games?
Taped live in Burbank before an audience that’s pretty much all Latino, Noches con Platanito is almost five years old. Each episode typically has six segments: a politically tinged opening monologue; an interview with “general-market” (read: English-speaking) guests; a game with those guests that is usually at least a little messy; then another interview, this time with Latin-market guests from telenovelas and series inspired by shows like Narcos and Breaking Bad; another game or two; then a performance from a regional Mexican act. With a format that borrows from Mexican and American TV, it’s a conversation between where you came from and where you are now. A night with Platanito fills the space where a big wall may or may not someday go.
Before the exploding potato bit, the guest, Hannah Levien, sat on a couch with fellow actor Curtis Lum and had an almost seamless bilingual conversation with the clown, el payaso (whose full name is Platanito Show), about their new series, Siren. He’d incline his fuchsia wig toward them from his desk and ask about their lives and their careers in Spanish, and after a short interval in which the translator offstage furiously bridged the linguistic gaps via tiny earpieces, they’d answer in English. Platanito is playful and respectful with guests, occasionally a bit flirty but not given to squirting flowers, which many actors, or their publicists, fear awaits them.
It’s a kind of unofficial rule in Hollywood that you can’t be on a late-night talk show until you’ve been on a late-night talk show. Noches con Platanito solves this paradox by offering the couch to English-speaking actors and comedians who don’t necessarily ride the tidal shifts of the entertainment biz that determine who’s going to be on Kimmel, Colbert, and Fallon. Tony Hawk once jumped of Platanito’s desk with a skateboard. The Walking Dead’s endless cast offers a steady parade of guests. La Toya Jackson showed up (Platanito wore a sequined version of her brother’s military jacket in his honor). Siren’s Levien and Lum both live in Vancouver, where, according to Lum, actors are hot to appear on Platanito’s couch.
There are about 40 episodes a season, two seasons a year. The show’s parent network, EstrellaTV, operates out of a studio not too far from where the Tonight Show used to be filmed. Estrella TV is the small upstart competing for the American Latino audience against Miami’s Telemundo (owned by NBCUniversal) and New York’s struggling Univision. Marketing materials say Noches con Platanito and other EstrellaTV shows are available in 40 million homes in the continental U.S. on cable; they’re available across Latin America (except Venezuela and Brazil) on Roku streaming TV. So the clown gets around.
Under the wig and glittery red nose and bedazzled suits is a 46-year-old man named Sergio Alejandro Verduzco Rubiera, who flies back and forth weekly from the home in Mexico City he shares with his wife and two kids. Verduzco sin makeup has a shaved head; he’s stocky but well-built, with a gentle face like a boxer who never took a hit to the nose. It gets softened further by the greasepaint and, once you get past any coulrophobia, is sweet and sad.
“Platanito has a powerful weapon that I think no other host has, which is called makeup,” Verduzco says as we walk around the Americana at Brand, where he lives during filming. Verduzco speaks a little English and I speak some Spanish, and we mortar the difference with an interpreter. He means that the clown transcends cultural norms and can get away with anything. As we walk anonymously among the crowds, I ask if he doesn’t get tired of all the people around. No, he says, he needs to be around people. Before, he stayed at a hotel; at night it was so quiet and lonely he’d cry.
Verduzco’s life could be told in a series of velvet paintings: the little boy who fell for circus clowns and sat in front of his mother’s mirror transforming himself into one with her makeup; the boy-clown who adopted the name Platanito, or Little Banana, playing parties for friends and cousins until his uncle told him he should start charging money; the teenage entertainer who performed as a magician, a lewd ventriloquist comedian, or a party clown. Toward the end of the series of paintings would be one depicting the grown-up clown who didn’t have time to remove his makeup after a kids’ party and took the stage in full Platanito, thrilling an audience that had never seen such a joyfully obscene clown.
Touring gigs, then TV shows, in Mexico followed. In Los Angeles, Lenard Liberman discovered Verduzco on satellite TV. “He stood out to me as being a great talent,” says Liberman, the CEO and cofounder of L.A.’s LBI Media, the parent company of EstrellaTV. Liberman saw the potential for a late-night talk show, a relative rarity in Hispanic TV, although engineering “talk-show Platanito” took some doing. “He was used to the light being on him, but you really have to make the guest a star,” Liberman tells me. And then “a funny thing happened on the way to producing the show,” he says. Televisa, Mexico’s mass-media monster, refused to let its stars appear on the rival network’s show. So Noches’s producers started inviting general-market stars. “It’s made us more relevant and more interesting and more topical in a way that we wouldn’t have been,” says Liberman. Certainly more international. On a recent show, a Brazilian, a Venezuelan, and an American shared the couch, their different languages bouncing around the clown’s ever-smiling head.
There are now two Platanitos: the foulmouthed stand-up who tours Mexico and performs in his own Mexico City theater, and the talk-show host who is more “respectable.” But if you let a clown run a show, you’re going to get games like “Papa Boom” (“papa” = “potato”; “boom” = universal), and one where guests slide glasses of beer along a bar, trying not to spill on a plush monkey. The perennial favorite, “A Calzón Quitado” (it means both “speaking plainly” and “taking of your underwear”), is typical of the double entendre winding through the language like a snake that could also be a penis. In that one, three guests change clothes onstage behind curtains as Platanito orbits with a camera on a selfie stick that he runs beneath said curtains as if he were checking the undercarriage of a car at the border.When, Dios mío, the curtains drop, the three (male or female) are revealed, in whatever state of undress. (Guests and their publicists approve games beforehand.)
The history of Latin American gender dynamics falls outside the goals of this piece, so I will let Platanito’s assistant, Eleida Munguia, summarize. “Weather girls have big boobs and butts. No one cares about weather. They just care about watching the girls watch the weather,” she says, adding that Hispanic TV “has always been about the sexiness of the body, more than American TV.”
Not that American programming is so enlightened; there’s plenty of curtain-dropping here, too. But Noches must synthesize its own thing, a new thing, from often-incompatible social norms on both sides of the border. Victor Dueñas is one of the show’s four writers and the lone American. “When you have an audience that straddles two different cultures, it’s a lot of education,” he says. Dueñas, who is gay, weighs in when the writers put jokes in the monologue that are “a little much.” He calls himself an edutainer. “I bring people that I think would be great guests not only because they are leads in their shows but because they are educating Platanito and our audience about x, y, and z issue,” he says. On the day I meet with him, Dueñas is trying to figure out how to explain to Verduzco the proper way to address a gender nonbinary guest in a language that stamps everything “he” and “she.” It’s tricky, he admits. “There are things that in Mexican television and Latino culture in general are permissible to be said about LGBT people that in the U.S. are no longer seen as appropriate.”
Which is why Verduzco often finds himself sweating his way through the gaps—“I have conflict because I don’t know American culture, and I don’t know what the limits are”—before ceding to Platanito, the kid made of makeup, who sorts it out by throwing water or baked goods.https://www.instagram.com/p/BkP1HxEgTjv
The recipient of these clownish tantrums is usually Platanito’s sidekick, David Villalpando, a compact and dapper 59-year-old whose wide mouth can go from grin to grimace at the toss of a cake. Villalpando has been an actor and writer since his auspicious early role as a Guatemalan on a long journey to the U.S. in the 1984 film El Norte, which was nominated for an original screenplay Oscar. The scene in which Villalpando and his screen sister crawl through a sewer pipe thick with rats peculiarly parallels his experience with Verduzco: Villalpando has, at his boss’s behest, appeared naked onstage at the Dolby Theatre during a music awards show; at the Microsoft Theater, Verduzco set him on fire. Villalpando is punished and endures, endlessly. “He lets me do anything to him,” Verduzco says with admiration. “He asks me, ‘Is it OK if I throw this on you?’ ” Villalpando says in kind. As el patiño, the nobly enduring straight man, Villalpando is a reminder that we’re all bound for that final platano peel.
That’s the true joke hidden in the clown’s name. More than sexiness or double entendre, Verduzco’s humor is defined by a preoccupation with tragedy and, specifically, facing it. An example he gives me: “What a pretty old lady. I feel bad that you’re going to die.” Or another: A blind man is a frequent audience member. Platanito asks him how the show’s looking. The man says, “Great!” Everybody laughs. For an audience dealing with immigration, racism, and class issues, an acceptance of trouble is a coping tool. This particular brand of comedy is the blues with a punch line.
Platanito’s assistant, Munguia, sums up the strains of sexiness and existentialism coming together in Hispanic televisual culture thusly: “The pretty girl gets ruined.” A petite blond with a hint of braces, Munguia races around the stage during shoots, fixing makeup and carrying spare wigs with the caution of someone handling nuclear codes. She’s also a radio host on LBI Media’s regional-music program and a commercial actor. In the middle of the night about 20 years ago, as a 10-year-old, she crossed the desert into the U.S. with her mother somewhere near Tijuana. She says she felt all doors were going to close on her because of her legal status. When she moved to L.A., she met Verduzco at a show, and he hired her to be his assistant. Verduzco and the network, she says, championed her cause. When DACA rolled around, she got her Social Security number. That was, she says, the best day of her American, multi-hyphenate life.
Verduzco, a multiple of two lives in two places, understands. “I can relate to the people who have migrated to the U.S. I have felt the loneliness, what it feels like to be far from the people you love in an important moment, in sickness, and know you can’t go back,” he says. “You miss your house, your friends, your food. But this is also a part of what we call living the American Dream.”
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