on growing up in the valley, comedy and life.
Interview & image by Frankie Leal
One of the most influential Hispanics in America and member of The Original Latin Kings of Comedy, Reedley native Paul Rodriguez has been making people laugh out loud for over 35 years. The writer, director, producer and now activist has appeared in several feature films, such as D.C. Cab, Born in East L.A., Tortilla Soup, Rat Race, and Ali. His resume includes starring roles and featured appearances in over 45 films and countless television series and comedy specials.
During his sets, Rodriguez pokes fun of his early life growing up as a first generation Mexican-American combined with his pursuit of the American Dream. He often visits the central valley’s local casinos performing to packed houses. Below Rodriguez shares about his Reedley roots, fatherhood, early beginnings in comedy and some American history.
Did you grow up in Reedley?
I was born in Culiacan, Sinaloa. My parents crossed the border when I was three. We were migrant farmworkers who traveled a lot but the closest place to home would have to be Reedley. I have family there and they used to work for a big farm called Hamilton. That was my first job too.
Did you go to school in Reedley?
Yeah, I went to school in Reedley but my father didn’t value education much. If he would find out that there where tomatoes being picked somewhere for a nickel more, we would go. However, I was always there for picture day. Every once in a while people send me a picture of me and say, “Is this you?” “Yeah, that was me”.
How did you get started in comedy?
I was going to college in Long Beach and I was destructive in Anita Cano’s class. I would make her and the entire class laugh. It was like my own show. One day Mrs. Cano asked me to stay after class and she said, “I don’t know how to tell you this Paul because I’m guilty, but I find myself laughing at you and here we are a semester later and I haven’t taught a thing. I don’t know what to do? To pass you or not?”
Her husband had an association with the comedy store. I had never heard of the comedy store. She said, “Look, amateur night is on Monday. I’m going to take you and you’ll go up on stage and see if you have it.” I got very nervous. “Either you go, or do me a favor, just study and be quite in class,” she told me.
So I went to amateur night and the minute I hit the stage, it was an epiphany. I was like, “God, this is what I was meant to do.” I made the crowd laugh and I got hooked on it. I loved the attention. After that, I didn’t go back to class. Mrs. Cano didn’t mind. She said, “I’ve never said this to a student before but you don’t need college. But don’t say I told you that.”
I started going to the Comedy Store every night. I moved in with a bunch of unknown comics like Jim Carrey, Howie Mandel, and Dice Clay. We all lived in this house that Mitsy Shore owned in the Hollywood Hills.
How did your parents react to your comedy?
When I got home from my Tonight Show performance, the phone was ringing like crazy. My mom was calling terrified. I did a couple of jokes about Ronald Reagan and she thought I was crazy, “They are going to grab us and deport us,” she told me. I said, “Mom. This is America. You have the right to free speech. There’s a constitution here.” She replied, “There’s a constitution in Mexico too!”
My parents never understood that everything you say on stage doesn’t have to be the truth. It’s only an act; it’s a performance. I remember when I would do Catholic jokes, I would come home and she would say, “Why are you telling people you’re Catholic? You’re not Catholic!” I said, “What makes you think I’m not? Mom it’s just a joke.”
The religion that my father was a pastor for was very conservative. Women didn’t wear make-up, no earrings, no jewelry, no smoking, and no dancing. He wanted me to follow in his footsteps and become a preacher but it wasn’t in me. I remember shortly before he died he was talking to me on how disappointed he was. I said, “Dad, you know, I hope you don’t take it to heart but if it’s any consolation, my kids are probably not going to listen to me either.”
What accomplishments are you most proud of?
My sons. I know it sounds like a hokie answer, but it really is. Both of my kids, Lucas and Paul. They’ve surpassed every expectation I’ve had of them.
Who was your comedy influence growing up?
My hero was Freddie Prinze. He was my idol. I really admired him. I never really cried for a stranger like I did for him when he passed away.
What’s it like being a father to a professional skateboarder?
When my son came to me and said he wanted to be a skateboarder, my heart sank. I said, “What is that?” I said, “Son the only reason people skateboarded when I was young was because they couldn’t afford a bike.” You know; car, bike, skateboard, and then foot. But he showed me. He’s done fantastic.
Unfortunately the only time I see him is on T.V. He was just in Germany and he won silver. He was kind of down about that and I said, “Son, silver is very good considering how many people want it.” He has gotten his share of gold medals. I’m proud of him because I didn’t do anything for him. He did it on his own. There’s nothing I can do for him. I could have had all the connections in the world but if the kid can’t skate, he can’t skate. People have told him, you’re famous because of your father. I know nothing about the X-games. But I always told him that the possibilities in his life are endless, and I would tell that to your kids and to any kid.
You’re part-owner of the Laugh Factory.
Do you perform there?
Every Monday night in Hollywood when I’m in town. I started Latino Night 28 years ago and that’s the only reason why I became a partner. We are currently working on opening a Laugh Factory in Phoenix; if my son gives me some money. Later we are going to open one in Hawaii. We want to offer more franchises.
You are the chairman to the California Latino Water Coalition. What issues are you trying to overcome?
We don’t want to overcome anything, we just want water. We want water and we want it guaranteed. I didn’t ask for this job. How I got Involved? I got a call from my mom saying that they had turned the water off to our ranches in the Central Valley. She said, “There’s no water this year.” I figured my brother didn’t pay the water bill so I looked into it. What I found out blew my mind.
For the past seven years I’ve been fighting this issue. It has cost me everything. It also diverted me from comedy and now Hollywood kind of retired me, but I don’t mind. If I have to sacrifice everything, I believe the water issue is the most important issue there is.
What are your current comedy projects?
Right now I’m working on a sitcom. It’s with my son and Edward James Olmos. It’s about a grandfather, son and grandson who live under the grandson’s home and we have to follow his house rules. We are going to try and put it on the air. If it succeeds, then I’ll enjoy that. But if it doesn’t, I’m having a good time already.
Besides comedy, what other projects are you involved in?
There’s an American history lesson that I’m trying to bring more awareness to. In 1946 Mexican-American farmer Gonzalo Mendez’s children were not allowed to attend their local school in Westminster, CA because of their nationality. The Mendez’s claimed their kids were victims of institutional discrimination by being forced to attend Mexican only schools.
Mendez challenged the Westminster School District in a court room and won. This was the very first time in history that desegregation in the California schools was challenged and beat. Eight years later desegregation in schools was beat in the entire United States. However the very first time it was challenged was because of Mendez. Mendez believed his kids were just as good as anybody else’s. I think it’s a wonderful story.
I met with Speaker of Assembly, John A. Pérez and all the political contacts that I know. We are currently drafting a bill that would teach this story in the eighth grade. I hope this story will encourage students to stay in school. I believe it would build self-esteem with our youth. This wonderful American story should never be forgotten.
What’s your advice on how to reach success?
I think parents, all of us, should lead by example. You’re a wonderful example to your kids. My dad started something. My dad did something. I served in the Armed Forces of the United States of America. I didn’t go running to Mexico when I got drafted. Mexico’s not my country. I was scared but I went and I would go again. I tell my son, “Forget about what I say, it’s how I live.” I have visited so many prisons and it all boils down to the parents not loving their children enough. My father told me to love your children before you have them.