A funny thing happened on the way to ‘Bordertown’

by Lalo Alcaraz on January 9, 2016 in Cartoons, Cultura

BordertownBarracudaEPNHola. I’m Lalo Alcaraz. You might know me.

I have been a Chicano political cartoonist forever. I know, I know, it’s God’s work, you’re welcome. Now, all of a sudden I’m a primetime TV writer and producer. Huh? Yes, the last two years in my life have been a super WTF. With ten percent LOL. #facepalm

Like it or not, I am now part of a historic pop culture moment: the first season of the first animated primetime TV show featuring a large cast of Mexican and Mexican-American characters: Bordertown.

I confess, it felt like I dropped in from outer space right into a seat at the writer’s table. But this ain’t my first time at the rodeo. I really began my Hollywood career 20 years ago as a young, impossibly adorable writer (photo) on 995516_644479862238844_2116462343_n 24 episodes of a 30-episode run of the legendary Culture Clash sketch comedy show.

This ground breaking show aired across the country on independent Fox TV stations and my sketch comedy trio, The Chicano Secret Service, also appeared on that show. It was possibly the first Latino sketch comedy show on American television, beating out John Leguziamo’s House of Buggin’ by 22 minutes.

After that, I continued to work on my satirical writing voice, and on my main gig — drawing political cartoons on immigration, immigrant rights, social justice, and fair media representation — especially the lack of Latinos in film and TV.

But like the Little Cholo That Could, I kept plugging away at the entertainment industry.

I’m not ashamed to say that I have endlessly pitched my comic strip La Cucaracha as an animated show, but no joy.

In the 2000s me and my POCHO ‘zine partner Esteban Zul were hired to write scripts for New Line Cinema, VH1 and Fox 2000. (Anybody interested in TACO TRUCK: The Movie or Lowrider? They’re extremely available.)

In the mid-2000s, we had a Chicano-themed animated kids show in development at The Disney Channel called The Chuco Brothers. In 2013 I was asked to write a Border Patrol office comedy pilot for Fox Animation Domination titled ICE. I was employed, but basically, like many people in the entertainment industry, I was a case study in #FAIL.

Yes. Although I’ve worked in Hollywood for 20 years, I just haven’t succeeded.

Friends, I’m not trying to say I’m now a big-time TV writer, I’m not. Show creator Mark Hentemann said he didn’t want make a Latino-themed TV show solely written by white guys. He also likes to say that he found me and producer Gustavo Arellano from “outside of television.”

Thanks to him, I made it through Bordertown, a real life sitcom bootcamp.

BordertownTeamCasa0101

And I learned a few things.

TV is not diverse. Just kidding, I already knew that. There’s not going to be more Latino talent behind the camera and in key decision making positions until we start helping fellow Latinos into Hollywood. My fellow Bordertown writer and homie Gustavo Arellano (columnist of ¡Ask a Mexican!) actually did this, and got me hired on Bordertown. No Mexican crabs in a bucket pulling each other down here, more like a crab leg up!

Diversity can be fun! Bordertown has five Latino writers, and four are Mexican-American. It makes a difference. (And our only immigrant writer is Canadian Christian Lander, what’s that aboot?) My Cuban-American Bordertown co-worker Valentina Garza puts it like this: show creator Mark Hentemann wisely gathered an “ensemble writing staff.” A Chicano journalist, a cartoonist, a newbie writer, a stand up comic, a Cubana Simpsons writer and a crack staff of very experienced gringo TV writers walk into a bar….

We are not alone. It’s safe to say many TV writers admit to be self-doubting, insecure neurotics. The first day at Bordertown all 14 writers plus staff introduced ourselves, and I felt very intimidated. I was starting a TV gig with pros who had written for Family Guy, The Simpsons, American Dad, Mr. Show, South Park, —YIKES!

I stood up and said, “Please forgive me if I seem awkward. It’s because I’ve worked alone in a room for 20 years. I’m a cartoonist.” I scored at least one laugh for the season.

Beat yourself. TV is supposed to be collaborative. In the TV writer’s room, we are not there to bring each other down, we are in competition with ourselves! When someone pitches a mediocre joke, (usually me), the other writers politely offer a golf clap, or gentle, fading laughter. Sometimes, when a pitch resonates and is funny but only halfway there, the other writers will fill it out and make it a usable gag. Hey, any way onto the script is fine with me. And when something’s really funny, it’s fall on the floor funny! (The boss can still kill your precious joke, so, don’t cry about it, write a better one, you big fat baby.)

Silent pride. Be quietly proud when one of your jokes lasts all the way through from pitching through a billion revisions, network notes, recording and finally on air. We rewrite the hell out of each episode. I was happy getting ONE joke in per script, but oh, the feeling when you get three or more! Miserable self doubt drops to manageable levels.

Don’t argue with your head writer. I stated that onstage to media college students at a Bordertown screening once, and the show creator quickly corrected me and said, “Well, that’s why I hired you, I want you to do that.” OK. Argue with your head writer! Especially if your main job is to keep the show as culturally authentic and honest as possible. In my case, there were a couple of times I had to take a stand and talk someone out of pitching a lame-ish, stereotypical or worn out racist sounding Mexican joke trope. Still, muy awkward…

TV talk is weird. I learned what a “Two Hander” is, and other odd, inside TV writing terms. It’s a type of show like Bordertown that features two main characters — MIGRA agent Bud Buckwald and successful immigrant Ernesto Gonzalez — and the ensuing friction. (I believe it’s also an intimate bedroom move. Try it!)

Talk when they listen. When your EP sincerely listens to you, keep on talking. Bordertown’s a new show, a virgin desert landscape. I fed the art department images of border cities Calexico and Mexicali to help with their design of Mexifornia. My church back home in San Diego is the model for the Mexifornia Catholic church. Gustavo and I were asked to create the biography for Ernesto Gonzalez.

The EP asked me to help the design of the Gonzalez home interiors, which I filled up with every nostalgic Mexican immigrant home cliche, especially the plastic covered couch, a thousand family photos and tortilleria calendars ten years out of date and my Tia’s 70s era hanging bead room dividers. We got to pitch stories that became episodes, re-name characters and even pitch new characters, like Straight Uncle Jorge, the gay uncle in many Mexican families that no one admits is gay. When is he going to find a nice girl and settle down?

BordertownCollegeFlierTake the show to the people. An out-of-context Bordertown video preview posted on Facebook generated lots of negative comments. We told Mark we should respond and ease any concerns in the Latino community about stereotyping or negative material.

The network cut us some better trailers, and Gustavo and I helped convince the higher-ups at Fox to let us barnstorm the country screening previously unseen episodes of Bordertown. Between the two of us, we screened my co-credited Borderwall episode, and occasionally my also co-credited pilot, 50-60 times from coast to coast. Unprecedented! I would hold screenings wherever I could, many at universities, at Chicano cultural centers, bars, restaurants, libraries, Latino entertainment conferences and even an actual movie theater in San Antonio where the Castro Wonder Twins showed up. I had a D.C. screening for Latino appointees of the White House. We even had several screenings in bordertowns like San Ysidro, California, MacAllen, Texas and even that Land of the Frostbacks, Detroit, Michigan.

The screenings wore out at least three sets of DVDs. A few audience members showed concern for some issues, like portraying a sensitive topic like immigration in a satirical light (we are spoofing U.S. immigration policies, not immigrants) or that white supremacists would make more fun of Mexicans more because of the images in the show. (White supremacists don’t require cartoons to hate us more.) The result is everyone loves Bordertown now, they all told me at the Top Secret Raza Cabal Meeting.

BordertownXicanxHaterIgnore the haters. I almost didn’t write that, cuz I was ignoring them SO HARD.

People will ask you for jobs. Even if they don’t like you. There’s a meme I saw that says, “Keep on hustling until the haters ask if you’re hiring.”

And finally, I learned that persistence works. You too can be an overnight success after 20 years.

So there it is. This isn’t the typical way people can become TV writers. There are internships and entry level assistant gigs out there, you should look into them, young people. I didn’t have the patience when I first worked in TV so long ago, plus I only wanted to work on projects that would feature Raza. Oh, dumb idealistic me!

Those opportunities were pretty scarce, but I kept at it. It’s not impossible, and the rewards are amazing. Preparation + timing = the chance to work hard at something you love.

ONE MORE: An old dog CAN learn new tricks. So please watch Bordertown, Sunday nights at 9: 30 PM/8:30 Central on Fox. Woof.

***

Lalo Alcaraz is POCHO’s Jefe-in-Chief.

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