Growing up, sitcoms were my main hub of comedy. I would watch shows like Everybody Loves Raymond with my Korean-American parents, who were trying to entertain themselves while expanding their English skills.
When I started working as a Viacom intern in the spring of 2016, I was exposed to a different type of comedy – political satire in the form of a mock newsroom. I had the opportunity to watch a live taping of The Daily Show With Trevor Noah. This experience taught me how diverse comedy could be. Noah is mixed-race and born in South Africa, yet he’s hosting a satirical talk show on a major cable network about American politics.
On Oct. 4, after I’d joined the company full time as an assistant for the Office of Global Inclusion (OGI), I learned even more about the importance of diversity to comedy. The Latinx Sketch Boom: A Look Inside the Writers Room, gave Viacom employees the chance to delve into the minds of four Latin American comedians—Arturo Castro, Eliza Cossio, Joanna Haussmann, and Michael Diaz.
The event, sponsored by SOMOS (Viacom’s employee resource group focused on Latino culture) and Comedy Central, was a perfect way to learn about the industry and celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month.
Using laughter to cross cultural boundaries
Before the panel discussion began, we watched short clips of each comedian’s work.
As a novice to the comedy industry, I found these videos particularly interesting to watch. They showed me how comedy can portray the world beyond political satire.
The clips, created by Latino-Americans, could have been specifically targeted toward the Hispanic demographic. However, their work has a universal appeal to viewers regardless of their nationality, culture or native language. While the clips above focused heavily on Hispanic culture, the comedy seemed relevant to just about everyone.
For instance, Eliza Cossio’s Moved to LA was about the experience of being in a new city and visiting all the cliché spots – nothing specific to a certain culture, since anybody can be a tourist.
The common thread: laughter can transcend cultural differences.
While the panelists have Latino roots, this does not make them solely Hispanic. I can relate. As an Asian-American, I am just as much American as I am Asian.
The comedians discussed the importance of diversity to their routines. According to Cossio, this often means writing about your genuine experiences, and not trying to fit into a cultural norm. “In some way somebody else who is different from you will relate,” said Cossio.
Defying the odds
Each panelist overcame obstacles as they struggled to make it in the competitive world of comedy. Castro told the audience that his first role in American television was “Dishwasher Juan” on the Good Wife.
“I asked if they could just take out the dishwasher part,” said Castro. “They were like, ‘No,’ and I was like, “Ok, I’ll take it.”
It was a sacrifice that helped Castro build his portfolio, and soon the comedian crossed paths with Broad City’s Abbi and Ilana. His role as Jaime on the Comedy Central hit offered more creative freedom.
Now, Castro has his own show on the network, Alternatino.
“We’re trying to create content now that people can look at and be proud of,” said Castro, “And hopefully aspire to.”
Haussman said she struggled when writing a script because she wants to appeal to a broad audience while portraying the peculiarity of her specific culture.
“Venezuelans have a birthday song that last seven minutes,” said Haussman. “I realized this was something idiosyncratic, and I made a video out of it.”
Diaz pointed out the benefit of having a unique perspective as a Latino-American.
“I grew up in Connecticut,” said Diaz. “I was always the only Latino in my school.” Later he moved to the more culturally diverse New York City neighborhood, Washington Heights. This ended up benefiting Diaz’s comedic style.
“I try to bring out things that might be obvious to us Latinos,” said Diaz, “But from [a dual] perspective.”
Watch Diaz’s short clip, Puerto Ricans vs. Dominicans.
Diaz also emphasized how important it is for comedians to utilize the internet as a way to build their fan base. The internet is a moving force, according to Diaz, and can break the boundary between audience and entertainer.
Haussman agreed. “In this world of internet, just knowing the person and knowing the perspective of where that humor is coming from is important,” said Haussman.
Writing from a human level
The key to comedic success relies on creating intriguing material that will captivate a universal audience, according to the panelists.
Haussman’s way of unifying characters in a script? “Get someone with an interesting experience and a different background,” said Haussman, “And have them have awkward moments in high school or college like everybody else.”
“The essence of what we find funny as human beings doesn’t really change,” said Castro. “You can add a little Latin spin, because that’s what you are. But when you write from a human level…people from everywhere can relate to it.”
Diversifying comedy is not as hard as one might think. After all, as Castro said, “What [everyone] laughs at is pretty much the same.”
Viacom’s Office of Global Inclusion is devoted to creating a company culture where diversity, multiculturalism, and inclusion are celebrated.