How Cuban Stand-Up Comics Spin Censorship and Poverty into Jokes
In Cuba, comedy provides a family-friendly refuge from an everyday life, and an opportunity to inch up to the line of what no one can say out loud.
For the past 18 years, Ricardo Isidron has been producing La Esquina de Mariconchi, a live comedy show in Havana that features popular stand-ups who regularly appear on Cuban television. It's a showcase for some of the island country's hottest talent. So, do they ever do gags about the recently deceased dictator Fidel Castro or his brother Raúl?
Isidron, normally animated, turns visibly uncomfortable when my translator asks him what I thought was an obvious question. I hear the names "Fidel" and "Raul" thrown about, in very low voices.
"No! No! No!" Isidron says while shaking his head. Even mentioning Castro jokes during a casual interview in the back of a theater—nearly two months after his death—feels like a risk.
"In their private life, Cubans do jokes about Castro… but not in public," Isidron says. "The comedians just have to work out a strategy to tell jokes without mentioning names."
One way they do that is by talking about the "beard," a code word that everyone in Havana understands. Or a comedian could play off the fact that everyone knows that Fidel was born in August. The comic could say, "Let me read you the star signs," and proceed to read a scathing horoscope about Leos.
Such workarounds are necessary in a country where, unlike the US and many other Western nations, comedians can't take freedom of speech for granted. Satire is arguably most important when the powers that be are trying to stamp it out, but the stakes are much higher in those cases. Just as Cubans have dealt with shortages of food and other general goods for decades, the island's comedians have to use their ingenuity and resourcefulness when comes to making political jokes.
This atmosphere can itself be used to create comedic tension.
"A comedian onstage could yell, 'Down with Fidel!'" says Isidron. "And then, after a few beats…'Martinez!'"
Isidron began his own comedy career 40 years ago, but was forced to step down from the stage when he developed throat problems. He switched to writing and producing shows and is now one of the most instrumental figures behind the contemporary Cuban stand-up scene. There's no one better to talk to if you want to understand Cuban comedy, which is often rooted in the way the country has suffered economically under Castro and the US embargo.
"There's a hotel. It's got these two beautiful swimming pools," says Isidron. "One's small and one's big. The manager says: 'Look, what beautiful pools.'
"The guest goes: 'Yeah, they're beautiful—but they're empty.'
"'No, we got no water, but they're beautiful pools.'
"'Yeah, but they're empty. So what do you do?'
"'We fill them with dirt, and we grow trees.'"
Isidron and I both let out a laugh.
"This is what happens here in this country," he says. "It's absurd."
Cuba's comedy history dates back to the 1800s, when Spanish theater groups would perform in Havana. During the Batista regime, American organized crime turned Havana into the Las Vegas of the Caribbean; US-based comedy acts like Jerry Lewis would regularly perform at the casinos. After the revolution in 1959, Cuban comedy drastically shifted. Shortly after Castro came to power, Leopoldo Fernández, a comedian on the hugely popular satirical radio show La Tremenda Corte, was blackballed after performing a political comedy sketch as his beloved character, Potato. The offending satirical joke employed classic Cuban misdirection: A fellow sketch player pulled out a photo of Castro and Potato went to the wall and said, dripping with irony, "Allow me—I want to hang this one myself…"
The year 1991, according to Isidron, marked the modern era of Cuban stand-up comedy; one of the first breakout stars of the day was Álvarez Guedes, who did deadpan one-liners. Isidron provides an example: "A guy meets one of his friends on the street and says, 'Do you like women with tits?' His friend replies, 'No, just two.'" (The pun, which doesn't quite translate, is that the friend thinks the man is talking about a woman with more than two breasts.)
Censorship prevented Cuban comedians from having access to American stand-up comedy, so their influences largely came from their own comedic history and other Spanish-speaking countries. Dominican comedian Julio Sabala, who specializes in musical impressions, was a huge influence on the modern Havana scene.
Currently, a comic named Panfilo is the most famous comedian in Cuba thanks to the hilarious and warm-hearted videos he did with President Barack Obama around the time of the former president's historic Cuba visit last year. (Isidron says those viral-video sketches were taken down from YouTube in Cuba mere days after posting due to government censorship.)
Even setting aside Castro, Cuban comedy—at least in public—is fairly respectful of politicians. You won't find too much anti-Trump humor on stages here. Still, Isidron tells me, "There's a lot of comedians doing impressions—and in their impressions, that's where they express their opinions."
George Smilovici walks down his Havana street like he's the mayor of the block, stopping to kiss women on the cheek or just chat, wave, and say "hola" to whoever passes by.
"Here, I feel like I'm at home," says Smilovici.
Smilovici, who was born in Cuba to Jewish immigrants from Romania (his father ran a music club in Havana) performs comedy half the year in Australia and the other half in Havana, where he also records original Cuban compositions with his orchestra, Frente Caliente.
"Here, they respect the balls of a comedian, just to be up there," Smilovici says of Cubans. "It's because of the freedom angle. Politically, certain things you can't talk about. Onstage, they expect the truth. And they respect anybody who goes out there and talks the truth. That's what comedy is all about—bursting bubbles."
"They have no time for political correctness—they have other things to worry about. Much more important things."
The key to winning over a Cuban audience, Smilovici believes, is to sell your heart before the material. "They have to love you and feel the warmth," he says. "If someone gives, they will get back ten times more. If you engender love and compassion, then you got them in the palm of your hand."
Smilovici tells me Cuban comedy is more family-orientated and almost innocent compared to harder-edged acts you can find in other countries. "Here, they don't like swearing," he says. "They're very timid and conservative in some ways." Instead of using crude slang for a man's privates, a comedian will opt for the word "pinga," which literally means "stick."
But there are some areas where a joke that wouldn't fly in Australia is fine in Cuba. That can mean bits about the way people look, or material that discusses race and sexual orientation— those jokes would obviously get comedians in trouble in America and many other places, but Smilovici says it's all done with without malice in Cuba. "They have no time for political correctness—they have other things to worry about. Much more important things."
Havana is a welcoming, warm city, but the struggles it has with poverty are apparent to any visitor. "People take their own toilet paper on the street here," says Smilovici. "Because when you go into a public toilet, like at a bar or restaurant, they don't have toilet paper."
Even a doctor who makes roughly 60 pesos (about $60) a month—a fairly good wage by Cuban standards (many necessities are taken care of by the government)—might need a second job to provide for his family. In Cuba, "artists make more than doctors," Smilovici says. Local comedy clubs pay a percentage of what they make every night to the government-controlled union; the union then pays the comics. A headliner at a Havana club will make roughly 20 CUC ($20) a show.
"In a country that suffers a lot, where you have so many problems, and people are under so much stress, you have to have humor," says Smilovici. "Humor is not a luxury, like in Australia. The poor suffer more—the poor need more jokes."
Watch a VICE News Tonight segment on Havana under Castro:
On the night I visit, it's La Esquina de Mariconchi's 874th show. The crowd filling Teatro America , a beautiful art deco theater, encompasses all ages and fills the 1,600 seats. This is what you do on Thursday nights when you don't have readily available internet: You go out to see a show.
The lights go down. The red curtain goes up, revealing Mariconchi, the host, wearing a wig and dress. "There's a guy backstage who said he wanted to take a boat to Florida… but it was very bad weather, so he couldn't go," Mariconchi quips. This reference to the embargo gets a big laugh. (Smilovici translated the jokes for me.)
An audience member throws out a playful heckle, and Mariconchi comes back with a sharp comeback: "Be quiet—or else you'll end up being a prostitute on the street!"
Three women who are celebrating birthdays are brought onstage. Mariconchi has them do a lip-sync contest, and he gives the winner toothpaste as a prize—which isn't given ironically when there are shortages.
The most political moment of her act comes when she's doing crowd work and asks Smilovici where he's from. "Bauta," he replies. "So that makes me a 'Batista,'" a pun referencing the US-backed dictator ousted by Castro.
Most of the comedy on display would appear old-fashioned to US comedy fans. Enoel Oquendo—who looks like a pudgy version of Larry Wilmore— tells straight-up joke-jokes accompanied by a musical sting and a little dance move after each punchline. Oquendo finishes his set with a long joke that involves simulating humping someone from behind. Duo Espatula, a classic comedy double act featuring a tall skinny guy and a short, chubby guy, is a pure joy. The duo begins with an ironic statement on the current Cuban economic situation:
"Can we have a minute of silence: Let's remember the 70s, 80s, and 90s—all the years when we had everything—and now we have nothing."
(This, it's explained to me, is a joke about how everyone was starving in the 80s.)
The comedy pair proceed to break into a song with the chorus, "Everything was great before—and now it's shit. Obama can't take any more away from me!"
The place fills with warm, cathartic laughter. Everyone here knows what it's like to lack ordinary necessities the world takes for granted; everyone is living and working under the same yoke.
"There's only one way to look at life in Cuba—and that's through humor," whispers Smilovici. "Because if you look at it the other way, it's really sad. There's only one option: You have to laugh. Because life here is hard, but there's an incredible love inside."
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