For comedian Bill Santiago, presidential debates are a serious business. No drinking games for this political junkie. He watched the recent face-offs with one hand poised over a pad of paper and the other skittering across his laptop, sending out a steady flow of tweets.
“You’ve gotta keep the tweets coming,” says Santiago, a Huffington Post blogger, CNN contributor and Comedy Central regular. “There aren’t too many events when everyone’s watching like that.”
The New York comic, a frequent presence on Bay Area stages since he got his standup start in San Francisco in the late 1990s, returns to Berkeley on Friday for a two-night engagement at La Peňa. He’s best known as a trenchant observer of life along ever-shifting cultural fault lines, with shows like “The Immaculate Big Bang,” “The Funny of Latin Dance” and “Spanglish” (“twice the vocabulary and half the grammar!”), which led to his book “Pardon My Spanglish ¡Porque Because!”
But every four years, Santiago turns his attention to the electoral process, and at La Peňa he’s presenting a show ripped from the headlines, “My Fellow Republicans! 47% hilarious!” Danny Shorago, a charter member of the twisted art rock band The Fuxedos, opens and appears with Santiago as a special musical guest and Republican political strategist.
Electoral politics forces most comedians out of their comfort zone. Few professions are run with a greener aesthetic, as comics continually recycle material, honing and polishing a joke until it’s a little jewel. But riffing on the debased language, fabrications, and clichés that make up so much of American political discourse requires a very different approach.
“It’s ‘Daily Show’ humor, and part of the point is the quick turnaround,” Santiago says. “Everyone’s on board that this just happened yesterday or last week, and you’re giving the freshest possible spin. You don’t expect to be able to deliver any of this material after the election.”
Santiago possesses a gift for inhabiting the consciousness of certain candidates. He offered me a sneak preview of a secretly recorded speech that Mitt Romney gave to donors at a recent fundraiser. Santiago’s version is just a little less plausible than Romney’s exposition on the 47% of Americans that he described as parasites unwilling to take responsibility for their own lives.
“I’m just as Christian as you. Except that my Jesus was made in America. If you’re running for president of the United States, that can’t hurt. There were also doubts about whether I was conservative enough, and even whether I was human. My answer has always been the same. What does it matter if I’m human as long as I’m conservative enough? And how conservative is that? Enough to close the deal and start creating jobs. That’s my number one priority. Jobs jobs jobs jobs jobs jobs jobs. Let’s face it. If people don’t have jobs, no one can fire them to maximize profits.”
Santiago’s sensitivity to the use and misuse of language probably stems from his shameful past as an award-winning journalist. Before he fulfilled every mother’s dream by pursuing a career in comedy, he contributed to newspapers like the Washington Post, Miami Herald and San Juan Star. He’s often at his best dissecting the inanities of journalistic group think, like the ubiquity of self-serving euphamisms “double down” and “walk it back,” the subject of a recent Huff Post post. “Whether to double down or walk it back can be a tricky question,” he explains. “Obviously, you don’t double down after saying that ‘legitimate rape’ rarely causes pregnancy. But if you only walk it back to ‘forcible rape,’ you better keep on walking.”
Born and raised in New York, Santiago dabbled in stand up while attending film school at New York University. But a job at the San Juan Star, an English-language daily, brought him to Puerto Rico, where his parents grew up. Unable to suppress his zingy one-liners, he made the move to stand up after winning a prestigious national award for feature writing.
A highly engaging performer whose handsome, rubbery face registers his lightning-quick emotional leaps, Santiago sees writing as his key to success. While honing his comedic talent he dissected classic routines by comics like George Carlin and Woody Allen, much the way jazz musicians transcribe solos by Charlie Parker and Lester Young.
“I identify with Carlin’s fascination for language, the way he can take one idea and unravel it into a piece that’s enduring,” Santiago says. “Seinfeld is the same thing, but he does it with a little bit more of a microscope and he takes out the edge. There’s no politics. It’s one of the reasons for his success.”
Part of what sets Santiago apart from other comics is his generosity as a performer. He has fruitfully invited audience participation while gathering new material, a process that played a key role in the creation of “Spanglish.” As part of the show’s development process, Santiago invites the audience during the second half of the performance to share their favorite Spanglish words, anecdotes about growing up Latino or interacting with Latino culture.
Each time he performed the show, he collected more material, uncovering the regional differences between Los Angeles, New Mexico, New York City and Miami. “It’s dialect upon dialect upon dialect, this polyglot non-language called Spanglish,” Santiago says. “And when you say Latino, what are all the different groups and experiences? Mexicans are coming for specific reasons and how they get here is very different from say Dominicans, Puerto Ricans and Cubans. They’re all coming here under completely different circumstances and get lumped into this Latino title.”
He presented “Spanglish” at La Peňa several times, and he’s expecting a similarly production run this weekend. He’s come to depend on the Bay Area as a proving ground for new material, though he notes that what works in Berkeley doesn’t always fly in other parts of the country.
“It’s a no brainer to go with some new ideas and put it front of an audience and have them help you to shape it,” Santiago says. “But it’s a little deceiving, because people are literate and informed the material can be really esoteric and sophisticated. On some topics Bay Area audiences can be a little touchy, but they also do a sense of humor about themselves, and even have a sense of humor about being touchy.”
Andrew Gilbert, whose Berkeleyside music column appears every Thursday, also covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley.
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