If they’d waited even one more week, the HA Comedy Festival would have been another casualty of coronavirus.
Producers of the three-day event held in San Antonio, Texas in late February, have been counting their blessings as they put the finishing touches on an hourlong special derived that premieres today on HBO Max.
“HA Comedy Festival: The Art of Comedy” features short sets from comedians Gina Brillon, David del Rosario, Carmen Lynch, Monique Marvez, Pedro Salinas, Jesus Trejo and Mark Viera. Anjelah Johnson serves as emcee for the hour, which includes guest appearances from actors Eugenio Derbez, Eva Longoria and Danny Trejo.
The festival and the HBO Max special are important building blocks for New Cadence Productions, the cotent venture launched last year by veteran writer-producer Jeff Valdez and several partners, including former U.S. West CEO Sol Trujillo.
“As we were producing the festival we were all making jokes about COVID,” Valdez told Variety. “We didn’t get it then.” He noted that after the filming the Feb. 21-23 event, which featured 21 shows in various venues around San Antonio with 46 performers, several production crew members came down with respiratory illnesses.
Having to cancel the festival on short notice would have been “very, very bad” for the startup venture, Valdez said. Instead, the special is a calling card for the kind of rising stars that New Cadence aims to showcase, in front of and behind the camera. Valdez and other producers worked hard to strive for parity among male and female comics on the bill and production crew members. “I told my team that I wanted parity on all levels — if there’s 10 guys out there, I want there to be 10 women too,” he said.
In the early 1990s, when Valdez produced the “Comedy Compadres” standup showcase for Los Angeles’ KTLA, he struggled to find Latina standup comics. That was not a problem this time around. Valdez pointed to Luz Pazos, from Peru, as one of the breakout “chingona” stars of the festival.
The HA festival is a sequel of sorts to the Latino Laugh Festival that Valdez produced for Showtime in the late 1990s. The goal today as the same as it was in 1997, which is a source of frustration for Valdez.
“The original purpose was to create an infrastructure to show that there’s a lot of Latino talent out there. We wanted to create an infrastructure to validate the fact that there’s an audience out there willing to pay for these shows,” Valdez said. “We thought that creating the infrastructure was the key to getting more Latinos on TV. Jump to more than 20 years later, it’s really not that much better.”
Valdez credited the team at HBO Max for recognizing the value and the purpose of HA Comedy Festival, which was also supported by HBO Max parent company AT&T. Casting director Pat Buckles, who also worked on the Latino Laugh Festival, cast a wide net for up-and-comers.
“We probably turned down twice as many comics as we accepted,” Valdez said. “I was pleasantly surprised at how much amazing talent was out there. And everybody had a different taken on American life.”
Longoria, a native of San Antonio, introduces a never-before-seen video clip of Lupe Ontiveros, the late actor who worked with Longoria on ABC’s “Desperate Housewives.”
Longoria explains that because Ontiveros, who died in 2012 at age 69, was never recognized in the “In Memoriam” segments of the Academy Awards or Primetime Emmy Awards, the festival decided to pay tribute by airing “the lost Lupe tape.”
The short spoof features Ontiveros on a soundstage taking notes from an unseen director on how to deliver her lines with “more barrio” in her voice. Her closing words send a powerful message about ethnic stereotypes.
The success of the HA festival is prima facie evidence to Valdez that there is deep demand for the kind of Latinx-influenced entertainment that New Cadence aims to deliver.
“People are so hungry for this,” Valdez said. “When we got everyone together there’s this excitement of just belonging. We didn’t sweeten the laughter in the special at all. The laughs and the applause were just on fire.”
(Pictured: Executive producer Jeff Valdez and comedians Monique Marvez, Pedro Salinas, David del Rosario, Angelah Johnson, Carmen Lynch, Gina Brillon, Mark Viera and Jesus Trejo)