Comedy is about as subjective as anything I know. What I find funny you may find boring or stupid or offensive. And what you find funny may fall flat to my eyes and ears or simply turn me off. Call it a matter of taste or a certain sensibility, but in my experience comedy preferences, like food preferences, are highly individual. And not always consistent either. What does or doesn’t make me laugh one day might change the next week or the next month. Mood plays a factor. Attitude as well. But clearly there are humorists, comedians, and standup comics who resonate with the masses, which suggests some comedy has, if not universal, thenbroad appeal and cuts through personal, social, cultural filters to tickle the collective bone. I must admit that I interviewed standup Felipe Esparza for the following story from a year or so ago without ever having seen or heard him perform. I still haven’t. My prep work before speaking to him consisted of reading some press materials. He was likable enough. Funny, too. But eliciting some laughs or smiles in a phone conversation is not the same as it is on stage. I’ll only know if his brand of humor works for me if I see him perform. Maybe some day.
‘Last Comic Standing‘ King Felipe Esparza Headlines Omaha Show
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in El Perico
The Last Comic Standing live tour coming to the Omaha Music Hall on Nov. 20 features the finalists from the seventh season of the NBC comedy competition show, including winner Felipe Esparza.
Now he’s a headliner just like the comedy kings he idolized — Rodney Dangerfield, Eddie Murphy, George Carlin, Paul Rodriguez. He has a network development deal, comedy albums and two movies to his credit. He counts Rodriguez, his co-star in The Deported and I’m Not Like that No More, as a close friend and mentor. Sharing top billing with someone he admires is a little surreal.
“It’s the best feeling in the world. I’m on Cloud Nine, if there is such a thing. I love it,” Esparza said by phone from a tour stop in Milwaukee. “Paul Rodriguez is a really good guy. He’s cool. He took me on the road with him and I opened for him. He paid me well and took care of me. We became good friends actually.”
Esparza says when some suggested his act was too ethnic Rodriguez advised him to stay true to himself. By doing as Rodriguez urged, Esparza eventually broke through with mainstream audiences.
“Before Last Comic Standing that’s all I was considered (an ethnic comic),” says Esparza. “That’s why I never went on the road, I never got booked, I wasn’t famous enough or my comedy was too ethnic. A lot of Latino comedians I started out with kept telling me, ‘You gotta cross over to white people.’ Then I met Paul Rodriguez, who told me, ‘Thats’ all bull shit, if you’re funny they will cross over to you,’ and that’s what’s happened. Now I’m not just famous with Latinos, I’m famous with everybody.”
Esparza, who writes all his own material, says it’s as simple as “if you write jokes that are funny you don’t have to change nothing.”
But he says if it wasn’t for Last Comic he wouldn’t even be on the same bill “with three white guys and a black guy,” as he is on tour, because he would be the brown man out.
The comic has come far from a youth drug addiction that derailed him for a time. Once he got clean and sober, he went after his dream.
“I had just come out of drug rehab and my head was clear, I had goals and ambitions again. I didn’t know what to do, but the first thing that popped in my head was, I want to be a comedian.”
Breaking into the business meant screwing up his courage to go on stage and taking his lumps to learn the craft.
“My first time on stage I was nervous, I didn’t know what to say out there, so I just made shit up. I got laughs and I got to come back the next week. But I didn’t know what bombing was until I really bombed — oh, my god, horrible feeling, it’s like getting your heartbroken every minute.”
Esparza says he was never really confident he would win Last Comic.
“I had no gut feeling, but the longer I stayed on the show the more fans I was gaining because the show was taped in Glendale, Calif., and I’m from Los Angeles. The people that went to the first taping liked me, so they kept coming back. By the time of the last episode half to three quarters of the crowd was voting for me. They were going, ‘Felipe, Felipe, Felipe.’”
He says while “winning is great,” the exposure gained from the show meant that “win or lose I would have still won.“
- Veteran Latino comic promoter premieres new streaming comedy show site (latinalista.com)
- Image Entertainm ent presents the Latin King of Comedy PAUL RODRIGUEZ: JUST FOR THE RECORD coming to DVD September 25th (therogersrevue.wordpress.com)
- Great American Comedy Festival Presents Lineup of Up-and-Comers with Legends Paula Poundstone, Dick Cavett, Jimmie “JJ” Walker (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Delaney: Standup finds following on Twitter (variety.com)
- Daniel Tosh Rape Joke Controversy: Fellow Comics Rally Around Embattled TV Host (celebuzz.com)
- Gaffigan’s stand-up routine a joyous addiction for comic (lfpress.com)
When interviewing an artist there’s always the point where you ask the obvious question, Where do your ideas come from? or What influences does your work draw on? And, of course, the answers are at once right in front of us, because ideas spring from life, and concealed, because ideas also germinate in the imagination and subconscious. And since every artist’s life is individual there are as many variations to those inspirational sources as there are artists. Playwright Carlos Murillo is someone I interviewed many months ago in anticipation of one of his plays being performed at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Our conversation veered into some of the touchstone experiences that help shape who he is and what he writes about.
Playwright Carlos Murillo’s Work Explores Personal Mythmaking
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in El Perico
Playwright and DePaul University theater professor Carlos Murillo has established a national reputation with such works as Dark Play or Stories for Boys, which UNO Theatre is staging Feb. 23-26 and March 2-5.
The theater world is small. For example, a University of Nebraska at Omaha grad student met Murillo at a Kennedy Center theater festival in Washington, D.C. Aware Murillo’s Dark Play was slated for production by UNO, the student set the wheels in motion for the playwright’s campus visit in January. At UNO Murillo guest taught a class, observed a rehearsal and attended a reading and a discussion of his work.
“It was a really fun experience,” says Murillo, who spoke to El Perico by phone from Chicago.
He enjoys interacting with students and teachers over his work.
“It’s a really cool thing when a group of people you don’t know are engaging with something you’ve created. Making theater is like solving a very complex problem,” he says, adding he likes contributing to the process of unlocking a play’s mysteries. His participation, he says, is “sort of honoring that people are committing to something that’s meaningful to them and that hopefully will have some impact in their training or in their thinking about the world.”
Catching up to productions of his plays “is sort of like visiting your kid after they graduate from college,” he says. “They’re trucking along doing their own thing and you meet up with them every now and then and check in.”
The concepts or issues his work explores become talking points in the classes he teaches. “It keeps the mind in shape and it serves as a great laboratory of ideas,” he says. While he didn’t set out to be an educator, he’s come to embrace the role.
“I do love it.”
There’s also a more practical side to teaching.
“Making a living as a playwright is next to impossible,” he says, “Most of the writers I know either have teaching gigs or write for TV or do other stuff because it’s very difficult to make a living just off of ones playwriting.”
His path has been both traditional and nonconventional.
Born in the U.S to immigrant parents — his mother’s Puerto Rican and his father Colombian — Murillo mostly grew up in Long Island, NY. As a boy he spent three years in South America, where his father was transferred by his employer, Bank of America. Wherever Murillo lived, he was drawn to creative expression.
“As far as writing’s concerned it was something I was always interested in from the time I was a kid. I was always writing poems and short stories and stuff like that. I also had a real passion for theater early on. I acted in a lot of plays in junior high and high school, and those twin passions kind of merged and I became a playwright.”
During a long theater apprenticeship his family encouraged him and still does.
“My parents are remarkably supportive. I’m grateful for that.”
Murillo attended Syracuse University to study acting but dropped out and traveled for a time before returning to New York to work at various theaters. All the while, he continued writing. He learned under several master practitioners, including acclaimed director Robert Woodruff. “He was a huge influence,” says Murillo.
As the Public Theater’s associate literary manager Murillo came into contact with “a parade of extraordinary artists,” adding, “It’s an amazing institution and it was kind of like the best grad school you can imagine.”
Murillo went from self-produced plays in small Manhattan venues to being invited to developmental residencies and his work being widely read and produced.
A consistent theme in his work, he says, is “the idea of personal mythmaking — the stories we tell ourselves or tell to other people about ourselves and the relationship of those stories to the actual reality of who we are.” Dark Play examines what happens when a character spins fictions that have real life consequences.
As a playwright Murillo straddles different worlds and must be a quick study in each, skills he’s well practiced in because of the way he grew up. “While my parents spoke Spanish and English at home my cultural references were rock music, TV and all the pop culture things most Americans have,” he says. “I had the experience of living in South America as well. It’s like having one foot in two different identities.”
He writes about Latino identity in oblique and direct ways. Never Whistle While You’re Pissing is autobiographical about what it means to be Latino in America. A fictional playwright, Javier C., is a recurring character in his plays.
- Video: Latino playwright Nilo Cruz sees each of his plays as a “miracle” (latinalista.com)
A lot of negative things are said about the state of American public education but most schools and teachers do a fine job within the parameters they’re given. If you ever find yourself despairing about the situation give this profile of a master teacher a read and you’ll likely feel a bit better about the caliber of people teaching our kids. Maria Walinski-Peterson may not be average or typical but she’s certainly not an aberration. The Omaha South High School social studies teacher is a product of the very system (Omaha Public Schools district) and school she teaches in. Yes, she’s won some major awards and been recognized as a stellar classroom instructor, but she’s one of many thousands of outstanding teachers fighting the good fight who’ve learned under great teachers before them and are influencing great teachers ahead of them.
Omaha South High Buffett Outstanding Teacher Award Winner Maria Walinski-Peterson Follows Her Heart
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in El Perico
When Omaha South High Magnet School social studies teacher Maria Walinski-Peterson thinks about her 2011 Alice Buffett Outstanding Teacher Award, she’s reminded of master teachers she had as a student there. Teachers like Sally Fellows and Jim Eisenhardt.
“They were models of teachers who knew what they were talking about, who had some energy, some enthusiasm, and who made me want to pay attention. They had a kind of charisma. I wanted to do a good job for them,” says Maria.
“That’s a pretty tall order to get that breadth and depth. The fact that anybody thinks I have even a small piece of that…” she says, her voice trailing off. “When that call came about the Alice Buffett, I thought, Really? I’m not Sally Fellows yet, I’m not Jim Eisenhardt yet, I’ve only been doing this nine years, this is too soon.
“But I learned from the best, and I knew if I’m going to truly follow this vocation I have to give these kids something they’re not going to necessarily get from somebody else.”
The recognition and the $10,000 that come with the award means raised expectations.
“There are people looking at me like, ‘Really, you got a Buffet? What’s so great about you?” The pressure is enormous. Other people are like, ‘Oh, just relax and enjoy it.’” To which her response is, “Are you freaking kidding me?’ If students and colleagues have said you’re one of the best in your profession — guess what? — I have to be one of the best. I don’t get to slack off. People are watching.”
She may feel added pressure, she says, “because I’m relatively young. You don’t usually get a lifetime achievement award until you’ve put in a lifetime.”
There’s pressure, too, teaching where she once attended school, but she couldn’t see herself working anywhere else.
“I lobbied diligently to be here. After I got my teaching certificate and master’s degree at Drake University, I was sending emails and calling people back here saying, ‘Make sure there’s a spot for me — I need to student teach in this building, so that I can teach in this building.’ This place gave me so much. It’s simply payback. It’s a calling and I just knew this is where I had to be.”
If anything, her loyalty has only deepened. She says she recently declined “a cushy gig” at a suburban school to stay at South. In light of what happened last fall, she can’t imagine ever leaving. Days from being married, her best friend and intended maid of honor, fellow South social studies teacher Stacey Klinger, died when a truck struck her as she crossed the street in front of school.
Maria will never forget how students consoled her. “These kids literally and figuratively put their arms around me and said, ‘We’re here for you. What do you need?’ We bonded in a way you can’t bond in any other way. We have that history together. They have seen me at a level of humanity they don’t see too many teachers in.”
As an Academic Decathlon and African-American History Challenge coach she’s bonded with yet more kids. “I just know we’re always going to be like this,” she says, clasping her hands together. “I love those people and they love me back.”
The daughter of a retired Lutheran-Episcopal-Orthodox Christian priest, Maria was born in upper New York state. She likes saying she was at Woodstock, where her mother Joan was pregnant with her in 1969. At age 11 Maria moved with her family here when her father was assigned the pastorship at St. Martin of Tours Episcopal Church across from South.
She was expected to attend private school, but she preferred the more diverse public school experience afforded by South.
“I wanted to be in the real world,” she says.
This teacher of human geography loves the cultural melting pot there.
“South Omaha’s always had working class diversity and it’s always been an immigrant landing strip,” she says, “but now those immigrants are coming from other places than just western and eastern Europe. They’re coming from the Sudan. We’ve got a lot of Karen kids from Burma. We’ve obviously got a lot of Central and South American kids.
“South High is the most ethnically diverse high school in Nebraska. In any given class period I’ve got that rainbow looking right back at me. We have a microcosm of the planet right here.”
For her, geography is more than a subject. “It’s the world,” she says.“Geography is life.”
As teachers, she says she and her colleagues are “in the business of building people.” The art and science of reaching today’s kids with their shorter attention spans and passive learning habits can be frustrating.
“There are many days when I’m like, ‘I’m not doing this, this is hard, I’m going to quit,’ and my kids all just laugh and go, ‘You’re a lifer.’ Even my husband Glenn says, ‘If you told even one of those kids you’re going to give up teaching, the look on their face would change your mind like that,” she says, snapping her fingers.
She knows he’s right. Besides, she loves “the creativity” of lesson planning. Then too, she says, “I’m really not good for anything else. This is all I know.. so I guess I better stick it out.”
- Masterful: Omaha Liberty Elementary School’s Luisa Palomo Displays a Talent for Teaching and Connecting (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Turning Kids Away from Gangs and Toward Teams in South Omaha (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Home is Where the Heart Is for Activist Attorney Rita Melgares (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Where Community, Neighborhood and Representative Democracy Meet (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Community Trumps Gang in Fr. Greg Boyle’s Homeboy Model (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- A South Omaha Renaissance (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- El Puente: Attempting to Bridge the Divide Between Grassroots Community and The System (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Gray Matters: Ben and Freddie Gray Fight the Good Fight Helping Young Men and Women Find Pathways to Success (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
LATEST UPDATE: Jane Fonda shares her thoughts about her weekend in Omaha on her blog site-
ANOTHER UPDATE: The Film Streams Feature Event presenting Jane Fonda in conversation with Alexander Payne reminded me of the 1981 Omaha Community Playhouse event, An Evening with Mister Fonda. The earlier event was a pull-out-all-the-stops tribute to Jane’s father, the late iconic actor Henry Fonda. His Hollywood press agent and close personal friend John Springer, a biographer of the Fondas, interviewed the actor on stage at the Playhouse. Much like the Jane Fonda event last night, which had Alexander Payne interview her, film clips were screened to break up the talk. Coincidentally, I was programming a film series at the University of Nebraska at Omaha in the early 1980s and so I made sure to schedule a Henry Fonda-Dorothy McGuire film festival that showed around the same time as the Playhouse tribute. Film Streams’ repertory series of Jane Fonda films continues. What goes around comes around, and so the circle is completed.
UPDATE: I forgot to mention that one of my favorite parts of the Jane Fonda in Conversation with Alexander Payne event was the surprise appearance by Laura Dern. The actress has maintained a friendship with Payne since she starred in his first feature, Citizen Ruth, which was filmed in and around Omaha. Her loyalty to and affection for Payne was demonstrated when she was the guest star for the inaugural Film Streams Feature Event that featured her in conversation with the filmmaker. I got to interview her in advance of that event and an excerpt from my resulting story, When Laura Met Alex, can be found on this blog. It turns out she came to Omaha for the Fonda event because, not surprisingly, she’s an admirer of the older actress and in fact met her when her father Bruce Dern worked with Fonda on Coming Home. Dern described how that meeting and her opprotunity to closely observe her at work helped inspire her to pursue acting with the same unvarnished honesty as Fonda. Both of Dern’s actor parents, her father Bruce Derna and mother Diane Ladd, worked with Fonda and as fate would have it her father is about to star in Payne’s new film, Nebraska. How’s that for synchronicity?
I wouldn’t be surprised if Payne ends up working with Dern again and somehow finds a role for Fonda in one of his future projects.
As expected, Jane Fonda came and captured the hearts of those attending the Film Streams Feature Event IV last night (July 22) at the Holland Performing Arts Center in Omaha. Understandably, it was not only an emotional evening for her but an emotion-packed weekend, much of which she spent touring old family haunts, including the Omaha Communithy Playhouse that her late father, she, and her brother Peter all acted in. Spoken and unspoken, her father’s legacy looms large over her and she must particularly feel his presence when she’s back where so much Fonda lore is present. Omaha is where her iconic father Henry Fonda was raised, learned his social consciousnesses, and began acting. One of the new things I learned from the conversation she engaged in with Alexander Payne live on the Holland stage is that she did some of her growing up here as well. I knew that her father’s sister Harriet lived in the Dundee neighborhood where he grew up and that he came back to visit her and I knew that Peter had attended Brownell-Talbot School and the University of Omaha here but I always assumed Jane had little contact herself with the extended family in their communal hometown. But it turns out she visted more than occasionally during her youth, even spending chunks of the summer in town during breaks from the elite boarding schools she attended. She even says it was in Omaha where she came of age as an adolescent in the 1950s, which became her own personal Amercian Graffiti stomping grounds for cruising in cars up and down the main drag, Dodge Street, for taking-in drive-in movies, and for participating in sock-hops, and all the rest. She told Payne and us that her aunt Harriett arranged for girls her age from the neighborhood to meet her and made she she was invited to parties and such. She also indicated that Warren Buffett and family, who also called Dundee home, have been friends with the Fondas over the years.
I didn’t get to interview her or meet her as I had hoped, but I’m happy that Film Streams has reenaged her with Omaha and Nebraska after her being away a long time. She was apparently last here in the late ’90s with her then-husband Ted Turner, who has ranching interests in the state. Before that, she accompanied On Golden Pond to its Midwest premiere at the Orpheum Theatre. She’s pledged to continue her relationship with this place and with Payne, who serves on the Film Streams board and is the one responsible for bringing her back into the fold so to speak. Now it’s time the same be done with Peter Fonda. And the same with other Nebraskans in Film, including Joan Micklin Silver, Nick Nolte, Swoosie Kurtz, Gabrielle Union, Yolonda Ross, Gail Levin, Lynn Stalmaster, Monty Ross, et cetera. For too long Nebraska has ignored its film heritage. It should be celebrated and I’m glad to say that Payne and Film Streams are motivated to do that.
- Film Streams at Five: Art Cinema Contributes to a Transformed Omaha Through Community Focus on Film and Discussion (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Alexander Payne to Talk Cinema with Kindred Spirit Jane Fonda at Film Streams Feature Event in Omaha (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Jane Fonda Takes Center Stage at Film Streams, Where Her Life in Film is Celebrated this Summer (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Here’s a mini-profile of the highly regarded symphony orchestra conductor Tito Munoz I did a couple years ago for El Perico newspaper. The piece appeared on the eve of an Omaha Symphony Chamber concert he led. I interviewed Munoz by phone. He couldn’t have been nicer.
Rising Young Conductor Tito Munoz Leads Omaha Symphony Chamber Concert
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in El Perico
At 27 Tito Munoz is riding a fast track in the classical music world’s conducting ranks.
This guest conductor for a Jan. 8 Omaha Symphony Chamber strings showcase recently completed a three-year gig as Cleveland Orchestra assistant conductor. He’s just been named music director of the Orchestre symphonique et lyrique de Nancy in Lorraine, France. In addition to performing its own season, the symphony accompanies the Opera national de Lorraine.
Speaking by phone, Munoz, a New York City native of Colombian and Ecuadorian heritage, acknowledges he’s come far in a short time.
“Things have moved very fast, yes,” he says. “I think it’s like anything, it’s a combination of perseverance and mind set. And a big part of it is luck actually — of having the right opportunities presented at the right time and having the right experience level to really get the most out of them.”
Growing up he was not exposed to classical music until middle school. When an older cousin began violin lessons, Tito studied too.
“Something felt really right. I really took to it, and the teacher really saw that right away and he was the one that recommended me to this Juilliard music advancement program,” says Munoz.
By the time Tito saw his first live orchestra concert, he was hooked.
“It was very memorable for me. All of a sudden I was seeing what that really is, and I was able to latch onto something. Before I had started the violin I don’t know if I would have appreciated it as much as I did then.”
The free Saturday Juilliard program targeted Latino and African-American students.
“I really appreciate it without a doubt because it was the beginning of everything for me. It gave me these really wonderful opportunities. It is about exposure, it is about giving access. ”
He borrowed the full orchestra score of West Side Story from the Juilliard library to help inform a production of the play at Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts.
“I was concert master of the orchestra. The conductor of the show saw that I was taking initiative and that I was interested. He gave me some opportunities to do rehearsals and then eventually he let me conduct one of the shows.”
Munoz continued showing initiative at the Aaron Copland School of Music, Queens College, and summers at the French Woods Festival in upstate New York.
“I wanted to learn more, I wanted to know more, I wanted to be more prepared, and I loved it, it was just something I enjoyed doing.”
Conducting became his niche.
“For me that actually has more to do with leadership then anything else. Being in charge and taking the responsibility and being that person, that one sort of pillar, I enjoy that. I knew that’s where my passion was.”
He says he made the most of the flexibility and freedom Queens College offered: “I made it my own and took as much I could from it.”
Advanced training came at the prestigious American Academy of Conducting in Aspen, Colo. and the National Conducting Institute in Washington D.C., where he studied with masters like Leonard Slatkin. He made his professional conducting debut with the National Symphony Orchestra in 2006. That same year he became assistant conductor of Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra.
Today, he guest conducts across America and Europe.
His Spanish surname brings offers of conducting Latin concerts, and he says while “there’s certainly lots of Latin music I love doing and I certainly come from a Hispanic family, that doesn’t mean I do Latin music better than anybody else. I like to think I just do music well, whatever it is.” He doesn’t want “to be pigeonholed into that kind of genre and only be called for those sorts of things.”
The Omaha Symphony concert he’s conducting does include music by a Spaniard, Manuel de Falla, along with works by Riegger, Dvorak and Haydn.