ROOTS OF COMEDY WITH JESUS TREJO // Q&A with Host and Executive Producer Jesus Trejo

Host and Executive Producer Jesus Trejo

The new comedy-documentary series ROOTS OF COMEDY WITH JESUS TREJO, a co-production of PBS SoCal, CALICO and the National Multicultural Alliance, showcases six standup comedians from across the country and tells the stories behind the laughs. Part comedy, part social commentary, part travelogue, the series follows the host, Mexican-American comedian Jesus Trejo, as he embarks on an emotional odyssey and telling the “stories behind the laughs,” revealing how the most memorable comedy traces back to the roots of a community with themes that are central to the series. LPB interviewed Trejo about producing the series, comedy across the country, and humor’s role in bring us together.

LPB: Tell us about your new PBS series ROOTS OF COMEDY WITH JESUS TREJO. What can viewers expect?

JESUS: ROOTS OF COMEDY is a docuseries where we take a deep dive into the roots and the stories behind the jokes, because sometimes the stories behind the jokes are funnier than the jokes themselves. We get to hang out with a lot of my friends and some new comics that I got to meet on this series. I’m such a fan of comedy and a student of comedy, and I’m in awe of my peers and the people I get to work with. One of the things I really enjoy is being able to learn more about my colleagues who I see regularly at comedy festivals and clubs, and really get to see where the joke comes from. A lot of my material is personal and stems from my upbringing, my parents, that kind of thing.  So in ROOTS OF COMEDY I wanted to see what that looks like for other comedians and this series allows us to take a deep dive and look behind the curtain with these funny very comedians.

Comedian Vanessa Gonzalez

LPB: In the series you visit Denver, Portland, Minneapolis, Austin, Chinle, Arizona, as well as your hometown of L.A. What was it like to visit these cities and get to know these comedians on their home turf?

JESUS: It was very special. The way I viewed getting to visit all these cities with these comedians was that it was like being invited over for dinner. I don’t take that lightly — getting invited by these funny comedians to their hometown, their home turf, is special because you get to experience these places from their point of view and you get to understand who they are as a comedian. You really see where their comedy comes from and I think that’s very special. I think the viewer is going to be pleasantly surprised at all the things we get to see and experience and they’re going to enjoy going through these emotional journeys with the comedians and their families.

LPB: What surprised you most during the making of the series?

JESUS: I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the grind that one thinks of as the comedy world in LA or New York, is the same no matter where you go. In the series, we see the passion of each of the comedians that we get to feature and I thought it was really cool that no matter where they were, they all had this drive and passion for the thing I’ve dedicated most of my adult life to, which is standup comedy. So it was really cool to see that there were other comedians that look at comedy as their North Star, much like I do.  It was refreshing and surprising in the sense that we all are like-minded people, but yet so different.

Comedian Eeland Stribling

LPB: One thing that comes up again and again in the series is each comedian’s relationship with their parents and their family and how that inspires their humor.  Is that true for you as well?

JESUS: Absolutely. There’s an unspoken rule in standup comedy that you talk about who you are and whatever communities you are a part of — those are the things that you get to talk about. And I, being a caregiver for such a long time and an only child and somebody who grew up pretty close to my mom and dad, that was my field of expertise. So I felt like I always kept my jokes personal. Sure, there was some observational stuff along the way but the core of it was always family. In every special and every standup set that I’ve been able to put out there, there’s definitely an element of my upbringing, my mom or my dad.

LPB: Was it the same for your fellow comedians in the series?

JESUS: Yeah, I think the comedy root we all share is family. Any type of relationship can be very complex and the relationship between a child and parent, it can be complex. But one thing for sure is this love, this respect. And the through line is that a lot of our humor, at least for me, comes from our parents. Like the quirky way I look at the world, that comes from my late mother and my people-watching, observational humor comes from my dad. My dad is a very funny guy, but he doesn’t know it. He’s so funny. But my mom, she was very loving and silly and animated. So I think I got my humor from them both and I’m finding that a lot of my peers are definitely a fusion of the people they grew up around, especially their parents. So we see that in this series, which is one of the many elements that gets me so excited for people to check it out.

Comedian Adam Pasi

LPB: We keep hearing about how divided the country is. How do you think comedy fits into that? What’s the role of comedy in a country where there’s so much division?

JESUS: The thing about comedy that’s so cool is that it brings people together. It helps us laugh together, see something from a different point of view because it’s under this umbrella of comedy. So you’re able to maybe take in somebody else’s point of view that you wouldn’t necessarily agree with and maybe see where they’re coming from. And you get a laugh along the way.  Someone said this and I agree – now more than ever, comedy clubs have become almost like a church. People have now found themselves going to comedy clubs regularly and it’s all in the name of feeling good, laughing, getting some endorphins going and enjoying somebody’s point of view. Comedy has become this thing that people turn to find common ground. I think we even talk about this in the series that, in a sense, comedians are modern day philosophers. Back in the day, people would go to the plaza and listen to people talk about life but the plaza has been replaced with the comedy club and the philosopher on stage is now called a comedian.

LPB: There’s a long history of Latino comedians — Freddie Prince, George Lopez, Gabriel Iglesias…  Is there any Latino comedian that particularly inspired you?

JESUS: Definitely, every single one of those comedians have inspired me in some way, shape, or form. I’m Mexican American so my first introduction to comedy was Mexican comedians. It was India Maria, it was Chespirito, it was Cantinflas. These are comedians who really inspired me. Cantinflas was considered the funniest comedian alive – that’s a quote from Charlie Chaplin! As I started having more command of the English language, I was watching more English-language comedy. I really enjoyed the Three Stooges, Lucille Ball, Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton. You didn’t have to speak the language to know they were funny. Slapstick is still is my jam. And as I got older,  I started getting into cartoons like Howie Mandel’s “Bobby’s World.” And “Life with Louis,” with the late great Louis Anderson. And Eddie Murphy.

Comedian Tatanka Means

LPB: Standup’s a tough career. What gave you the drive to pursue it?

JESUS: I think it’s just enjoying making people laugh. I think that’s a special thing. It is a hard business, no doubt about it. But what keeps me going is that I really enjoy writing. I really enjoy performing. I enjoy making people laugh. I enjoy being able to take an idea that I think is silly, putting together the proper words, and trying it and failing and trying again. And then the satisfaction you get when the joke works is hard to describe, but it’s probably the reason why I’m hooked on doing comedy for as long as I’m alive. As long as I’m alive, I definitely see myself on stage and doing my best to create laughter.

LPB: And comics don’t stop, they really do have long careers!

JESUS: They don’t stop. And what’s interesting about that is that as one gets older, you change. I started comedy when I was 20 years old, and the premises that I’m tackling on stage now versus what I was tackling then are very different. Life has changed so much for me since then. When I started everything was silly and fun but now there’s so much more that I talk about. It’s like my lens has matured and I still want to make things funny, but it’s like there’s a never-ending stream of things to talk about. Life surprises you for better, for worse. But the great thing about comedy is that you can take all these things and be vulnerable on stage and make it very funny.  We comedians always talk about how in any other line of work, if something bad happens to you, it could be devastating. But for comedians, if something bad happens you can’t wait to talk about it!

Comedian Sierra Kratow

LPB: In ROOTS OF COMEDY, you’re not only the host, you’re also an executive producer.  What was that experience like?

JESUS: It was really, really cool. To be the host of the show was amazing but being an executive producer was really special.  Finding the stories, figuring out what the format of the show was going to be… Working very closely with series director Donny Jackson, and Ernesto Lomeli, the director of photography, was great. We were all passionate about the idea and we all share the same passion for storytelling. At the end of it, we came out on the other side, all being really good friends and respecting each other’s craft and hard work and passion for storytelling.

LPB: I’m sure you get asked this a lot but what advice would you have for somebody who wants to break into standup? 

JESUS: Be sure that that’s really what you want to do. I think the best advice I could give would be to really enjoy comedy. Be a student first. There’s so many greats to study from yesteryear who are no longer with us. There’s so much to learn, but find out who you are. It’s very therapeutic. And always write, never stop writing. Even if the stuff that you write never makes it on stage, it’s worth it. Like the saying goes, it’s not about attaining success, it’s the pursuit. I think comedy is very much that.  It’s the journey – it’s self-discovery, its therapy, it’s the friendships you make, it’s the falling on your face, it’s bombing in front of a full house. It’s every single thing that this journey gives you that makes it worthwhile. So fall in love with self-discovery, writing and making people laugh.

Comedian Ali Sultan

LPB: What’s your next project?

JESUS: I’m excited that my second children’s book is coming out soon. My first book was called Papa’s Magical Water-Jug Clock. My dad was a landscaper and we used to go out working and we had this big water jug. My dad convinced me that he was able to tell time based on how much water was in there, and when the water was gone, it was time to go home. That book won the Pura Belpré Award from the America Library Association which was a great honor. Our next book comes out on September 10th and it’s dedicated to my late mother and called Mamá’s Magnificent Dancing Plantitas.

ROOTS OF COMEDY WITH JESUS TREJO is now streaming on PBS.org and will premiere on PBS television stations on Friday, June 21 at 10 p.m. ET/ 9 p.m. CT.

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Latino Public Broadcasting is the leader of the development, production, acquisition and distribution of non-commercial educational and cultural media that is representative of Latino people, or addresses issues of particular interest to Latino Americans. These programs are produced for dissemination to the public broadcasting stations and other public telecommunication entities. LPB provides a voice to the diverse Latino community on public media throughout the United States. Latino Public Broadcasting is a registered 501(c)(3), EIN: 95-4776447.
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