A FUNNY THING happened on the way to the public forum. As Lalo Alcaraz and his colleagues kept waiting on a network launch date for their animated Fox show, the themes of some their work kept surfacing in the national headlines.
“In 2015, we solely did promo for the show, as we were on hiatus while Fox was deciding our fate,” says Alcaraz, a writer and consulting producer on “Bordertown,” which debuted Sunday. And during that time, Donald Trump, having announced his candidacy, began striking chords of some of the content in the new Seth MacFarlane/Mark Hentemann comedy — particularly next week’s episode, titled “Borderwall.”
“We definitely have joked about giving Donald Trump co-writing credit, but without wanting to give anything away about the second episode — titled ‘Borderwall’ — we should also give a credit to Mexican druglord ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán,” says Alcaraz, who is also an editorial cartoonist and creator of the Latino-themed political comic strip “La Cucaracha.” “His escape and subsequent alleged taunting of Donald Trump echoes a bit in that episode.”
The California-based Alcaraz has been a critic of Hollywood for decades — particularly of its underrepresentation of Latino talent — while simultaneously pitching screen projects to the industry. This week, a prime launchpad has arrived with “Bordertown,” and he’s also working on a forthcoming Pixar film that has a Day of the Dead theme.
Ahead of “Bordertown’s” debut, Comic Riffs caught up with Alcaraz to talk Trump, sociopolitical humor and the semi-inspiration that is Honey Boo Boo:
MICHAEL CAVNA: Congrats on the debut finally arriving after your many long months of labor. How does it feel, to have the premiere arrive at last?
LALO ALCARAZ: It’s been a slowly building wave of excitement. In 2015, we solely did promo for the show, as we were on hiatus while Fox was deciding our fate. My homie and fellow writer/consulting producer Gustavo Arellano and I went barnstorming [across] the country with small and large screenings to the Latino community — both to preview what we were so excited about and also to allay fears that this might be yet another racist show. Overwhelmingly, the crowds [of thousands] came out surprised and laughing. This show is not what people expect. And now I’m excited that the whole damn country gets to see what we created.
MC: So tell us about Mexifornia from a creator’s aspect. How do your world-building come about in the writers’ room — did this sense of environment arrive fully formed, or did you guys build it gradually? And what’s one of your favorite contributions to Mexifornia?
LA: It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be on the ground floor of a show like this, and my job was to help create the world as it was in the show creator’s mind, but to also add authentic touches from my life as a Chicano growing in a Mexican-immigrant household. I helped design the interiors of the Gonzalez home, but I don’t mean I helped draw anything. The amazing artists at Bento Box did that. I just guided the production team as to what would be inside the home, like Aztec calendars, crucifixes, plastic-covered furniture, a billion family photos, etc. I went for the ’70s-’80s Mexican-immigrant nostalgia thing.
When I watch animation or really, any onscreen production, I get taken out of the piece if it’s not real. My favorite background-location contribution has to be that my hometown church from Lemon Grove, Calif., was the model for the Mexifornia Catholic church. You’ll have to see our MegaChurch “Hispandering” episode to see what I’m talking about! I also fed the design team images from Calexico and Mexicali, Coachella and other desert border-adjacent areas with big Mexican populations. They did their own research as well, of course, and I think the result is a good mix. Everybody thinks Mexifornia is in their state, so I’ll take that. It’s our Springfield-On-The-Border.
MC: You and I talked a bit about this last summer, on the National Book Festival stage, but now it seems even more relevant: [Against the backdrop] of the national political stage, the timing of your debut seems uncanny. Every time Donald Trump mentions a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border … it stokes controversial fires that good comedy writers can use to light their satiric torches. Does a Trump candidacy enter your writers’ room, even just contextually? Is The Donald due royalties?
LA: We definitely have joked about giving Donald Trump co-writing credit, but without wanting to give anything away about the second episode [formerly sixth in the original lineup] — titled “Borderwall” — we should also give a credit to Mexican druglord “El Chapo” Guzmán. His escape and subsequent alleged taunting of Donald Trump echoes a bit in that episode.
I am co-writer on the pilot and the “Borderwall” episode, and they are probably the two most political stories. The network moved the “Borderwall” episode to second in the lineup for timeliness, definitely. Who knew Fox would ever capitalize on the news? “Bordertown” is more about the shifting demographic reality in the U.S. than it is about the border, but we all know immigration is a huge part of the tension whipped up by fearmongers like Trump. We hit the topic head on, which is my favorite way of hitting things. Hopefully, if the network gives us a second season, I’m sure all the writers each have their own presidential season pitch ready — I know I do. It involves a Trumpish character who comes to Mexifornia on a campaign stop, and crossborder mayhem ensues!
MC: Is there one character you most enjoy writing for? One that especially speaks to you, if not from you. And is there a character you think America will especially embrace — perhaps as its next “Homer” or “Bart”?
LA: The Ernesto character is a very likable, happy, optimistic yet badass character. He is sort of like my dad was. My father was a Mexican immigrant who was a miner in Mexico, and a landscaper/gardener in the U.S. He worked his a– off and was strong as three men, and never missed a day of work. He taught me that a job is a job — no matter how low or hard you think it is, it still needs to be done. And you should take pride in what you do.
Having said that, I really identify with Ernesto’s retired, cranky undocumented dad, Placido. He cracks me up, because he loves talking crap to Bud Buckwald and he does tequila shots while watching TV. We have a sprawling set of characters, so I can only imagine which one of many could be our breakout star. Gert Buckwald, (voiced by Missy Pyle), the 5-year-old aspiring beauty queen — Honey Boo Boo on crack — seems poised for greatness. Keep on eye on that pig-trough-eating rising star!
MC: The show gets added attention because Seth MacFarlane’s name is attached, naturally, but the real driving force here of course is the showrunner. Could you tell us about Mark Hentemann’s vision for this — why you were drawn to the project, and what does Mark do especially that should help this show succeed?
LA: Seth has been good about standing aside and letting folks know he didn’t really work on the show, although “Bordertown” does have “Family Guy” DNA in it, that’s for sure. People assume … that the show is going to be an equal-opportunity offender — we do have a little of that. Mark’s vision, though, is to explore honestly the friction between the white majority — soon to be a minority — and a major demographic group: Latinos — in this case, specifically Mexicans and Mexican Americans. His initial inspiration was his father, and how he would tell the family’s immigration story every chance he’d get, especially after a glass of wine. We know the immigrant story is almost everybody’s story in the U.S., and that fear of change and difference is driving much of contemporary American culture.
Mark also has a comedy philosophy that demands honesty and clarity in joke writing. I like that a lot, because it fits in with my kind of political humor. More than other forms of comedy, political comedy, to me, has to really be based in truth and facts. It also helps to weed out stereotypical jokes from our scripts. We are forced to take it a step higher, and it makes the jokes better and smarter. And the fact that Mark honestly didn’t just want my feedback, but my actual work, was refreshing and something I could not turn down.
An animated show with actual Mexican and Chicano characters and actual Mexican American writers, and a Cubana, would be historic, too. I’m beyond floored that the stars aligned for this to at least make it to the air. Hopefully it will continue!
MC: You spent decades as a print cartoonist, as well as a critic of Hollywood. How do you think those years of experience prepared you to become a network comedy writer — on a skills level and as a storyteller who draws from your life?
LA: I have been drawing cartoons about the pathetic underrepresentation of minorities in Hollywood even before I first started drawing professionally as a [broke] freelancer for the L.A. Weekly in 1992. It’s sad that it has taken so many years for even a glimmer of equitable representation to hit the industry, but I’m glad I lived to see it, and even participate in it.
I wish I could say it was just comics that kept me going, but as I developed my cartoon skills, I also wrote in Hollywood for various shows and projects, [with] only one ever making it on the air: The mid-’90s Culture Clash TV show — the first-ever Latino sketch-comedy show on TV. I kept working on my voice as a political satirist, and tried to sharpen my performance and comedy chops along the way. All the roads are finally converging.
I wish I could say I was totally prepared when “Bordertown” happened. I’m still learning. I was at least capable of taking on the challenge. Believe me, I’m not afraid to fail. I have failed in Hollywood for 20 years, writing on promising cool projects for New Line Cinema, Fox 2000, VH1, Disney Channel, Animation Domination, etc. I’ve pitched my comic strip “La Cucaracha” as an animated show endlessly to slammed doors. That’s almost every showbiz story in a nutshell. But yeah, I’ve been slinging stories and gags about immigration, social justice and all that important stuff the whole time, so I kept at it. I practiced, practiced, practiced. Writing is writing. I know my voice, and what I want to write about.
MC: Lastly, what can you tell us about “Coco” [your forthcoming Day of the Dead film for Pixar] — and do you think your “Bordertown” work has helped you now with Pixar?
LA: I was already on Pixar’s radar when I attacked Disney for trying to trademark “Dia de Los Muertos” for merchandising purposes, but more so after. We won that battle, and Disney withdrew the trademark applications. I think “Bordertown” has given me some cred at least to the Pixar producers, who I think don’t normally hire their own biggest critics.
This project was perfect, because we all want the same outcome: a film that is as culturally authentic as a Hollywood global movie can be, but done right for domestic audiences — the main one I care about: Mexican Americans and Latinos. Pixar would make this movie with me or without me, so I’m cool with at least helping them to do it right.
I can’t say much about the project yet, as they have three more films to release between now and “Coco’s” release. All I can say is, it’s going to have culturally appropriate casting, the story is family-oriented, and the visuals and the Mexican characters) will be beautiful. Seriously, that’s all I can say, or Disney commandos will burst through the ceiling and silence me forever. Stay tuned for “Coco” in 2017!