With an eerie 3-D holographic portrait of Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin hovering on the wall behind him, John Leguizamo is scurrying around his office at the Queens, N.Y., studio where his new Fox sketch comedy show, House of Buggin’, is being taped. His eyes still bleary from a night out at a karaoke club in the Bronx, Leguizamo is going over the latest version of his bio with his publicist. ”I don’t know if we should use this thing about Lee Strasberg. I only studied with him for one day, and then the next week he died,” he teases her. ”I have that effect on people, you know.”
Fox is certainly hoping Leguizamo won’t have that effect on viewers. The network has given Buggin’ a comfy time slot after new episodes of The Simpsons on Sundays — it debuted Jan. 8 — positioning the raucously satirical series, with its six-member, almost all-Latino cast, as an In Living Color for the ’90s.
Still, as Fox’s ubiquitous ads hyping Buggin’ put it, ”What’s a Leguizamo?” For starters, a Leguizamo is a gifted performer whose critically acclaimed one-man, multicharacter off-Broadway shows Mambo Mouth and Spic-O-Rama were picked up by HBO as one-hour specials. A Leguizamo is also a film actor whose roles have ranged from the underappreciated (Carlito’s Way, Hangin’ With the Homeboys) to the forgettable (Whispers in the Dark, Super Mario Bros.). But in 1995, with Buggin’ and high-profile turns in the feature films To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, and Pyromaniacs: A Love Story, Leguizamo may well become a household word.
<P. Raised in Queens, the Colombia-born Leguizamo is a lean, hyperkinetic Latino whose boyish good looks belie the fact that he's 29 years old. He honed his sense of humor in the schoolyard, defending himself from being ''snapped on'' by bullies. ''I was kind of geeky and people would make so much fun of me,'' . says Leguizamo. ''My parents didn't have much money so I had pants that I'd outgrown, and I would get snapped on every day till I got tough and I had to snap back. That's how I got popular.''
Leguizamo quickly developed a chameleonlike talent for transforming himself, vocally and visually, into an array of bizarre characters. One of the recurring bits on Buggin’ features Leguizamo as Cogi, an Asian talk-show host who mercilessly taunts his guests, all of whom are obscure siblings of celebrities. Berating Juliette Lewis’s sister (played by Yelba Osorio), Cogi cracks, ”If you’re going to get anywhere in show business, you have to learn to suck thumb.”
As catty as Cogi is, he’s imbued with a coy vulnerability Leguizamo developed over the years, primarily in his varied theatrical forays into transvestism. Leguizamo has a dazzling track record in high heels, which will climax in the upcoming cross-dressing comedy To Wong Foo, costarring Patrick Swayze and Wesley Snipes. Leguizamo offers his expert opinion on Snipes: ”He’s a funny-looking woman, boy. Not the kind of woman that you want to bring home to your mother. He’s the kind of woman you have after thousands of beers. All the women are gone, and it’s the last booty call.”
But ”Johnny Leggs” fans will be disappointed to learn that early episodes of Buggin’ may offer the last of his antic cross-dressing. ”I’m tired of it. I have bra burns from Wong Foo,” he grimaces. ”I have corns and bunions on my little virgin feet.”
Leguizamo had been equally reluctant to commit to a TV series, fearing the effect it might have on his movie career. But the significance of becoming the first Latino since Desi Arnaz to star in, cowrite, and coproduce a prime-time show finally sold him on the idea. ”I made this choice because this was where I could make my life count a little more,” says Leguizamo, suddenly becoming serious.
Although Buggin’ has its share of Latino-oriented humor — a parody of Hair Club for Men ads features a blond-wigged, British-accented Leguizamo selling ”illegal alien makeovers” — that won’t be the show’s only focus. ”John likes to consider himself a descendant of the Incas, but I think he’s Jewish,” says Buggin’ writer and Leguizamo confidante David Katz. ”He’s like a sexier, more aggressive Woody Allen, doing that jester shtick from Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid To Ask).”
And like the young Woody Allen, Leguizamo prefers not to numb the audience with politics. ”We’re a hip, young, urban sketch comedy group that happens to be Latin,” he insists. ”We don’t have to hit you over the head with it all the time. Just the fact that the cast is Latin, whatever we do it’s gonna have that color, that political or social commentary.”
Even so, Leguizamo is on a mission to boldly go where no Latino has gone before. ”We really want to do a Star Trek skit, because there never were any Latins in Star Trek,” he says enthusiastically. ”Except for Wrath of Khan. And I don’t know if Ricardo Mantalban playing an Asian counts.”