Paul Rodriguez, Daisy Fuentes, and Cheech Marin host the Showtime series

By Bret Watson
Updated July 19, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

America is home to some 28 million Hispanics, yet so few show up on television you’d think federal agents had blocked all immigration into prime time.

”It’s like L.A. in Sylvester Stallone’s movie [Demolition Man],” says comedian Paul Rodriguez. ”It takes place in 2000-whatever, so it should have been teeming with us. Were we all deported?” Or at least stereotyped. ”Not a week goes by that I’m not asked to be a gang leader on Walker, Texas Ranger,” he jokes.

Instead, he opted for Rodriguez, Texas Comedian, leading a gang of Hispanic actors and comics at San Antonio’s Latino Laugh Festival, now a 13-episode series on Showtime (Fridays, 11:30 p.m.-midnight). Rodriguez, along with cohosts Cheech Marin and Daisy Fuentes, presents a mix of stand-up and skits starring such Latino celebs as Edward James Olmos (Stand and Deliver), Maria Conchita Alonso (Moscow on the Hudson), Erik Estrada (CHiPs), Liz Torres (The John Larroquette Show), and Geraldo Rivera. But everyone involved insists that gringos won’t feel alienated. ”The name Latino Laugh Festival might paint a picture of nothing but taco and hubcap jokes,” says Rodriguez, ”but it’s not about that. We’re confounded by the same problems as anybody else.”

Festival executive producer Jeff Valdez serves up this example: ”There’s a guy [comic Felipe Esparza] who talks about growing up poor. He says, ‘My father brought home a TV that had 500 channels. As I got older, I realized it was an oven knob, because my favorite channel was 300, and broil was really good on Saturday nights.’ That’s not a culture-specific joke.”

Not that Latino humor has become as Americanized as a convenience-store burrito. Mario Lopez (Saved by the Bell) plays a Menudo graduate, washed up at 19. And actor Louis Avalos will appear as the Fat Matador, torn between his profession and his craving for Chee-tos and ice cream. But viewers should not expect a Hispanic Def Comedy Jam. ”Latino humor tends not to be as abrasive as black humor,” says host Marin, ”or as spaced-out as white humor.”

In the end, the Latino Laugh Festival will stand or fall by one law that cuts across all cultural borderlines: ”Funny is funny,” Torres says. ”Besides, all comedy is Jewish anyway.”