Justice for John Leguizamo’s House of Buggin’, the ’90s Latinx Comedy Ahead of Its Time

Television

It was January of 1995. Seinfeld was approaching its 100th episode, the O.J. Simpson trial was just beginning its extended stay on daytime television, and the UPN had just launched with a good deal of fanfare and nothing but hope for the future. In Living Color, Keenan Ivory Wayans‘ groundbreaking sketch comedy show, had gone off the air the previous May, leaving something of a void in network sketch comedy. MADtv wouldn’t debut until the following October, so the time was ripe for a diverse, primetime sketch comedy show to liven up the airwaves.

Enter John Leguizamo‘s House of Buggin’, a frenetic, idiosyncratic, and hilarious Latinx-based sketch comedy mini-powerhouse that aired on Fox on Sunday nights. House of Buggin’ was a mainstream comedy show based largely around the modern Latinx experience, with Leguizamo frequently importing characters and bits from his one-man shows, Mambo Mouth and Spic-O-Rama, which had both previously aired on HBO. The cast included future ubiquitous supporting actor Luis Guzmán, Jorge Luis Abreu, Yelba Osorio (from Carlito’s Way and Leguizamo’s then-wife), Tammi Cubilette, and David Herman. Structured very much like In Living Color, House of Buggin’ was a mixture of TV show spoofs, broad slapstick, some of Leguizamo’s standup, and observational humor from a Latinx viewpoint.

That last element was how House of Buggin’ comedic power made an explosive impact despite its tragically short run. While Latinx voices were finally being heard throughout cinema of the 1980s and 1990s in films like American Me, Stand and Deliver, Born in East L.A., El Mariachi, and scads more, the Latinx viewpoint was not typically represented in TV comedy, even as late as 1995. Even rarer than Latinx characters on TV were Latinx leads who carried their show. How many readers can recall, for instance, any information about 1984’s a.k.a. Pablo?

Tami Cubilette, John Leguizamo, Jorge Luis Abreu, Yelba Osorio, David Herman, Luis GuzmanTami Cubilette, John Leguizamo, Jorge Luis Abreu, Yelba Osorio, David Herman, Luis Guzman

House of Buggin’ had an infectious energy. Leguizamo elevated every second he was on screen, a human sugar rush. And he was not shy about satirizing the foibles and hypocrisy of polite white society. In the show’s inaugural sketch, “Illegal Alien Makeovers”, Leguizamo pitches a product wherein Latinx immigrants are offered blonde hair and lighter skin tone makeup to look “more white” as to avoid INS. Leguizamo, stumping for the product with the affected voice of a stuffy British man, secretly reveals that he is also a client. The dark, relevant poetry of this sketch will not be lost on audiences in 2019.

In another sketch, Leguizamo plays a mariachi musician hired to play music for a party of wealthy, white suburbanites who outwardly express that the “ethnic” musicians will allow them to claim cultural brownie points. Leguizamo and his band, to mock their patronizing patrons, sing traditional Mexican melodies, but are able to code their outward disdain for the wealthy in Spanish lyrics the guests don’t care to understand.

Occasionally, and amusingly, the sketches skewed into the outright absurd. As when Luis Guzmán revealed that he was actually a foot model whose feet would be used to replace the feet of famous Latina supermodels. Or when Leguizamo plays an ICU surgeon who works with voodoo and black magic instead of surgical tools. These flights of fancy stretched America’s understanding of who the Latinx community really were, but where House of Buggin’ truly shined was in spotlighting different communities within the larger Latinx oasis in the USA.

There were several recurring segments that delved into the endless diversity within the Latinx community, most notably “The Chicano Militant Minute,” wherein a trio of Latinx Angelenos (complete with Angeleno accents) would reexamine history through a Latinx lens. Of course, they claimed, Christ was Latino. Why else would his mother have named his Jesús? “The Chicano Militant Minute” was wry, insightful humor, but also functioned Leguizamo’s subtle, friendly jab at the Latinx cultures of Los Angeles. Leguizamo, one must remember, is a New Yorker through and through, and his love of Broadway and Nuyorican-inflected humor skewed the show in a broader, more theatrical direction. His representation of L.A. was a clever and savvy nod to an underrepresented segment of Latinx viewers

Capturing a widespread Latinx audience is a difficult task as it involves invoking cultures and identities from dozens of countries and traditions. The media had often treated Latinx people as an undifferentiated mass, misleading audiences to think of all Latin people as belonging to an ill-defined monoculture — or mono-subculture as the case may be. Leguizamo sought to reclaim Latinx culture uniqueness via an absurd and near-deconstructionist comedy milieu. With his talents as a comedic chameleon, Leguizamo — himself born in Colombia — had the drive to represent every single Latinx cultural background, often representing modern Latinx characters that had never been seen before.

Ironically, reviews were not kind to House of Buggin’. Variety‘s Adam Sandler (no relation to the actor-comedian), called the show “unfunny,” saying it was “about as bland as a tofu taco.” Chris Willman of The L.A. Times cited Leguizamo’s “combustible” talents, but found the show “living up to its [titular] promise of irritation” and “coming up short on provocation and titters.” Tom Jicha of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel panned the show harshly, making a few comments that certainly don’t read as well in 2019 as they did in 1995, as he criticized House of Buggin’ for, essentially, being too Latin: “There is nothing wrong with trying to bond with a large, unserved segment of the TV audience that is a prime target of your show. It is inadvisable to do it to the point where excludes the masses.”

House of Buggin’ only lasted 11 episodes, going off the air in mid-June of 1995. The story goes that Leguizamo was called into a meeting at the Fox offices where the executives made the suggestion that he replace the whole cast of the show and start season 2 with a new lineup of non-Latin comedians. When Leguizamo refused, House of Buggin’ was promptly axed from the network lineup and consigned to the vast ash heap of undeservedly short-lived TV shows. The void left by House of Buggin’ was filled by MADtv, which debuted four months later with Dave Herman on the cast… and none of House‘s Latinx alumni. MADtv ran for 15 seasons.

House of Buggin’ warranted no home video or streaming releases, and, as of this writing, only clips can be found online. It was unjustly maligned by Fox 24 years ago, and it has remained in the margins ever since. This is a pity, as watching even short snippets reveals the show’s amazing energy and always-timely politics. Despite its relative obscurity, however, House of Buggin’ deliberately, nudged the door a little further open, proving that Latinx comedy was possible on network TV, and leading to a world where shows like Alternatino, Jane the Virgin, Ugly Betty, and the redux of One Day at a Time could live and breathe. We owe House of Buggin’ and John Leguizamo hearty thanks.

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