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Late Night TV Needs More Latinx Voices (Guest Blog)

A decade after ”Lopez Tonight“ went off the air, Latinx talent is still waiting for another shot at the big time, Afro-Latina comedian Suni Reyes writes

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I’m an Afro-Latina whose favorite thing in the world (after warm donuts) is to make people laugh. For the past decade, I’ve been creating and performing comedy on New York City’s most renowned stages. I’ve done it all: stand-up, sketch, improv, raising a child (OK, he is actually my favorite thing in the world). The dream was to one day get hired as a writer or a cast member on a late-night/variety show, or (dare I dream big!) to have my own show.

I was born and raised in Puerto Rico by an immigrant mother from the Dominican Republic and a “jibarito” from Sabana Grande, Puerto Rico, so my mere existence has always been political. When I started doing comedy, I noticed that the “general” American audience didn’t know much about my people or what we represented. They saw me as a punchline rather than the one telling the jokes. So very early in my career, I started using good ol’ American satire to connect with them, and it worked! They were laughing at my jokes and learning about colonialism. Hurray!

Unfortunately, when it comes to late-night, Latinx/Latine comedians have rarely been a part of the conversation. For decades, white men have dominated the business of “progressive, smart, satirical comedy.” And although networks have started to move the needle forward and giving diverse voices the opportunity to join the roster, Latinx/Latine comedians — both up-and-coming and “household” names — have not been able to enter the exclusive late-night and variety show club. George Lopez’s short-lived “Lopez Tonight” (2009-2011) was the first late-night show hosted by a Latino and the one who opened the door for Conan to move to TBS after the whole Jay Leno/NBC fiasco. But 10 years later, we are still waiting for another chance.

During the Trump era — an era where the Latinx/Latine community (among others… sigh) was constantly being targeted — late-night shows and satire, in general, had an unprecedented renaissance. You’d think this would’ve been the perfect time to upgrade those writer’s rooms and cast more Latinx/Latine comedians, right? Well, not really … I, for example, was only hired to play a maid on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee” called me when they needed to talk to a Puerto Rican and “learn a little bit more about the culture” for its special episode on Puerto Rico, and “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” — which has done several episodes on Latinx/Latine issues with no Latinx/Latine writers in the room — put me on hold for some awesome sketches but only ended up hiring me to play a “Taco Bell customer.”

Although I appreciated the opportunities these shows gave me, Latinx/Latine comedians are still on the outside looking in when it comes to being hired, promoted and uplifted — even though we’ve been doing the work for years, and have left our mark at the predominantly white theaters and comedy clubs that serve as incubators of talent for these shows.

Progressive, smart, satirical comedy should include the perspectives and voices of all people, especially those whose issues are constantly making the headlines. There are 60 million Latinx/Latine people in the U.S.; we are the fastest-growing population and are avid consumers of pop culture and TV. So why are our voices almost non-existent in late night?  We are ready to give our satirical hot takes on the issues that affect our daily lives, baby!

Despite the lack of visibility, Latinx/Latine voices have been trickling into late night: “The Daily Show With Trevor Noah” added Afro-Latina comedian X Mayo to the writers room; “The Late Show” added Colombian writer Felipe Torres Medina; The Kid Mero co-hosts “Desus and Mero” on Showtime; Amber Ruffin brought her late-night show to Peacock NBC with co-writer Jenn Hagel, who is of Puerto Rican descent; and comedian Alise Morales is part of the cast of “Tooning Out the News.” There’s also Melissa Villaseñor, Julio Torres and Steven Castillo on “SNL.” However, this abysmally low representation should not give us the false impression that we have a seat at the table, or that there’s a pipeline in place to continue to promote Latine comedians.

I love using comedy to bring sociopolitical topics to the spotlight, from an Afro-Latina’s perspective, and have contributed mi granito de arena with my parodies of “West Side Story,” Kimberly Guilfoyle, Jessica Krug (who profited from pretending to be an Afro-Latina), Hilaria Baldwin (who profited from pretending to have a Spanish accent), among others. A lot of up-and-coming talent has also taken matters into their own hands during the pandemic, producing their own shows on YouTube, Twitch, Clubhouse and podcasts. The talent is there! It should also be noted that we are not a monolith, we come in all shapes, colors, sizes, just like warm donuts! But wouldn’t it be lovely if mainstream media could give a Latina woman of African or Indigenous descent their own late-night show? “Saturday Noche Latina,” anyone?

I promise you the general audience wants to laugh with us, instead of at us, and we can create the crosscultural understanding this country so desperately needs. I mean, if Fox News can give a late-night show to Greg Gutfeld (roll all of the eyes) … c’mon!

Suni Reyes is an actress, comedian and writer who used to dance for a living. She hails from Santurce, Puerto Rico, and has been gracing the stage, screen and comedy basements of NYC for the past two decades. Her credits include "Nora From Queens," "The Break with Michelle Wolf" and "UCB." If you count her dog and comedy, she is technically a mother of three.