Mike Oquendo is a no-nonsense kind of guy. Partner that with his lifelong interest in the arts and passion for recognizing and developing talent and we all end up benefiting. Specifically, we end up on the receiving end of some top-notch live entertainment–for us and by us. The Hecho en Chicago Latino Arts Series is a current Mike Oquendo production. Encompassing several shows, it coincides with National Hispanic Heritage Month and performances run from September 17 through October 15. Gozamos recently had the opportunity to chat with Oquendo about his current productions, his background and his motivation.
“Anything worth doing, is worth doing right.”
Mike Oquendo is a native-son; Puerto-Rican, born in Chicago and raised in the Logan Square area. His lifelong interest in the arts led him to his current path. He has been producing quality, live entertainment in Chicago and across the country for about the past 14 years with an average of about 90 shows produced per year. Oquendo has a simple yet effective method for determining what to produce: “Is it funny? Original? Clever? Inviting? Can anyone see this and find it funny? Do I have to have lived on 18th in Pilsen to get this? Depending on how it’s written, the audience won’t need to live in Pilsen to understand what it’s like to live in Pilsen. It has to appeal to the audience in a real way.” Making a connection between the audience and performer is of high importance to Oquendo.
Creating an atmosphere conducive to connecting talent and performers to audiences is one thing, but Oquendo has also been able to forge a strong relationship between the audience and the greater Chicagoland community. Around five years ago, Mikey O Comedy Productions began their community partner night initiative. Once a month, the proceeds from a given show go to a local charity. Recent charities include the Midwest Brain Injury Clubhouse, Youth Crossroads Counseling and Family Support Services, Mujeres Latinas en Acción, East Village Youth Program, Avon Breast Cancer Crusade to name a few. All in all, Oquendo’s shows have helped around 80 different agencies in the Chicago area, raising about $85K per year for local charities. “We need audiences and charities need funds. We put some of these organizations in a position to raise their own funds through these shows instead of just having this handout mentality. We’re working together. And it feels good for everyone involved.” Their next such major partnering event is in October, The Perfect Ten: Chicago’s Women of Comedy Stand Up Against Breast Cancer. Proceeds will go toward A Silver Lining Foundation, a resource center for those affected by cancer.
“I don’t want to do what has been done to us.”
Oquendo talked to me about how it was back in the day when he started to get on stage doing the stand-up thing. In some clubs, in some places here in the Midwest, seeing Latino comics on stage was a total rarity. And when it did happen, the outcomes weren’t so good. “I would go to open mics and see Latinos fail on stage, or Arab-Americans, or Gays and Lesbians fail on stage. Then I saw myself fail on stage. It wasn’t because we weren’t funny, but it was because the audiences weren’t connecting with the material. So I said, let’s find the right audience and put the right acts up. So often, there is a mismatch between the audience and talent. We have wonderful talent in Chicago, and wonderful audiences, let’s put them together.” Today, Mikey O Comedy Productions targets not just Latinos, but African-Americans, Arab-Americans, women, the LGBTQ population and Christians, too.
Recently, Mikey O Comedy Productions has been approached by some producers looking to create a TV show, Mikey O’s Stand Up Chicago. So far, an agreement has not been reached. The specific hang up: the desires of outside producers to have an exclusively Latino show do not sit well with Oquendo. “I don’t want to be the guy who says ‘hey, this is just a Latino show.’ I don’t want to do what was done to us. I don’t want this to be a Latino-only thing. Michael Palascak, who was recently on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show, was a regular at my shows. Felipe Esparza won the Last Comic Standing and was a regular, too. Hannibal Buress is now an SNL writer that came through my rooms. Everybody is in my shows now. Latinos, Blacks, Whites, gays. I started this to give Latinos a platform; when I started, there were two Latino comedians. And, now, we can honestly say there are at least 20-25 in the main pool. I want Latinos to be successful but I want everyone to be successful.”
The Hecho en Chicago series is special in many ways. But most notably, all the pieces are performed by the people who created them: local Latinos. “The pieces are created by Latinos in Chicago and those people are in the pieces themselves. Nobody is going up there doing someone else’s work; they’re not doing Shakespeare–I mean, there’s nothing wrong with that. Shakespeare is great. I support that work, too. But he’s been dead for 300 years. Meanwhile, you can’t tell me there isn’t a brilliant kid sitting in Pilsen right now with a great play to produce. Or someone in Humboldt Park with great work. And we need have these people up there. I want to give my kids something more to look forward to. So, that’s why this series is important to me–because of what we are bringing to the city and to the people. It is bigger than a show here or a show there. We need to connect audiences with the talent that is out there.”
“Don’t F this up.”
Oquendo has an interest in every comedian he works with. Whether he is helping them work on their craft, writing or their confidence, he is always pulling for them–although he recognizes some people think of him as a cut-throat. “I have a famous saying: ‘Don’t F this up.’ Five seconds before a comedian goes on, I will pull you aside and say, ‘Hey, don’t F this up.’“ Oquendo likes to remind comics right before they go on stage that they need to go out and deliver. Not only for the sake of their own careers, but also because that’s what the audience deserves. “I have as much respect for the audience as I do the talent.”
Oquendo puts relationship building at the forefront of his model. “We have to continue to build relationships between audiences and acts. We have to make sure this wonderful marriage of people and talent continues to grow and that they trust each other. To me, it’s offensive sometimes when someone pays $80 or $100 to see a comedian, like George Lopez–and I use him as an example because he’s a friend–and the ‘personal-ness’ is lost because it’s in a huge three-thousand seat arena. When we do a show here, they are 200-300 seaters. We look the audience in the eye and tell them a joke. None of my tickets are over $15. Partnering with a children’s theater this past August, I ran Beauty and the Beast for $8. It wasn’t about the money, it was about getting Latino families out, introducing their kids to theater. Put the Xbox away, put the games away for a while. Come to the theater. That’s coming back for A Christmas Carol this year. It’s bigger than the money. It’s about bringing the community out. A pocket full of money is really empty. No kidding.”
Sept. 17, 18 & 19: Bless Me, Madrina!
Sept. 22 & Oct. 13: La Voz del Barrio
Sept. 24 & 25: Fajitas, Greens and All In Betweens
October. 1, 2 & 3: Law and DISorder
Oct. 8, 9 & 10: Where’s Papi?
Oct. 15: Deport This!