Mexican comedian Roberto Gomez Bolanos died in Cancun on November 28, aged 85. He leaves behind a long legacy of popular comedy that influenced the language, cultural behaviour and memories of millions of people across Latin America who laughed with him for over 40 years.
Bolanos was a writer, actor, music composer, producer and director of one of the greatest comedy shows of Latin American television. His creativity and prolific career as a screenwriter (producing more than 60,000 pages of script) earned him the pseudonym “Chespirito” – or the “little Shakespeare”, which eventually became the name of his TV show.
Bolanos was a pioneer in Mexican television and his show was one of the first Mexican productions to be broadcast internationally. His unique style of comedy attracted and captivated generations of Latin Americans of all walks of life.
“Even the most dramatic situation could have a tinge of comedy, and that is the material that comedians use,” he would say. And indeed he managed to make Latin American people laugh and hope, even when their region was going through political conflict, oppression and abject poverty.
The comedy of hope
Latin Americans always found a curious reflection of their reality in Chespirito’s comedy. His skits celebrated the creativity and resourcefulness of the poor in the face of destitution and misery; he would empower his characters to defy hopelessness, find a way out of trouble and in the end laugh at their difficult reality.
The simplicity of his humour – which never succumbed to vulgarity or crudeness – attracted and entertained children and adults alike.
Bolanos’ comedy focused on how poor people would struggle with ingenuity to survive, thinking only about the present moment, but also creating strong relationships in the face of adversity and finding something positive even in difficult situations. Chespirito managed to offer a serious social criticism of Latin American society in the most effective way possible – through humour. This is the reason why the show was so popular among lower classes from Brazil to Colombia, Peru to Spain. Many of Chespirito’s viewers would see a reflection of themselves in his characters.
Chespirito’s vision to integrate the daily life of Latin Americans into his comedy show immortalised characters like El Chavo (a street boy), El Chapulin Colorado (a goofy superhero), El Doctor Chapatin (an elderly doctor), Los Caquitos (two former burglars), Los Chifladitos (a couple of demented friends), among others.
As El Chavo, Chespirito would portray the life of an orphaned boy in a lower-class neighbourhood. Despite his poverty and difficult life, the little boy would always make people laugh with his candour and mischievousness, even in the face of misfortune. The sympathy and smiles that El Chavo evoked in his audience made him one of Bolanos’ most popular characters. The show “El Chavo del Ocho” has been translated into more than 50 languages and in 2006 was made into a cartoon.
Some of the actors in “El Chavo del Ocho” tried to create their own offshoot shows, attracting many viewers and retaining the essential features created by Chespirito. However, these shows resulted in legal disputes because of Bolanos’ copyright of the original.
Universality of humour
Chespirito developed a very specific style of humour characterised by the clarity, tenderness and even naivete of his characters. The simplicity of his humour – which never succumbed to vulgarity or crudeness – attracted and entertained children and adults alike. Chespirito was one of the few comedians who actually managed to gather in front of the TV and entertain three generations at once.
Although his last show stopped production in 1995, to this day, many TV channels across Latin America still broadcast reruns of his works.
His shows had such a big impact on Latin American society that they even coined phrases that entered and settled permanently in the Spanish language. Many of these would reflect his skilfully hidden sarcasm or naive humour: “I would rather die than lose my life;” “I did it without wanting but wanting to do it;” “All the good ones, follow me;” “All my movements are coldly calculated.”
These phrases became part of the Mexican and Latin American linguistic identity. People of all walks of life and ages use them in their everyday language, poking fun at life.
Chespirito wrote much of the history of comedy in Latin America. His unique style and insight into Latin American society made his show a cultural phenomenon.
He influenced many generations of comedians across Latin America. Yet, no one in the last decades has been able to challenge him as the comedy king of the region. Since his show ended, Latin American comedy has followed a different path becoming more vulgar and black-and-white in its language and characters. Few comedians have managed to reproduce or build on the subtle and smart language of Chespirito’s dialogues and characters.
His style of comedy was also unique in that it managed to cut through cultural contexts and appeal to audiences even outside Latin America. His show was aired in many countries outside the region and was easily translatable into other languages. Indeed, his humour was universal.
Although he is now gone from this world, his humour will live in our hearts, minds and language.
Juliana Ceballos is a Colombian journalist.