Surprisingly, the comedy club is a new environment for John Leguizamo. He used to test his material at performing-arts spaces before presenting it on a Broadway or Off-Broadway stage, but now, he is workshopping his latest one-man show, "Latin History for Dummies," in comedy clubs across the country. The monthslong process brings him to Goodnights in Raleigh on Jan. 15.
"I never really did the comedy circuit," says Leguizamo, on the phone from Manhattan (or "Manny Hatty," as he's been known to call it). "But I thought that this show would be so cool in a comedy club, and I've been having a blast."
Going from Emmy- and Obie-winning, Tony- and Golden Globe-nominated stage and screen actor to touring road comic is indeed a 180-degree change of pace for Leguizamo. For starters, he has usually workshopped shows in front of supportive theater crowds. As you can probably guess, that's so not the case at a comedy club, where hecklers and drunken bachelorette parties often, unfortunately, make up the audience.
"It's very different, because when you're performing in performance-art spaces or theaters or colleges, people want to be elevated, you know," he says. "Everything has to have meaning and a point. In a comedy club, people just want to laugh."
You could say that Leguizamo, who took on a stable of characters in his shows "Mambo Mouth" and "Spic-O-Rama" before going fully autobiographical with "Freak," "Sexaholix ... A Love Story" and "Ghetto Klown," took a cue from other comics who hit the stage in order to give their own offbeat view of world history.
"I loved that Colin Quinn show," he says, referring to Quinn's Jerry Seinfeld-directed "Long Story Short." "It was such a great show, man. And I also loved 'Dress to Kill,' the Eddie Izzard show that had a lot of history in it. So ["Latin History for Dummies"] is definitely a lot more historic. I act out battles. I act out fights—you know, the Conquest. It's a lot more battle-worthy kind of piece. There's a little Ken Burns in there."
Of course, being the Colombia-born, Queens-bred Latino that he is, Leguizamo felt he needed to hip people to the significant role Latinos have played in building this country.
"It's more history stuff, so it's like some of the Aztecs, the Incas, the Civil War, the Revolutionary War," he says. "I talk about World War I, World War II—all the contributions of Latin people to America. We've been here since the beginning—before, during and now."
While Leguizamo says "Dummies" follows the same aesthetic as his earlier shows—he says it's "ridiculous and funny and very physical and, hopefully, somewhat emotional"—he does admit that he's dishing out more jokes than usual.
"It's a history piece, and I felt that a comedy club audience is really demanding in terms of, you know, they need a lot of setup and jokes and JPMs. The jokes-per-minute gotta keep on coming. I didn't want it to get too theatrical, like my other pieces. I want it to be much more rapid-fire."
Doing comedy clubs isn't the only new thing he's trying. He's currently working with Brooklyn illustrator Christa Cassano on a graphic novelization of "Ghetto Klown," scheduled for a fall release.
"I'm so proud of that," he says. He looked to the work of Alex Robinson (Box Office Poison) for inspiration on how he wanted his graphic novel to flow visually. And while his previous productions were eventually published in book form, Leguizamo felt there was a lot more that could be imagined and laid out in "Klown."
"It's one of my shows that I felt like, oh man, this one is so cinematic," he says. "It travels through so much space and time that only a graphic novel could really bring it to life."
As someone who's been in the acting and entertaining game for decades, the 50-year-old, married father of two is more in demand now than ever. Last year, he did some nice supporting turns in Jon Favreau's indie comedy Chef, the hit Ice Cube-Kevin Hart comedy Ride Along and the well-received Keanu Reeves actioner John Wick. Also last year, Leguizamo co-wrote and starred in the movie Fugly!, where he plays a man-child comedian who reevaluates his life after a near-death experience.
This year, you can see him in several films, including action-comedy American Ultra, Tina Fey-Amy Poehler comedy Sisters, and Cymbeline, an adaptation of the often-neglected William Shakespeare play. And let's not forget that there's another Ice Age sequel in the works, with Leguizamo reprising his role as lispy sloth Sid. (Leguizamo claims the movie will take place in space.)
After spending the past couple of decades riding that dysfunctional celebrity rollercoaster, Leguizamo has found that working more on your art, instead of chasing fame and fortune, will eventually lead to bigger and better opportunities.
"You just gotta follow your muse, man," he says. "You can't be sidetracked. You can't be tempted by all the silly things—you know, fame, notoriety, awards and all that nonsense. Because it just derails you. You just gotta stay on your path. You love what you do and you do it because you love it—and that's all there is."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Crash test "dummies".