Viva Vegas


January 28, 2001


By Richard Fausset

The new Telemundo sitcom “¡Viva Vegas!” follows the exploits of two Argentine brothers who take the big gamble, moving from a small town in their homeland to Sin City Central in search of the American dream.

For Telemundo, the second-largest Spanish-language network in the U.S., “¡Viva Vegas!” represents a new round of poker with a fresh hand. The sitcom, which airs at 8:30 p.m. on Sundays, debuted in October as Telemundo works to rebuild from its 1998 decision to focus on U.S.-style comedy and dramas rather than the telenovela fare traditionally popular with Spanish- speaking audiences. The result was a sizeable drop in viewership, with the network’s share of the prime time Spanish-language TV audience falling by more than a quarter by summer 1999.

The network quickly recalibrated–the chest-heaving dramas are back, viewership is on the rise, and Telemundo recently announced a partnership with one of the most successful producers of telenovelas in Mexico, Argos Comunicaciones.

But Telemundo is still experimenting with hybrid programming with a particular appeal to the Stateside Latino market–most notably on Sunday night, when “¡Vegas!’” and another U.S.-style sitcom, “Los Beltrán,” bring audiences a full hour of formula-driven situation comedy that takes as its theme the Latino immigrant experience.

Carlos Portugal, the show’s executive producer and co-creator of “¡Viva Vegas!,” is hoping the show’s focus on newcomers will appeal to a broad spectrum of viewers.

“One thing a lot of our viewers have in common is that [many of them] are immigrants,” said Portugal. “They’re all here, and they all know what it is to struggle.”

The show’s cast is made up of veteran Vegas stage performers and well-known faces on the Spanish-language TV scene. Stars and real-life Argentine brothers Mario and Daniel Celario have a long-running Vegas comedy show and have opened for the likes of Kenny Rogers and Dean Martin, while female leads Julieta Rosen and Ludo Vika are proven commodities in the Spanish-language TV market.

To make sure they have their demographic bases covered, the producers of “¡Viva Vegas!” created a cast of characters that represent the spectrum of Latin cultures in the U.S.–on the show, audiences will hear Spanish spoken with South American, North American and Caribbean accents.

For added insurance against channel surfing, producers have used the show’s casino setting as an excuse to offer a relentless parade of scantily clad machos and hubba-hubba showgirls.

“It’s hard competing with the telenovelas and the variety shows,” said Ali de Paz, production coordinator for Galan Entertainment, the show’s producer. Because of the show’s setting, she said, “¡Vegas!” will be competitive… with the showgirls, the stage shows–and the good-looking men and women.”

Vika, who is also a veteran of the Vegas stage, says that while many Americans fail to think of Latin culture when they think of Las Vegas, the setting makes perfect sense: The city, she notes, has seen a huge influx of Spanish-speaking immigrants in recent decades. According to Mary Stanley-Larsen of the Clark County School District, the ratio of Latino students in Vegas-area public schools has jumped from 5% to more than 26% in the last 20 years.

“We wanted to create a setting that was a melting pot and Las Vegas is a city that is growing so fast that you have all of these different kinds of people coming to work there,” Portugal said.

No one ever accused Las Vegas of tasteful appropriations of other cultures, however, and the show gets some wry mileage from the clash of Latin traditions and B-grade Nevada cheese: The Moctezuma for example, the volcano-themed casino where the brothers work, is a garish mix of sacred Aztec paintings, lava lamps, and buff young guys clad in what can best be described as Nahuatl jock straps.

For the most part, though, “¡Viva Vegas!,” which is filmed in Burbank, showcases a broader brand of comedy that relies on the well-honed chemistry, timing and physical high jinks of the Celario brothers. The children of a well-known folkloric dance team from Buenos Aires, the brothers came to the States as a dancing gaucho act but switched to comedy, spending 14 years perfecting their shtick on the Strip.

The show is a sort of exaggerated take on their first experiences in the States. Daniel Celario plays Sebastian Vega, a recently arrived bartender at the Moctezuma who wants to make it as a performer and, just as important, make the leap from trailer home into the middle class.

Playing Costello to Daniel’s Abbott is Mario Celario, whose Antonio Vega is a bumbling naif, a sort of Candide of the craps tables, and the friction between Antonio’s innocence and Sebastian’s presumed experience is responsible for the show’s main comedic spark.

In the pilot episode, Antonio comes to the States after Sebastian lies to him in a letter, claiming he’s a rich superstar. By the second show, Antonio receives his first paycheck, which he immediately gambles away–only to become accidentally beholden to a loan shark who tows the brothers’ trailer to the edge of the Grand Canyon.

“I like to say we are like two Rickys trying to be Lucy,” Mario says of the porous boundary between straight and funny man in the brothers’ act. “Sometimes I get my brother into the mood where he gets taken by me and begins to think like me… then all of a sudden, he realizes what he’s doing.”

In the real-life Las Vegas–if there really is such a thing–the brothers Celario didn’t start out in straits as dire as the brothers Vega. “But the ups and downs we always had,” said Mario. “I did live in a trailer in the beginning.”

The cast and crew say they are galvanized by the desire to make “¡Viva Vegas!” an American success story, and convince American Latinos that sitcoms in Spanish are nothing to be afraid of. Paving the way for the show was Telemundo’s “Los Beltrán,” a more family-oriented comedy now in its second year, and “Sólo en América,” which premiered in the fall of 1998 and ran for two years.

“Everything is a custom,” Vika said. “It’s like a marriage. You’ve got to get used to being with the other person. The only thing [the Spanish-speaking audience] had was novelas and variety shows. That’s all they had and they watched. This is something different.”

With its surfeit of double-entendres and old-fashioned sitcom conceits, however, “¡Viva Vegas!” is not necessarily different by U.S. standards; the writing doesn’t aim for the meta-TV of a Garry Shandling, nor the arch, situationless comedy of a “Seinfeld.” And despite the poignant theme, viewers looking for deeper insight into the immigrant experience should be advised that “¡Viva Vegas!” is more apt to offer up a wacky boob gag than a trenchant critique of Latino life in contemporary America.

But the producers’ formula does allow for a good dose of culturally specific humor. In an early episode, Antonio, in an attempt to raise cash, calls a sperm bank, and boasts that he’s intelligent, handsome and Argentino.

The clerk at the other end of the line demonstrates the appreciation other Latinos have for that notorious Argentine pride–by promptly hanging up.

Perhaps the most promising counterpoint to the show’s dominant mix of ribaldry and warm ’n’ fuzzy fraternal values is Vika’s character, Estrellita Camela, the wife of the Moctezuma’s elderly owner, Don Benito (Mike Robelo). She’s a gold-digger obsessed with knocking off her dead-weight spouse and, in the meantime, seeking out extramarital gratification–”an image of both fecundity and death,” as Octavio Paz might say, though the trash-talking Estrellita surely wasn’t the kind of enigmatic figure Paz was thinking of when he wrote those words.

“I have to take my hat off to Telemundo for taking the risk,” says Vika. “I believe my people are ready for American-style shows with Latinos in them. They love American shows… and America has the formula.”

Unlike the formula of many U.S. sitcoms, producer Portugal says “¡Viva Vegas!” will let some plot lines run their course over several shows, much like thetelenovela form. This, he said, will allow characters who have been introduced as what he calls archetypes–the jealous wife, the prudish showgirl–to blossom into full-blown characters. Over time, he said, the show will get to the issues.

“We’re bringing a lot of elements they haven’t seen before,” Portugal said. “I think we present the immigrant experience in a funny way. That’s not something you see on TV. On the telenovelas, it’s all about the suffering. Latinos are martyrs on those shows. [On “¡Viva Vegas!”], they’re just doing the best they can.”