If you're savvy to the world of comedy in Hollywood, especially sketch comedy, you're probably aware of Rick Najera. Among his credits include cult faves like In Living Color, MADTv, Loco Comedy Jam, his first film Nothing Like the Holidays with John Leguizamo and Debra Messing, and the highly successful Latinologues on Broadway. As a writer, director and executive producer, he's got the agency to supply more well-rounded Latino characters that help for our representation.
Najera also teaches acting and comedy writing, which has helped launched the careers of hundreds of young writers who have moved on to bigger and better writing credits for major television. This Sunday, Najera will provide a free Television Comedy Workshop as one of the final events for Santa Ana's OC Film Fiesta.
I chatted with Najera on comedy, writing, and staying afloat in the industry. Think of this as a small sample of Najera's golden wisdom, which you can experience for yourself by attending his workshop.
OC WEEKLY: So for someone who hasn't experienced your writing workshop, what can they expect?
RICK NAJERA: I'll go over comedy and writing, the facts behind it, and I'll go into working in Hollywood, and doing an overview of my career. I started off as an actor, which is very typical of most writers in Hollywood. I didn't like the roles I was getting, especially being Latino I was getting the gangbanger, and the druglord, the drug lieutenant, the drug accountant, everyone involved in the narco empire.
So i decided I wanted to write my own roles. I started off with a play called Latins Anonymous, and from there I wrote sketches and stuff, and I got a job on In Living Color because of it.
It's been a really unique writing career, because I never really wanted to be a writer. So it just happened, but I can give people the steps to take to make it happen. So I'll be dealing with a lot of that.
Yeah I remember you said in another interview you're a 'writer who doesn't like to write'.
Yeah, I can't stand it. In fact, one time I was telling my wife, "Look, I make this look easy," and she goes, "No, you don't. You make it look painful." And I start laughing, and then I thought about how from the outside it must look that way.
For me writing is like being in school and doing a class paper. But since I'm a professional writer it's how I make my living. But there's a lot of tricks you can use to get to that sweet spot where you start to write and it starts to feel right and everything you say is true. Some of the best work I've ever written I didn't stop myself, I just wrote the entire thing. so there's these moments of inspiration you have to get as a writer. And when you're a professional writer and you don't get those moments of inspiration you have to make those moments happen, and you have to consistently make it happen so people trust you and give you a check.
And you worked on In Living Color and MADTv, these two sketch comedy shows with multiracial casts. Could you tell me about the writer's room experience for those television shows?
Writer's rooms are tough; there's a lot of Type A personalities in a room fighting for their ideas. It's competitive, 'cause you have 13 weeks to prove yourself, sometimes less. So once you're on, they keep extending your contract; so you're constantly being renewed, and that's a difficult thing. Imagine being on a job where you don't know if you're going to be there for a week, or 13 weeks, or if you'll be gone, and then you won't know where your next job will be.
Sometimes you get a nice staff and a number of people who are really supportive, but on the whole, like in shows like In Living Color, it was a really competitive staff. I'll pitch an idea on Monday and every other writer in the room is looking at you going, "I hope my idea works over his."
A lot of my writing comes from my miserable life…or well, I actually have a really good life, but I have to take those moments where I do feel miserable. and in defense of that, I make funny situations and look at life comedically. If I was on a plane and it was crashing, I'd be thinking, 'Aw damn, I can't believe I actually paid my credit card off' and that's human, how humans think. And comedy is based on truth. Just look at the situation and talk truthfully about it.
So what's an issue that aspiring writers have that keep them from producing successful work that prevents them from making it in the industry?
The number one thing is that the writer is different than any other artist. In a lot of ways he looks at a blank page and he has to fill it. So that's something that causes you to really self-direct, in other words motivate yourself. You say 'I'm gonna get up this morning and I'm gonna write something"- a sketch, a monologue, an op-ed, whatever. And that becomes a discipline, and after a while what is discipline eventually becomes a habit, where you start to feel weird if you're not writing. And then from there, when you write enough material you start to go through it and you find out that there's a draft that needs work and then you may concentrate on something and every time you're writing you're educating yourself on how to write.
You're going to be a lifelong student of writing; writing is something you'll engage in all your life. I tell people in the class 'call yourself a writer.' Some people go 'Ohh I can't call myself a writer' and so I'll get people to say 'I'm a writer' and then I add this caveat, you didn't call yourself a famous writer or a great writer or a well-known writer–just a writer as someone who writes. So I get people to call themselves a writer, and I tell them here are the steps to becoming a great writer… or a professional writer, or a brilliant writer.
The thing that stops writers the most is the word 'No–I can't do this, I've never done this, I cant I cant.' Part of it is getting rid of that word and saying 'I can. I am on the path to achieve what I want to achieve.'
And you've written for stage, screen and television. Were those difficult transitions to make?
You know, it's not as difficult as people think. You just have to consider, am I building a house or a mansion? What's the difference? Well I imagine you have to use better equipment but you're still building. In the end, transitioning from TV to film to all these different mediums is just learning the skill sets, it really comes down to the story. So you can tell it by film, TV, or theater and each one has its own problems. TV has a time issue, a break with commercials, so it's like you have to tell a story in 22 min. I'm just being a storyteller, a storyteller around a fire and cave, I have to keep the attention of my audience. The story has to be so good people want to hear it.
So as a Latino working in Hollywood, and a successful one at that, would you say you feel a sense of responsibility in writing parts for Latinos?
Well partially yes, the thing with Latinos is that we're so seldom seen in the media. Less than 5% of the actors in the highest-grossing films are Latino, but we're 70% of the [film-watching] population in the US.
The women, Latinas, 38% are naked or partially clothed, so we are either underrepresented or under-clothed, our two big things. So every Latino writer has a desire to put a spotlight on our culture, 'cause that's what we know, that's who we are. On the whole, I think its a universal truth that every writer wants to write about themselves and to be understood.
Most writers really should be called scribes. We hear things, these voices and all other things around us and we write down what we hear, not that we're any big genius about it. the best writers tend to be very humble because they realize more than anyone its a great gift, There's certain things you can do but in the end its a gift and you have to recognize that gift and recognize that voice, or recognize what you hear and desire to be understood.
Rick Najera's Television Comedy Writing Workshop is this Sunday, October 5 at The Frida Cinema at 10:30am. Free and open to the public! For more information, visit ocfilmfiesta.org See you there!