Passengers watching an enterprising nine-year-old peddling sweets on crowded train carriages in Vicente López in the 1970s probably didn’t expect him to grow into one of Argentina’s most cherished comedians. Fast-forward four decades and Alfredo Casero remains a legend both at home and abroad, not just as a comedian, but as a musician, actor and, perhaps most bizarrely, a Japanese pop sensation.
Suckled in Buenos Aires’ underground comedy scene, Casero and his peers at the city’s Parakultural Arts Centre figure-headed a new generation of comedians in Argentina. His surreal brand of comedy and chaotic performance style propelled him into the public’s consciousness with cult shows ‘De La Cabeza’ and ‘Cha Cha Cha’ in the early 1990s. He is also widely credited with helping to re-invent the stale and formulaic face of TV comedy at the time.
When we meet, on the London leg of his European Estese Confuso tour, Casero is resplendent in a grey tracksuit, eyes dancing under silvery curls. He instantly launches into a story as we cross the road for a drink to escape from the cold. “A woman and her husband were looking at me strangely in the theatre last night. I have no idea why. It may be something to do with this,” he says, smoothing down a luxurious walrus moustache.
Casero has appeared in a hundred different guises: flouncing across the screen in wigs and stockings, pouting as an impatient psychologist who becomes enraged with her patient and jumps out of her office window, and stretched into a spandex suit as ‘Juan Carlos Batman’, cruising the streets in an old banger. So what happens when the carapace slides and he clicks out of character?
The truth is, he is never in or out of character. Self-deprecating, cheeky and irreverent in life as he is on screen, Casero possesses a child-like curiosity in the world and a seemingly endless delight in the things he finds there. In person he whisks the conversation down broad avenues and twisting side streets, darting from his career to his past and the history of Argentina, tarrying among his life philosophies and tumbling down rabbit holes of anecdotes and stories.
“I started in comedy when I was selling things on the trains. They were always packed with people who didn’t want to let you through. So I went in and silently mimed offering things and did odd stuff like that. That grew into a little routine that my friend and I would perform.” It is this impulsiveness and quick-witted improvisation that would later come to shape his comedy.
“I don’t use a formula – comedy shouldn’t be like that. I have 400 ideas at once! The true comic is born – he cannot invent himself as a comedian.”
Cha Cha Cha
Earning his bread dabbling in various business ventures and schemes from an early age, Casero first started taking acting seriously and studied under Argentine actor and director Norman Briski in the 1980s. He attended classes with influential figures, including the Italian playwright and Nobel Prize winner Dario Fo, before moving to the Parakultural centre. Born in the twilight years of Argentina’s military rule and the country’s first days of democracy, the centre became a nexus of theatre, art, and music – home to Buenos Aires’ burgeoning artistic and creative movement. The place gave birth to a new generation of artists in Argentina, among them Casero and peers, including Diego Capusotto and Fabio Alberti, with whom he launched his most famous work, TV sketch show ‘Cha Cha Cha’.
In Argentina the programme is currently seeing a pan-generational resurgence, particularly with youngsters looking up his videos on YouTube and watching re-runs on TV. Although he suggests that this is because their parents watched it, the trend also highlights the universal appeal of his work. I ask why he thinks it became such an iconic programme.
“Before there was nothing that really spoke about our essence as Argentines,” he says, adjusting his glass on the table. “We are strange, very unusual and quite mad. Lots of people don’t get us – they say we speak badly et cetera. But we’re immigrants from all over the world and we are survivors of our own history. It’s something I am proud of because if you are Argentine you can survive anything,” he laughs.
“’Cha Cha Cha’ was conjured out of nothing and made with next to nothing at a time when it should have been impossible to create. It was important for the TV industry – until then you had to do things a certain way. We’d arrive in a place like this, with people drinking their drinks, set up the lights, shoot the scene and then leave while the place carried on operating as normal. Quedaba barbaro.”
Casero claims they had to spread the word about ‘Cha Cha Cha’ from person to person themselves. One morning he and a friend jumped on the number 9 bus at Retiro and told the people to watch the show. Viewers had to bend their aerials to pick up the new channel it was being screened on. But its popularity grew, as talk of the show stole into kitchens and living rooms, offices and classrooms. The show won backing from a millionaire investor (“I am grateful for his madness”) who helped it get off the ground, then cable finally came to Argentina and it started to really take off.
Shadows of the Dictatorship
Apart from turning old-school TV comedy on its head, the popularity of ‘Cha Cha Cha’ is also a poignant reminder of Argentina’s dark history. The show broke ranks with the comedy shows that preceded it, which relied on pre-prepared sketches and formulaic routines. Flourishing in the long shadows of the various military juntas that had subjugated Argentina with terror and oppression for more than three decades, its spontaneity and the bizarreness of its humour caught on with younger and older generations alike.
“Nothing like it had existed before,” he says. “We were the first generation of young people born without hate and without rancour. There were so many people who needed something like that.
“All of us, around that age, lived under some sort of military government rule. You were forced to take dangerous risks to find any kind of freedom. It’s fun to do what is forbidden. But in reality, it wasn’t fun breaking rules at that time. People accepted the establishment.”
Has it all gone to his head? Hardly. “I have followers and fans, but they are not fans of me – they are fans of the way we did things back then. I ended up doing something that touched people.”
Although he has disappeared from the TV screen, Casero still has his fingers in plenty of pies. He is currently working on a crowd-funded film and completing his latest tour. At the moment he says he is happiest tending his land in San Luis province, where he is cultivating alfalfa and gradually earning the respect of the local gaucho community. So will he be returning to the small screen any time soon? He says he has had plenty of opportunities, but with the country’s media increasingly hemmed in, he doesn’t want to.
“TV today is not something that interests me as a medium for what I do. You can’t make comedy shows in Argentina any more. Humour here has become very affiliated with politics. I prefer to do what I do, with my little show. When comedy is used for political means, it is of no use to me.”
Despite his success, he says it’s important to take his comedy to the people, and not wait for them to find him. “I’m more student than master,” he says. “I’m not thinking – ‘Oh I’m going to do a big show in England’. I just want to get to know the place and talk to people.”
He still does about 100 shows a year in Argentina – travelling to far-flung towns and villages all over the country. Either 1,000 or 70 come to watch, depending on the place, but he leaves no stone unturned. “My shows are made up of the biology of the people I meet. I’m a story teller, loco”.
And his shows are, indeed, insane. A carousing hybrid of stand-up, songs, dancing, anecdotes, sketches, music, and surreal video clips – blink and suddenly it’s the interval. Blink again and you’re swaying arm-in-arm, roaring the words to Pizza Conmigo while Casero dives in among the crowd, mingling and disappearing off to the bar, before cannon-balling back to the stage for another nose-dive into the strange and fantastic.
He performs a sketch about the nerves he felt when he became one of just a handful of westerners invited to sing in front of thousands at Japan’s illustrious NHK Kohaku festival. His accomplishments are not limited to comedy: his rendition of Shima Uta, a song originally composed in Japanese, was so popular at home that the national football team adopted it as their official anthem for the 2002 world cup. He returned many times to Japan, recording four albums including one in uchinaguchi (Okinawan language). “Che! Why do just one thing!” he snorts, when I wonder were he finds the energy.
La Risa Profunda
Does everyone get his sense of humour? He laughs. “Laughter has a lot to do with the culture of a place and the intelligence of people. They don’t always get that you’re telling an unspoken joke with your face. Argentines are great comics. Sometimes I go to Spain, where they think a bit more linear than we do. I made a joke to a woman and she stared and asked why I had said that to her. When you have to explain that it’s a joke, forget it.”
I ask what he thinks of UK comedy: “I didn’t realise the British had such a propensity to laugh!” He’s taken a liking to Ricky Gervais – “That guy says whatever he wants!” – and is a huge fan of Benny Hill, the only British comedian whose work filtered into Argentina when he was young. Casero says it was Hill who taught him to value the risa profunda – a deep, genuine laugh – and to loathe polite “ha-ha-ha’s”.
“It makes me uncomfortable when people laugh like that,” he says. “I want to get in past all your nerve endings – through the eyes and ears that take you into your memories and hit something in the brain that makes you convulse with laughter.”
Casero’s off-the wall comedy is frequently compared to Monty Python. He explains that while this is flattering, he didn’t actually get hold of a video until 1996, when he paid US$70 for the privilege. Although he worships at the altar of Palin, Cleese, Gilliam – who he describes as the love of his life – he notes a discipline to their work that does not exist in his own comedy.
“They were incredible actors, but they’re not locos – there’s a metric and a mechanism to their work. We did the total opposite. We’ve always done the exact opposite – which is what works in Argentina. We tried things and said, this could be una porqueria or it could be genius.”
It turned out to be genius. The cross-section of ages in the audience at his Estese Confuso show for ex-pat community Argentinos In Londres (AreEnln) this month is surely testament to the ongoing appeal of his work. Although it’s aimed at Argentines, and they do indeed comprise 99% of the audience, its tongue-in-cheek sketches and wry observations are for everyone. At its heart is the sentido comun – the sense of solidarity and community he feels with his audience.
“Everything I do is casual,” he says. “I am walking a path, but I don’t really think about why I am walking there. I don’t have any pretensions of grandeur – if something works, it works and if it’s going to go well, it will. Relax! You don’t have to die getting there.”