By Millicent Borges Accardi, Contributor (*)
The story of The Portuguese Kids comedy troupe began in Fall River, MA when Derrick DeMelo, Jason Casimiro, Brian Martins and Al Sardinha, became friends as children, making each other laugh and putting on skits for their families.
In college they produced “Ludicrous Speed,” a public access TV show and developed a love for making people laugh. After that, there were classes at Boston’s Improv Asylum. In fact, the founders of the school were so impressed by the comedy troupe’s innovation; they provided the start-up funds to bring The Portuguese Kids to a broader audience.
These days, their popular live shows and viral You Tube videos along with their own brand of humor, highlights the funny side of what it means to grow up Portuguese, The Portuguese Kids proudly claim that being Portuguese is “unique, wonderful, and a lot of the time…funny!”
Their Facebook page boasts nearly 100,000 “likes.” Instagrams garner 100,000+ views each, and their You Tube videos often attract a million views, which is astonishing for a small group of childhood friends from South Eastern Massachusetts who started out with the simple idea of “one papo seco at a time,” telling jokes to friends and family.
Currently, the comedy troupe bridges the gap between generations of immigrants and spreads their own brand of humor to audiences throughout Portuguese communities: from New England to California, to Florida and Toronto.
Derrick DeMelo, a founding member of The Portuguese Kids, was kind enough to answer a few questions for The Portuguese American Journal (PAJ) about the comedy group’s beginnings, about growing up Portuguese, his life as an actor, and how the Portuguese culture has become part of their most popular repertoire.
Can you describe one of your shows for PAJ readers?
“Saturday Night Live” meets “Who’s Line is it Anyway?” with a Portuguese twist. We perform sketch comedy throughout the night, which are rehearsed prior to the show. Then we ask the audience for suggestions and create scenes from out of thin air. The audience participation is the best part for us, and it really makes it fun for our fans. Some of our fans are seeing Improv done for the first time at one of our shows so we have the honor of introducing them to a new form of comedy.
What influences does your group have?
Comedy in general has always had an influence on us, especially cultural comedy. Whether it be Os Trapalhoes, a Brazilian comedy troupe that we watched growing up or Ricky Ricardo on “I Love Lucy.” If we heard an accent, we were instantly drawn to it because it reminded us of home. Of course, it was always followed by “if only we had a Portuguese version…” We said it so much; we decided to do something about it.
The Christmas Song makes me laugh out loud, but what You Tube videos have been your most popular?
That’s one of my favorites! Without a doubt though, Portuguese And I Know It is our most popular, currently at 1.2 million views, followed by Sh*t Portuguese People Say, which is over one million and Luso Style.
Can you tell me where you will be performing in 2014?
We’re always playing around New England, Massachusetts, Rhode Island , Connecticut, etc., but not as much as we’d like. The demand for us is greater in Canada, California and everywhere in between. We’re also going back to Bermuda, and we’re working out the details on South Africa and Australia, so it will be a busy year for us if it all comes together!
In what areas do you think Portuguese-Americans do not fully realize their potential?
We’re not united enough. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve played in a city with two Portuguese clubs, and we’ve performed at both and heard people say to our face, “I missed you last time because you were at the other club and we don’t go to their events.” That kind of nonsense really slows us down. There’s a rule in Improv, and it basically states that if you make the other person on stage look good, and he/she does the same, then the scene will be great because you’re not worried about yourself, you’re worried about your scene partner. [Portuguese people] are like a bad Improv scene!
What would you say to detractors who claim your comedy is based on stereotypes?
First of all, we’re not being ironic when we write songs, we’re being quite genuine. Secondly, I don’t truly believe that Portuguese people fit into a specific stereotype. We have a line that says, “I work a lot” on Portuguese And I Know It. Do Portuguese people work a lot? Or is that stereotyping? Do we eat chouriço? Or is that a stereotype? Do some of us make wine at home? I can go on and on.
Having said that, I think stereotypical comedy can be funny. Whether people like it or not, art imitates life and that’s where stereotypes come from. For the few who think we base our comedy on stereotypes I’d like to ask them, does it bother you because you’re worried what others will think about Portuguese people as a whole? Or does the “stereotype” hit too close to home? Portuguese people of all stations, from doctors to dock workers have approached us and thanked us for putting a spotlight on Portuguese culture.
We’ve always felt that the few critics we do have are the same ones trying to change the perception of Portuguese in North America. They may not like that Portuguese people are for the most part a blue collar, hardworking culture steeped in traditions and determined not to assimilate. That may cause us to stand out at times, and to some people that can be embarrassing. On the other hand, we have embraced it and we wear it as a badge of honor. We love being Portuguese and the uniqueness that comes with it, so we don’t really listen to those people, we listen to our fans.
How do you get the ideas for your skits?
We definitely all contribute, but Brian and Jay are the head writers. Parodies have come about when we see something that’s really catching on, and one of us will come up with a solid idea.
In a recent article you said you felt like ambassadors…
Well, I don’t think calling ourselves “ambassadors” translates into us speaking for all Portuguese people. But an ambassador can also be someone who promotes or spreads the “message.” And that’s really what I meant. We bring very large audiences of Portuguese people together, whether it be the millions of views online with our videos, or in sold out shows across Canada and the U.S. Many Portuguese clubs have members who hail from the same village or island and that rarely changes over time. But when we’re in town, it’s not uncommon for us to perform in a hall with 500+ people from Azores, Madeira, Continental Portugal and even Brazil.
We’re up on stage making people laugh and reconnect with their culture, no matter what corner of the Portuguese-Speaking World they call(ed) home. Some haven’t seen the inside of a Portuguese hall in years, and we pulled them in. We’ve heard so many times from parents in their 30’s and 40’s that their kids want to learn Portuguese because of us; that they’re interested in the culture because of what we do. And what we do is more than just YouTube videos. . .we offer kids of Portuguese immigrants representation in a world filled with pop culture and reality TV.
So, when I said we’re ambassadors, I should have said that no one else promotes the Portuguese culture as successfully as we do. We’re not saying that other people aren’t out there doing what we’re doing via other artistic forms, but not many of them can call this a full time job either. We’ve worked tirelessly to get to where we are now, and a lot of the time we forget to sit back and take a look at how far we’ve gotten. . .
What are some of the trends you can identify in the Portuguese-American community?
We’re seeing a lot of third and fourth generation Portuguese return to their heritage and a lot of the youth turning away from it. It’s hard to keep kids interested; there’s a lot of competition out there and sometimes a goat dinner is going to lose. But we see a lot of Portuguese people–some not 100% Portuguese–coming back into the fold. Most, because of nostalgia – it reminds them of Avó’s cooking or working in the yard with Dad and they’re getting a glimpse into their past.
Are there traditions which are dying out?
Within a few years, when this older generation starts to pass, I think we’ll see less and less people making their own wine, pimenta moída, chouriço and linguiça or even plant their own tomatoes. This is just America in the new age. We’re more tech savvy and do less for ourselves. I imagine, though, that this kind of thing happens in every culture.
Who are your favorite comedians?
Chris Rock, Jim Gaffigan, George Lopez, Eddie Murphy, Louie CK, the list goes on and on! We’ve always been attracted to edgy comedy and anything cultural.
In terms of controversy you have encountered, what concerns you?
The worst debate we see is when people compare their old country region to another. The “Where are you from?” question. What an awful debate to have. Mainland is better than Azores;, this island is better than that island;, this freguesia is better than that freguesia. In our opinion, we’re all Portuguese – so it really doesn’t matter – but this debate serves no purpose other than to slow us down from progressing as a culture.
What fascinates you?
We love meeting people and going to their businesses or homes. We know what it’s like to live in New England and to be Portuguese, but it’s so fascinating to us to see Portuguese culture in Idaho or Florida. In Massachusetts our parents did the frying of the fish in the basement, but in California it’s done in the garage. I remember being blown away by that because it really exemplified how alike we are, no matter where we call home.
Do you have a goal with your comedy beyond making people laugh?
We’d love to see Portuguese culture grow in America to the height of Italians or Greeks. Which is lofty for sure, but the Portuguese accomplished so much on the world level that we deserve it.
As far as having a responsibility to our communities and audiences, yes, I do think we owe our fans that. We take that kind of thing very seriously. You may see us having fun with accents on stage and putting ourselves in silly situations, but we try and stay away from anything that makes us look bad as a culture. We don’t portray drinking and driving or any kind of domestic abuse for example. We always try to make our Portuguese protagonist come up as the winner. It matters to us because it matters to our fans, and we always try to cater to our audience.
What activities would you like to see in the Portuguese community?
Portuguese curling team in the Winter Olympics!!!
What has been most rewarding?
Our fans. It’s still unbelievable. I can’t tell you how touching it is to get emails from sick people telling us we’re cheering them up. Or kids telling us they’re learning Portuguese because of our videos, or someone saying “that was my Dad on stage!” It makes me realize that, to a lot of people, we’re more than just laughs -we’re opening a window to the past – unlocking embedded memories. In any given show we’re always approached with comments like “Wow, I forgot my Vavo did the same exact thing!” To touch people like that is the most rewarding thing ever.
How many shows do you perform each year?
One million – if you count all the times we’re making ourselves laugh! We have performed almost every single weekend (Friday, Saturday and most Sundays) of every single month for the past 3 years. It’s exhausting!!! The shows are the easy part. It’s the travel that kills us. To fly out to California on a Thursday, drive 300+ miles, then fly back on a Monday to spend three precious days with our families only to go back out to California or Canada is pure torture.
But we wouldn’t have it any other way. We love what we do, and it feels like a brotherhood, shared by people who perform not to make money but because they love it. Fortunately for us, we do make money and we’ve been smart over the years and taken very calculated risks. We do more than just comedy when we’re not so busy. We also produce commercials locally and have tons of other projects in the wood work. We always keep ourselves busy, and focus 10 steps ahead. This business is fickle and we intend to be here for as long as we can and make the best of it while we’re here.
Do you hold strong views on Portuguese-American issues? Do the Portuguese Kids take a political stand?
No. That’s a slippery slope for a comedy troupe. We know we have ultra conservative fans as well as very liberal fans, and we’re not in the position to take a stance. We’re just here to make you laugh, no matter who you’ve voted for.
How has the image of Portuguese-Americans changed in the past 100 or 50 or 20 years?
I think within our communities we’ve always been regarded as a hardworking people who are dedicated to family and are fiercely independent. I don’t think that’s changed much. On a national level, we have work to do. Not so much an image problem, but just being recognized in general. I think we’ve spent so many years focusing on keeping our heads down and working hard that we’ve been absent from a lot of issues during the last generation. Don’t get me wrong. We have politicians, musicians, artists, etc. who come from Portuguese heritage, but we could do more to make ourselves known on a larger scale.
Seems like the only time we are heard is when something is being taken away from us (Lajes Base on Terceira comes to mind). We should be more proactive and less reactive.
What generation are the Portuguese Kids? Were your parents born in Portugal? Where is everyone’s family from?
We are all first generation Americans. My parents hail from Santa Maria. Jay, Brian and Al have parents from São Miguel and our technical director Danny Martins has family that calls Viseu (Mainland) home. We grew up speaking Portuguese to our parents and still do. We’re very lucky to have the gift of being bilingual, and we plan to pass it along to our kids.
Have you performed in Portugal?
We have not. We’ve never been in a rush to perform there because our comedy isn’t for them – it’s for the kids of immigrants. Eventually, we feel we’ll do it, but we’d want to visit in August when all of our North American fans are vacationing.
Do you think there is a difference between Portuguese-Americans and Portuguese-Portuguese?
Huge difference! Portuguese-Americans have lived a completely different life than their homeland counterparts. They’ve taken a huge leap of faith, dropped what they’ve known and made it across the ocean only to start with nothing and make something of themselves. In a lot of ways, they had to leave for the Azores [or Portugal or other Lusophone countries] to succeed. And they brought with them these traditions that made them feel like they were still Portuguese. Feasts, home-made wine, baking bread and massa, a lot of people stopped doing that back in Portugal and some have even commented to us that we’re portraying Portuguese people incorrectly! We have to correct them and remind them that in North America, that stuff is still done with pride at home.
What is your heritage? What area of Portugal did your family come from? Do you visit often?
My parents are from Santa Maria. Growing up in Fall River, MA, which is predominantly Sao Miguelense, I got to see two different Portuguese worlds. Different accents, foods, etc. But it only enriched me and made me love being Portuguese even more. I haven’t visited since 2009, but I’ll be back this summer with my son and fiancé. We’ll be bringing my Dad too, so we’ll have three generations on one island!
What’s in the future?
Our newest project is My Big Fat Portuguese Wedding, which is an interactive dinner comedy show, where the guests are the “family” attending the wedding. We’ve just did our first round of auditions for our New England cast, and we’ll be doing a Canadian and Californian cast as well! This show is very fun and it has a wide appeal to both Portuguese and non-Portuguese people.
What would you like to do next?
We’re all huge fans of Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern and have always wanted to put our traveling to good use. We’re always hearing or fans ask “What are Portuguese people like on the West Coast or Canada?” People are genuinely interested in these things, and we’ve met some amazing folks on our travels. This has been a bit of a pet project for us, but we’re slowly making something like a web or TV series happen, where we show our fans what Portuguese immigrants are doing across North America and beyond.
If there were to be another Mystic Pizza, a movie in the 1980’s about Portuguese-Americans, who would star in it?
Hmmm, well, I’d try my best to make the cast as Portuguese as possible. So we’d have Joaquim de Almeida, Nelly Furtado would make her acting debut and of course, Jesus himself, Diogo Morgado!
How does being Portuguese shape your life?
I speak Portuguese to my parents when I’m at home, and many of the things that they’ve taught me has been carried on from their parents. It also gave me a sense of pride unmatched by my American friends. In the World Cup, always cheer for Portugal and not America and most of my friends do too. It is a bridge that connects me to friends and family. [That bridge] also given us a job! We’re in this fortunate position where we’ve used our Portuguese heritage and created a career.
What Portuguese phrase sticks in your head?
Growing up, my father would tell me “Tu pagas nessa vida”, you pay in this life. Which was my Dad’s way of explaining karma. One of my favorites, though, would have to be “se a merda tinha valor, os pobres não tinham cu.”
What work do you do for charity?
Ninety percent of all of the shows we do raise funds for something. Either the Portuguese club we’re performing at or at a charity like Susan B. Komen. We’ve helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years. Something we don’t talk about too often, but it’s something we’re very proud of. In my opinion, the best charities are the small ones, where you immediately see the impact. We just did a fundraiser last weekend called “Sophie’s Promise” which gives iPads to kids with autism to help them find their voice and communicate. This year they gave away 15 iPads! That’s a huge accomplishment and we’re very proud to be a part of it.
(*) Millicent Borges Accardi is a contributor to the Portuguese American Journal. She is a Portuguese-American poet, the author of three books: Injuring Eternity, Woman on a Shaky Bridge (chapbook), and Only More So. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), CantoMundo, the California Arts Council, Fundação Luso-Americana (FLAD), and Barbara Deming Foundation “Money for Woman.” She also organizes the literary series Kale Soup for the Soul: Portuguese-American writers reading work about family, food and culture. Follow her on Twitter @TopangaHippie
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