Elsa Maxwell, a mid-20th century gossip columnist and “professional hostess” once opined, “Laugh at yourself first, before anyone else can.” The Portuguese Kids, a Fall-River based improv group that’s rapidly seen its reach stretch to the West Coast and throughout Canada, has turned laughing at themselves into an art form.
With skits and spoof songs (“Portuguese and I know it,” “Luso Style” ) sketch comedy pieces about Portuguese 911 calls and voicemails, and their own take on cultural touchstones like the housewives franchise (“Real Housewives of Ponta Delgado”), the Kids have audiences across North America, Portuguese or not, in stitches.
Recently returned from a tour of four California venues in four days, the “Kids” were regrouping in their office, a large loft space in one of Fall River’s ubiquitous mill buildings, when East Bay Life caught up with them.
Kids they are not, technically. Though all in their thirties, Derrick DeMelo, Brian Martins, Al Sardinha, and Jason Casimiro have known each other all their lives, or nearly so. Their parents all emigrated to Fall River from the Azores, and they grew up together. So, although their group has been performing in earnest since 2004, the seeds of their ever-expanding act were planted more than two decades ago.
They attended different high schools, took some college classes, and took on various odd jobs and fledgling careers, but they continued performing at local events and on public access television, until a few years ago when they approached Improv Asylum in Boston for a series of training sessions.
They also brought a business plan to the improv incubator. “They saw that we wanted to know how to run a business, that we respected what they did,” said DeMelo. “What we were were doing,” added Sardinha, “was showing them we were serious about performing for a living.” That approach worked, and Improv Asylum loaned them enough seed money to get the Portuguese Kids off the ground as a legitimate business. “We had other jobs,” said DeMelo. “But we never really had a ‘plan B.”
Despite the Portuguese inside jokes, accents, and (depending on their audience) off-color language, their comedy is universal. Their target demographic is the children of immigrants, and they have found there is carryover whether they are Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, Greek, Jewish, or Korean. “Our comedy speaks to the cultural story of the immigrant trying to assimilate,” said Sardinha. “We appreciate the sacrifices that our parents made, bringing us here, and all they did. But there is something awkward about being the first generation in a new country,” De Melo says. “Not like the Italians and Irish who have been here for a while, and assimilated. “Growing up a first generation Portuguese kid, we never thought our culture was hip.”
Using humor, and having fun doing it, the Portuguese Kids are changing perceptions—but don’t interpret that to mean that any of them would want to see their culture so assimilated that they lose their sense of self (not to mention their gold mine of comedic material.)
DeMelo, who recently appeared on an episode of Andrew Zimmern’s “Bizarre Foods,” shopping with Zimmern before taking him home to meet (and be fed by) his mother, is clear that he does not want to see a franchise do for Portuguese food what another well-known franchise has done for Italian food. “If our generation, and our kids, think it’s cool to be Portuguese, and they want to speak the language, we’ll hold on to our traditions and cultures.”
On stage, every show is different, and the group takes care to manage their lineup and keep it fresh, and generate new material. As much time as they spend touring, they estimate seventy percent of their man hours are behind the scenes, booking and merchandising, managing social media and building their brand. It’s a hectic schedule, “and a lot of hard work, long hours, and not getting paid,” Martins pointed out. But, as of this spring, the hard work has mostly paid off, in that all four have left their day jobs to focus on their comedy full time. “It was a very scary leap,” Martin admits. “With a pay cut.” Casimiro adds.
It’s a delicate balancing act, given that all but Sardinha are in committed relationships and/or fathers of young children. “Al’s the only one living the rock star lifestyle,” DeMelo says. “We don’t have a lot of groupies—though Brian did get his shirt ripped off at this wedding show we did in Westport.”
Despite the long hours, the Portuguese Kids are laughing their way across the continent, making it cool, and fun, to have grown up Portuguese—and bringing their audiences along for the ride. Catch up with them live, on Facebook, on YouTube or on their site at www.portuguesecomedy.com. And they are currently editing a soon-to-be-released DVD of a recent live performance. It was shot by their good friend, Rick Rebello. “Rick was so impressed with our camera, he ran out and got himself a nicer one, Sardinha said. “It’s a Portuguese thing.”