Kristian Mercado on balancing comedy with contemporary issues with his work

Photo Credit: Wil Suarez

Kristian Mercado is known for seamlessly transitioning from comedy content to projects addressing issues of identity, family, and systemic oppression. He has recently debuted several comedy specials in a matter of weeks, including Phoebe Robinson: Sorry, Harriet Tubman with HBO Max. The project is currently nominated for a People’s Choice Award. Additional specials include “Aida Rodriguez: Fighting Words” and Michael Che’s upcoming special with Netflix.

Check out our Q & A with Kristian!

What sparked your interest in the arts, and with directing?

Kristian: I think the arts have always been present in my life in some way. A lot of times for escapism, in particular. It was just something I was drawn to and I would always scribble and draw and when I was a kid, I would mess around with cameras and mess around with moving images and I would do some animation. Like, I would tape something on a VHS, and I would kind of cobble it together. And over time, that interest kind of evolved and I think a lot of it stems from my family, just the way my family engaged with cinema was always such a powerful thing. I was always kind of just drawn to and it was always around.

So, Phoebe Robinson, Sorry Harriet Tubman, what is this comedy special about?

Kristian: Her comedy special is, I believe, it’s her first televised hour. It’s really her one hour set where she covers a range of topics, some of it is about the pandemic, some about her boyfriend. It’s fun. It’s a really fun set. There’s a lot of cool little bits in there. Very cool.

How do you go about directing something like that?

Kristian: It’s interesting because like I think my approach to it has always been, at least for the comedy specials, has been to kind of find an avenue that kind of speaks directly to the material of the comedian. So, I try to listen to the material a lot and try to see the facts and get a sense for their personality and who they are as a comic and I try to reflect that in the approach of how I film it. I try to find out what makes that comic tick or find what the material is really about and then try to reflect that in a way that complements what you’re trying to say on camera.

Do you approach these differently than you do any of your other projects?

Kristian: Yeah, I would say so. I try to treat it like a piece of cinema. There was a time period where they would show comedy specials in theaters, like back when Richard Pryor was around, a lot of his specials are actually screened in theaters. With any piece of material that I get, regardless of the form, I always think of it as like, ‘oh, how do you engage cinematically with it?” And so, while some of my process is kind of the same, I think, because the comedy special is a specific art form, I take that into account as well when I make them. I try to understand the flow and it’s a really interesting art form because it’s the only art form that requires just  the person and a stage. It’s really just the microphone and a person, it’s all coming from that person, it’s very intimate, very singular. I think that trying to make that engaging, you know, it comes from the material but, cinematically, I try really hard to kind of get close to the comedian and understand who they are and try to build something. So, it is a little different, I think it’s really kind of like a live performance capture, so trying to understand how to create a sense of presence is a little bit of what I tried to do and what my approach is. I think that’s really kind of where my head goes. 

You address a lot of issues such as identity, family, and systemic oppression in your work. Do you think of these as going hand in hand with the comedy or do you try to tell these stories separately?

Kristian: I think all of my work, on some level, kind of deals with what things are relevant or with questions. A lot of the comedians I do work with have a tendency to ask questions or are some form of truth seekers. So, when I worked with Phoebe, I think that she’s talking a lot about her experience and it’s a very unique experience that only she can tell… I think there’s a singularity to the comic that I think is important and that I think speaks to those things that address bigger contemporary issues in our world. In my cinematic work and the work I have outside of comedy, a lot of it is kind of like dealing with either my Puerto Rican identity or the Latinx community, or just really anything that feels kind of like exploring marginalization or a feeling of outsiderness. And I think with comedy, comedians, on some level, are very much like outsiders, they’re kind of living on the fringes of something. And taking the path of “comic” in life is kind of like a fringe activity, it is something that says, ‘I’m walking off the beaten path.’And I think I could relate to that a lot just because being a director, and especially being a director from a marginalized community, it wasn’t heavily encouraged, it’s kind of like you’re going off the beaten path quite a bit. So I think there’s something about it that I find really relatable. And, yeah, I think it does tie in to some of that work on some level.

And as a director, how important is it to you to include those elements within your work?

Kristian: It kind of comes naturally. I think it’s just because it is my experience, for the most part, that I just kind of ended up doing it without even thinking about it, it just happens. For a long time I was, honestly, I was excluded from so many systems that I feel like the work I did was always kind of like working with and within marginalized communities because at some point, that wasn’t the work that people wanted to do. It wasn’t the “mainstream” work. So my body of work evolved organically because, first of all, I’m really passionate about it, but also because there was a lot of exclusion that was happening in terms of what work people have access to. But now, I guess, it’s become kind of popularized in some ways and I think my body of work reflects that. But it’s kind of been reflecting that for a long time. 

And you also have another comedy special coming out very, very soon. What can you tell us about Aida Rodriguez’s performance?

Kristian: It’s so cool. It’s kind of like a two-parter. There’s a documentary tied to the back, directed by Nadia Hallgren, and then I directed the comedy special portion of it, which is the meat, like the the front part of it. So, it’s really cool because it does investigate Aida, and I think a lot of the comedy that kind of ties into the documentaries is kind of a cool interplay that happened there, but a lot of it is about her growing up and her identity. I think, in general, for me it’s really a special project because I got to work on a piece of material it’s about being Puerto Rican and I got to do things that I’ve never done before, just based on that alone. That was a really cool experience for me, like I got to put a Puerto Rican flag in the background, and it was kind of like this wild celebratory thing to be in that and kind of experience that and even just seeing the audience and the audience that she pulls in. We shot it in the Bronx as well, so there are so many elements about it that are grounded in truth and real experience. It’s very unique and very special to me. I think it’s something I’ll never really forget and I’m very excited for it to come out.

Photo Credit: Sydney Claire
We also hear that you have a Netflix special coming out that’s kind of super secret, are you allowed to say anything about it yet?

Kristian: If it’s super secret, I can’t talk much about it (laughs) but I think it kind of continues in the trajectory of asking questions and working to build a cinematic language for comedy that exists outside of what’s been done before. Without spoiling too much, I think there’s an element of old school-ness to it that’s contemporary at the same time, but it’s definitely a kind of harkening to the techniques and the styles of what old school comedy felt like. I think there’s something really special about it.

So, in addition to the comedy specials and the super secret Netflix special, what else are you working on?

Kristian: I’m working on an animated feature film that is kind of still developing called Nuevo Rico which is based on a futuristic Puerto Rico, basically like a cyberpunk Puerto Rico. It kind of had a really strong festival run this year. So, that’s been taking a lot of my time and then I’m on a couple of other things that I can’t really talk about yet. But I’m pretty excited right now about all of it. 

Is there anything else that you’d like to add about Phoebe Robinson’s or Aida Rodriguez’s comedy specials?

Kristian: Yeah, go watch them on HBO Max. Please go watch them. Have a good laugh, tell your friends to watch it and enjoy yourselves.

Phoebe Robinson: Sorry, Harriet Tubman and Aida Rodriguez: Fighting Words are now streaming on HBO Max