Rewatching Radio Rochela with Cringe

Exploring the legacy of this classic Venezuelan TV comedy show in the 21st century can be a complicated endeavor


Photo: Sofía Jaimes Barreto

When I was very young, before RCTV was shut down in 2007, Monday nights meant one thing: Radio Rochela night. It was one of the few nights of the week in which I stayed awake past my bedtime and watched the show with my family. To be fair, I didn’t get a fair amount of the jokes because I was 6 years old, but I liked seeing my parents laugh and I liked laughing with them. So, after many years, Radio Rochela still holds a special place in my memory and I’m not alone in this. Radio Rochela is a soft spot for thousands of Venezuelan families. 

For those unfamiliar with it, Radio Rochela was a sketch comedy show that aired on RCTV. Think of it like the Venezuelan equivalent of Saturday Night Live or Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The show satirized and parodied aspects of Venezuelan life, often with celebrity guests and political figures participating in the antics of the show. For over 50 years, Venezuelans would gather and watch parodies of politics, youth culture, or the Miss Venezuela pageant. The show ran from 1959 and, almost uninterruptedly, until RCTV was forced off the air in 2007. After the station closed and moved to cable and satellite, the show continued with a short-lived version in this format. 

Radio Rochela is an important landmark of Venezuelan entertainment and television. Many of the cast members are key figures in the world of Venezuelan entertainment. Comedians like Cayito Aponte, Eliza Parejo, Juan Ernesto López, Emilio Lovera, among many others took part in the shenanigans of the show. However, it wasn’t only a space for jokes. The show was also a platform for social and political commentary about current affairs and it was very fun to watch. Therefore, you would understand my excitement when, in the middle of lockdown last year, the cast reunited for a special online version of the show called Radio Cuarentena (Radio Quarantine). Members of the cast would reprise some classic sketches and bring back old characters, introduce new ones and show how they were dealing with COVID-19. 

Yet, the show wasn’t like I remembered. The jokes felt dated and problematic. After the livestream ended, I rewatched a lot of the classic sketches and stumbled upon the realization that this wasn’t a one-time thing. A lot of the humor in Radio Rochela didn’t age well. A lot of the jokes wouldn’t work well today because they relied on stereotypes, discrimination, and abuse. So, I think that it’s time to revisit this classic, beloved show and analyze what we were laughing at and if we seriously want to continue laughing at it because I think some of these jokes aren’t compatible with the world of today. 

For instance, let’s consider the sketches of Rafucho and Lilita and Hermano Cocó. Rafucho and Lilita revolved around the two titular Zulian characters. In each sketch, Lilita lies her way into different jobs such as actress, governess or model to try to escape her economic situation in Zulia. Rafucho, a crass Zulian man would find her and always recognize her ruse. As the situation would devolve into a fierce argument, Rafucho revealed her identity, which ended up getting her fired. While the argument has a lot of concerning elements, the ending of each of the sketches caught my attention, Rafucho explained in detail how he wanted to slap Lilita. In Hermano Cocó, the fundamental joke was how a religious leader harasses and mistreats multiple members of his congregation. The most concerning element was the relationship between him and Coconaza, one of the few female members of his organization. Cocó would sexually harass Coconaza in almost every sketch of these characters and it was seen as something comedic.

Both of these sketches are examples of the portrayal of gender violence against women and revisiting them in the contemporary world, it doesn’t seem very appropriate to laugh at them. At the core of these jokes in one case, a woman is being verbally assaulted by a man who is going to caricaturesque lengths to describe how he’s going to slap her and in the other case, another woman is being sexually harassed by a man in a position of power. I find it difficult to laugh at this now, especially when recent reports show that violence against women in Venezuela is on the rise and the country has been reckoning with its very own #MeToo conversation.

Laughing about these things makes the reality of a lot of women who experience the fear and pain related to these experiences as normal, or in some cases acceptable, and it’s really not.

The show also includes a striking amount of homophobia. Sketches like Charly Mata and Cinco minutos de parcha (which roughly translates to “being gay for five minutes”) misconstrued the image of members of the LGBTQ community and made fun of their identity just for laughs. Charly Mata, for example, featured a character that dressed flamboyantly, spoke with a lisp and acted in an effeminate manner, which are all stereotypes of the behavior of gay men. He spent the sketch answering innuendo-ridden questions from the audience so that he could “decide” whether they were gay enough. In a similar vein, Cinco minutos de parcha featured a group of people in which a male character would panic because he felt that he was about to have an episode of what he called his “five minutes of being gay,” a play on a mental condition that would “interrupt him at the least convenient time.” The character then proceeded to display “stereotypically gay” behavior, especially regarding fashion and physical appearance, and severely disrupt whatever situation they were in. 

These sketches perpetuate stereotypes about people in the LGBTQ community and also extend and solidify the erroneous idea that LGBTQ identities are a deviation from normal or a disease, which has been used as a premise to discriminate against them. As a society, we have become more inclusive of this community. However, in Venezuela, there’s a lot of work to be done. LGBTQ people face systemic oppression, violence and discrimination. Therefore, I find it difficult to continue laughing at these jokes because when they treat LGBTQ people as a caricature, they keep us from becoming more inclusive and perpetuate the suffering of LGBTQ Venezuelans. 

Another aspect that I found quite concerning was the usage of the xenophobic portrayal of people from different countries. This was prevalent in many sketches, but especially so in the sketches Los colombianos and El portu. The first of these featured a group of time-traveling Colombians who would encounter a historical figure and learn some insight about their importance and how it related to the contemporary political scene. At face value, the premise sounds like a really fun vehicle to explore history and its relationship to politics. However, the portrayal of Colombians, who were a significant immigrant community during that time, was marked by caricaturesque accents and depictions of the characters as almost exclusively dumb. Similarly, El portu would show the stories of Portuguese characters that ran a small store. This portrayal was also marked with mocking stereotypes both from the way they spoke, they looked, and the depiction that they were greedy businesspeople.

The problem in this joke isn’t depicting Colombians or Portuguese people living in Venezuela, the problem is having this punchline, the fact that they are Portuguese or Colombian living in Venezuela.

The heart of the joke is their otherness and how it deviates from what we perceive is a normal Venezuelan, implicitly saying that they were irreconcilable with our national identity.

These jokes normalize the premise that it’s okay to make fun of people because of their ethnic and cultural background. I don’t think that is something that we want to normalize and with forces such as migration and the interaction of our diaspora with the cultures of many countries, Venezuelan identities have become more complex and intercultural communication a part of our norm. So, it’s hard to laugh at jokes that can’t envision a notion of Venezuelan identity that deeply embraces diversity. 

I’m not trying to say that we should stop loving Radio Rochela and cancel it. Despite having deeply problematic elements, we can’t underscore the importance of Radio Rochela in the history of Venezuelan entertainment. The show was an important chapter of our history and in the history of many of the country’s classic comedians and served as a platform for insightful social commentary about the experiences of many Venezuelans. For example, in a show from 1983, presidential candidate Rafael Caldera was confronted in a sketch that parodied a social organization in a slum and about the fact that presidents seem to pay less attention to the slums once they are elected. Radio Rochela was a key chapter in the history of Venezuelan entertainment and we can’t just simply erase it.

However, we have to acknowledge that things that used to be considered funny aren’t funny anymore. Our society has become more inclusive and we have to be aware that misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia shouldn’t be subjects to laugh about. When we make fun of that, we ignore and perpetuate forces that hurt real people and make it easy to exclude others because of who they are. Radio Rochela wasn’t the only one doing these harmful portrayals, they were everywhere and they used to be funny then. However, contemporary society has moved in a more inclusive direction, and I think our humor should move in that direction too. So, while we can still be proud of the great things that Radio Rochela accomplished, we also have to look at it critically and embrace the complexity of human identity to avoid humor that does more harm than good.