Filmmaker Kristian Mercado is one of comedy’s greatest go-to directors and has helmed specials for the likes of Aida Rodriguez, Phoebe Robinson, London Hughes, Sam Jay, Ilana Glazer and Hannibal Buress. On Nov. 16, Netflix releases his newest project, Michael Che’s Shame the Devil. To reflect on the premiere, Mercado sat down with LA Confidential to discuss Che’s new special, what defines good comedy and his future as a filmmaker.
How was film part of your life growing up?
When I was growing up, I would go back and forth from Spanish Harlem to Puerto Rico. And my uncle was kind of the king of bootleg in Puerto Rico. He would curate cool genre movie nights, so he would do like a vampire night, a robot night. And it was like a really cool thing that my whole family was just gathered to watch movies around an old VCR TV. It was almost like magic. And one of the things that we did almost religiously as a family was we’d go to theaters like every weekend. It was a huge family event and our family had a real deep passion for cinema. I think that that love translated into me. They cared about it so much that I kind of started to fixate it myself. And then when I was in Spanish Harlem, it kind of kept me out of trouble, I think, because I grew up in a different era of Spanish Harlem where it was kind of violent and wild. Sticking to libraries and watching movies and going to Blockbuster was kind of a way to some of that, I think, or just find some sort of refuge. It was a way to almost find peace in it. I always think film saved me.
How did you get into filmmaking as a career path, and how did that lead to directing so many comedy specials?
I think I stumbled into it a bit. I was always making things and so I ended up working in media a lot. I started directing commercials and then that led to music videos and then that led to me taking on more personal work. And around that time, it all kind of coalesced. I was getting good at all these disciplines at the same time and I started connecting and started resonating with people… I think it caught the eye of Hannibal Buress, and then he wanted me to direct his special. That was the first time I directed a comedy special, but that hit so hard that it resonated with a lot of comedians and everyone just took notice at that point, that there was like some type of new vocabulary that I had formed in the comedy space. Then I think from there, it kind of became like this evolution, naturally, of exploring what I could do within the confines of a comedy special and in comedy in general to just always try to figure out how to make people laugh.
[My approach is] based on the voice of the comics. What is that material about? What are they talking about? What is their voice? I try to be true to that and connect to that in a very authentic, powerful way. I feel like if I shoot it right, people can kind of see and feel it. I think it's all about authenticity. And I think the thing that connects a lot of my work is that. Authenticity is what I strive for in all of it. In comedy, oftentimes, I think that's a difficult thing to find. In terms of cinematography and visuals, what is the authentic language that speaks the same?
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What makes good comedy?
I think good comedy, first of all, it probably just makes you laugh, right? There's a special kind of mix of things that make people laugh. Comedy is really subjective at the end of the day. But I think that when we collide things that juxtapose each other and make you think about the absurdity of life that can make you laugh. I think really, really good comedy when I think of Richard Pryor where it can make you a little uncomfortable because they're poking at a truth. You laugh, but I think good comedy doesn't shape a laugh. It thinks about what it’s trying to say about something.
Tell us about Michael Che’s new special! What can viewers look forward to from Shame the Devil?
It does have a little bit of the essence of a one-man show, like a theatrical element to it. It was more like a bare bones, classic sort of look because I was kind of trying to pay homage to the idea of comedy from an old school perspective—the classic burgundy curtain and just really sitting with him. He’s telling us this story and guiding us through the story and as he dives deeper, our lighting matches that. It's real subtle, but it's such a beautiful special. His material is really powerful and he dives into so many important topics.
I think he's just good at making us question certain experiences and certain parts of society and making us laugh when we realize that there's either an absurdity or truth to it all.
You recently were awarded the Jerome Foundation Grant for your short film Mataron a Pedro. What stage are you at with the project?
We have a script, but I'm gonna keep working on the script for that. The Jerome Foundation Grants to me means a lot and just being able to tell that story that really doesn't get told. There's no cinematic language to that story yet, which is the story of Pedro Albizu Campos. It's been a life goal of mine to bring that to life...It's a really important story about Puerto Rican history. Oftentimes those stories get erased, so I'll be able to highlight and show something that hasn't been seen before.
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Is your aim to pivot away from comedy to just focus on features?
Comedy will always be part of my life in some way. I like that laughter heals. I like the relationship between drama and comedy. I love that the best dramas can sometimes make you laugh and that comedies have some drama in it. And I think that that's an important mix. I really fine tuned a lot of what my timings are based on comedians because I think comics are really masterful at timing and understanding audiences. because I've been around it so much, it's helped my filmmaking get better at understanding the relationship between audience and whatever they're engaged with. So it’s definitely something I think I will keep part of my life, but I’m definitely gonna be focused more on features and probably, at some point, even more dramas. I do like the idea of dabbling and mixing within all of it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Photography by: Storm Santos