"Ghetto Klown" airs Saturday at 10 p.m. on HBO. Credit: HBO / Craig Blankehorn
Those who couldn’t catch John Leguizamo’s one-man career retrospective, “Ghetto Klown,” when it was on Broadway and on tour now have another chance to see the rowdy, emotional performance: It’s coming to HBO Saturday night.
After four stand-up specials for HBO, Leguizamo is comfortable baring all on stage (emotionally, that is). “You do develop a callus,” he says. But Leguizamo wouldn’t be able to be so vulnerable if he weren’t in tune with himself — a practice that he credits his therapist in helping him with.
“You can’t have a show like this and not go to therapy,” says the actor/comedian, who is very open about the fact that he sees a therapist. “You have to be very self-aware and want to be self-aware to be able to write a show about yourself, and a good show.”
Leguizamo says that there was no way he could present an honest account of his life without touching upon negative experiences (“The audience knows when you’re fast-forwarding,” he says). He believes that turning his tough times — like a shaky relationship with his dad and a divorce — into art help him reframe the narrative and move on from them.
“A lot of artists use art to take control of it,” he says. “You recreate it lots of times until you can let it go. … I’m taking all my traumatic moments, making them funnier than they actually were, but reworking them and having control over them this time, as opposed to them controlling me. When you’re making the art you’re the god, and then you can see all the sides of it and it gives you distance. Then it’s not so toxic.”
The show took eight years to develop, and Leguizamo worked to ensure it ran “like a clock.”
“I’m one person and I’m doing a lot of emotional things,” he says. “I have to have certain things be right on time and right on schedule so that I can just be a springboard and fly, not thinking about anything.” Being a method actor helps, he adds, because “it teaches you how to be crazy in front of a lot of people.”
Leguizamo says “Ghetto Klown” is his “magnum opus” and that it’s his last autobiographical performance. Up next, he’ll be doing a political or historical performance of vignettes, in a tribute to his hero, Jonathan Winters.
“This is my masterpiece. This is it. I’m not spending eight years on anything anymore — I can’t do that. That was an incredible marathon, and it was worth the run, but now I need to do something totally different.”
Leguizamo’s wife Justine has seen “Ghetto Klown,” but his two teenagers haven’t — and won’t until they’ve graduated college, he says.
“They know it’s inappropriate and they’re not allowed,” he says. “It’s a lot of personal things that I’m not ready to share with them.” By the time they’re 21 though, “they’ll have life experience,” he says. “They’ll understand a little bit.”
Wild and crazy
Sometimes Leguizamo’s theater audience took the show’s party atmosphere to the next level.
“I love the reactions from the audience and I think that’s part of what feeds the show, but yeah, in the end it’s still a theater piece,” he says. "You know, Broadway for some reason, the owners felt like my show could tolerate people bringing the drinks to their chairs, in super-size cups, so there was a lot of inappropriate behavior going on in my theater.” And we’re talking more than phones going off. “I almost crashed head to head with this guy because he ran onstage as I was going offstage,” he says.