When the satiric performance troupe Culture Clash got its own TV show two decades ago, the first episode had an auspicious debut in the Los Angeles market. It beat “Jeopardy!” in its time slot.
Boston was one of several cities to broadcast the Latino sketch comedy show, which ran for a respectable 30 episodes on Fox. But “Culture Clash,” the television show, eventually became the answer to a trivia question. Never quite reaching a nationwide audience, the core performers — Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas, and Herbert Siguenza — soon went back to their proving ground, the theater.
More than 30 years after its flukey origin for a Cinco de Mayo event in San Francisco’s Mission District, Culture Clash returns to Boston for the first time in a decade with a new show, “Muse & Morros,” an ArtsEmerson presentation set for a three-week run at the Jackie Liebergott Black Box at the Paramount Center.
The TV show “was kind of our ‘Mambo Kings’ moment,” recalls Montoya, son of the late Latino poet and activist Jose Montoya, speaking on the phone from his home in LA. “Thirty episodes, by any measure, is a decent little run.” The show featured the group’s trademark sendups of Latino culture, and mainstream America’s response to it.
One memorable weekly segment featured a well-known Spanish-speaking guest, such as Dolores Huerta or Edward James Olmos, delivering a “word of the day”: indelicate slang terms such as “pendejo” and “nalgas.”
In the early days of Culture Clash in San Francisco — there were six of them then, including two from the LGBT community — Bay Area activists were unsure what to make of the troupe and its raw, anarchic comedy style.
“The reaction was so interesting,” Montoya remembers. “We were coming towards the end of our Latino civil rights movement, and people weren’t laughing very much. There were civil wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua, and those were big communities in the Bay Area. And here come these clowns doing [parodies of] Che Guevara and Julio Iglesias.”
But the creative landscape was fertile. “Between punk, the performance art scene, and the proliferation of comedy clubs in every suburban nook and cranny, it was quite explosive,” Montoya says.
Within a few years, the Culture Clash players “wizened up,” as Montoya puts it, when they began to write plays.
“We started to slow it down and create more realistic portraits. We understood we were onto something that could mix satire and political humor. We could talk about AIDS or Catholicism.”
If they hadn’t evolved from their roots in broad standup comedy, he says, “I don’t think we’d be looking at our 30th anniversary.
“Maybe we would have made it to the next Cinco de Mayo,” he adds with a laugh.
Montoya says he and his longtime partners have been invigorated in recent years by the high-profile debates over immigration reform and guarding the border. He was at first taken aback, then amused when a teacher’s use of a Culture Clash anthology was challenged in the Arizona public schools system.
“That pulls you into the issue in three seconds,” he jokes. The anti-immigration fervor led him to wonder whether a middle-class man working in the arts could find himself “battling any law enforcement or Border Patrol person who wants to stop you,” or having to prove his 4-year-old son’s US citizenship before receiving medical attention for him, because of his brown skin.
One of Culture Clash’s great strengths is the group’s ability to relate the struggles of all of the country’s underprivileged groups, not just their fellow Latinos. The new show is a sketch montage of comic stories drawn from everyday “Americans in the margins.” (The title, “Muse & Morros,” refers to fourth member Claudia Gomez’s role as the muse; according to Montoya, “morros” can mean “little rascals” — “those that are a nuisance.”)
“Race relations are not a new subject in Boston,” Montoya says. “I find that to be helpful. It’s been a battleground, so maybe people are more equipped to have this conversation.”
On their last theatrical run in the city, in 2005, the troupe gathered stories from real-life locals, including an incorruptible North End cop from the height of the mob wars and some of the first gay men and women to try to march in the St. Patrick’s Day parade.
“It was a carefully curated show of monologues and characters,” says Montoya. “These were terribly interesting stories, man.
“That’s our shtick, in a sense. We reach out and play to an audience that’s maybe NPR-informed, or maybe they like Jon Stewart or Bill Maher. There’s a bit of that reportage in our work.”
At the heart of Culture Clash, he says, is the group’s ongoing effort to challenge the definition of American theater. Where Japan has Kabuki and England has Shakespeare, America remains young enough as a nation that “it’s kind of still up for grabs.”
He mentions “Hamilton,” the new hip-hop retelling of the founding-father story that has become the hottest ticket in New York.
“There’s room for us to wiggle in and say we’re part of the national identity, too,” he says.