The saga of Frandu
The magnetic, mysterious local comedian and performance artist takes the spotlight this week at the Bartell.
Like a lot of people in Madison, I first encountered Frandu at an open mic. He was a pint-sized feral Yoda of a man up on that stage, emphatically ranting more than telling anything resembling premise-setup-punchline structured jokes, but he was killing with these long bits that were occasionally delivered in a rapid-fire barrage of Portuguese and Spanish or verged into being outright poetic in their structure. I had been doing stand-up comedy around town for less than a year at that time, and neither I nor any of the other comics knew anything about where Frandu had come from. We couldn't readily place his accent at the time, and some folks cracked jokes, not entirely un-seriously, that maybe he had some bodies on him from wherever it was that he was actually from. During Frandu's autobiographical Frandutopia Stories show, which began Monday night and runs through Saturday at the Bartell Theatre, he may well send audiences away with as many new questions as answers.
A little over a year ago, Frandu had the honor of being briefly profiled by Jeff Glaze in the Wisconsin State Journal's weekly “Know Your Madisonian" column, which went a long way toward revealing some of Frandu's past. His real name is Francisco Rodriguez, he's 66 years old, and he is originally from Colombia's capital city of Bogota, having moved to the United States while he was in his 30s. The column also revealed that Frandu is a shameless flirt, but anyone who's been in a bar with him for more than 10 minutes knows that. He's a natural born charmer and raconteur and isn't afraid to walk up to women and strike up conversations. During our interview this past weekend at Tex Tubb's Taco Palace, near where he lives, when a waitress asked if he wanted anything else, he replied “...a mariachi band, with those big guitars?" while dramatically strumming at an oversized air-guitar, which easily pulled a good chuckle out of the waitress.
The State Journal column also revealed that Frandu has prostate cancer and at this time his life expectancy is maybe as low as another three years, but that ends up being all the more material for him to riff on. To Glaze's question of whether or not Frandu uses comedy to get through tough times, he answers, “I have nothing and I decided I'll laugh about it. I started (to) bring up my cancer. I tell them I'm dying, but not to worry because they're dying, too. They think that's funny." Frandu has put an oddly jaunty spin to his own mortality (and everyone else's, when you get right down to it). Each time it came up in our conversation this past weekend, deep long laughs were never too far from it, with the guy holding the sickle winding up the butt of it all.
There's a lot of gruffly energetic bluster to Frandu's performances, and the murkiness of his past when we first encountered him had as much to do with the over-the-top caricature of himself he presents while on stage as it did the humility he evinces offstage. I've known Frandu for a few years now, and it came as a shock to discover that he lived in New York for a good chunk of the '80s and used to perform there with a ''movement theater'' group called The Adaptors, getting shouted out by name in The New York Times (“Frandu, a short man with an expressive face and a musician's sense of rhythm, emerges triumphant"), The Washington Post (“While individuals have brilliant star turns—I am thinking particularly of Margolis' erotic duet with a salon hair dryer, of Tony Brown's nerd who evolves into a dictator, of Ed Alletto's animated robot and of Frandu's orgy with corn flakes—the Adaptors' use of the chorus is equally brilliant."), and heck, there he is in a New York Magazine spread on Brooklyn artists from 1986. The Adaptors were even invited to the London International Mime Festival in 1987.
Though it's unlikely that Frandu will fall back on any of his dance moves during his six-night run at the Bartell this week, he's clearly channeling the “let's put on a show" mentality of New York's 1980s downtown performance art scene that he spent so many pears percolating in. And yes, you read that right, Frandu signed himself up for six straight nights right off the Capitol (which would make Broom Street Theatre off-off-Capitol?). “The guy said, 'Why don't you take it for one night,' and I came back and said 'I'll take it for the week,' and he says, 'Wow, you're determined, aren't you?' And I said, 'Yup! I guess I am!' I was gonna do more! I was gonna do four shows on the weekend. Two shows on Friday and Saturday," Frandu told me. As he was saying this, he drew a complete stranger into our orbit for a moment as well, a Chicago man who'd just dropped his son off at UW, who unexpectedly shared, revealing both pride and a twinge of regret, “My son is going to be a scientist, he's starting grad school... I'm so happy about him. I said 'Don't be a roofer like me.'" I asked Frandu what it is about his personality that draws people in, and that train of thought was derailed before he could answer, ironically enough, by some acquaintance or other of his driving by waving and honking, having seen him through the window.
Frandu's been incredibly determined ever since his whole crazy trip into comedy got its start at an unlikely place: The Caribou, a cozy neighborhood dive bar down on Johnson Street. After his wife had served him with divorce papers, he had just started undergoing radiation treatment for his prostate cancer (“It was unfortunate timing..." he confided to me, as if that wasn't the biggest understatements I've ever heard), he got a call from his employers at the UW saying that they had to let him go due to a lack of funding. “I thought, 'I'm worth more dead than alive' and I wanted to kill myself," Frandu told me quite seriously. “I went out to a bar to have a beer and I'm drinking and people are watching the TV and this guy next to me said, 'Hey how are you doing man?' and I said, 'You really wanna know about it?!' [laughs] I said, my wife divorced me, and I have cancer, and now I have no job.' and I became more interesting than the freaking game they were watching! Within half an hour there were like 6 guys buying me drinks!" After telling me this, Frandu exploded into laughter.
After hanging out and drinking with the sympathetic folks at the Caribou for hours, he told them that they all helped him through a very low point in his life, and that to return the favor he wanted to have some fun and get on stage at the weekly open mic at the Comedy Club On State that he'd recently read about, and do a little bit of call and response. He would say “Boo!" and his new Caribou friends would reply “BOO HOO!" and then he was going to publicly thank them for being there for him when he needed people the most. None of them showed up when he performed. But he got gales of laughter anyway, telling stories about his father, and he was hooked from there.
There's something I had a local comic tell me when I said I wanted to give standup a try: “The worst thing that can happen to you is that you kill 'em." What that means is that walk-off home runs at for first timers at comedy open mics are rare, and you're gonna spend a long time chasing the euphoria that comes from a set as memorable as that. For Frandu it was the same, and he's been working for bigger and more heartfelt laughs ever since. He estimates that he puts in maybe 60 hours a week between working on his stories and hitting eight or nine open mics a week, which absolutely makes him one of, if not the, hardest-working local comedian I know: “Sunday I do Rigby and Tip-Top, and Mondays I do Argus and Cheba Hut or I go to The Bayou, on Tuesday I do Brocach and I do 608, on Wednesdays I do the Union, I do the Comedy Club (On State), I do Genna's and I do Ancora, then on Thursdays I do Ian's." He used to hit up Mickey's for their weekly open mic, but says he's not welcome there anymore.
Despite all that time put in working on his act, he's never gotten nearly the amount of stage-time he's wanted. “I wanted to have more than 10 minutes on the mic. I wanted to give speeches like Obama," he told me, beaming mischievously. “People would ask me to do five minutes, seven minutes, 10 minutes, and I would never finish, so I said I needed more time." I asked Frandu if he was anxious about performing a run of six shows this week, and he said, “Oh, I'm terrified." He's going to have help though, doling out opening spots each night to different local comedians who he thinks don't get enough shine from the Comedy Club, as well as local musicians he likes from the more music-oriented local open mics around town he's managed to crash. “I've been trying to do this since August, and it hasn't happened. It was supposed to happen in April, but things didn't work out. And I said whatever it takes, let's do it and then I'll find out."
The final odd and unexpected revelation he gave me towards the end of our interview is that, thanks to some talent scouts in the audience at the Memorial Union open mic, he was almost a cast member on Fox's recent and spectacularly failed reality show/social experiment/pop-cultural nadir Utopia. I'd like to think Frandu would've provided just the crazy, buoyant energy that show might've needed to stick around, but what do I know?