Is stand-up comedy a worn-out, trite, monotonous genre, impervious to change and fresh perspectives? Zasback proves that it isn’t and that there are still many paths to take and formulas to try out. On May 24, Movistar+ premiered the first of five episodes in its original production in association with El Terrat (The Mediapro Studio) and La Caña Brothers. Hugo Silva, the star of episode one, Anna Castillo, Andreu Buenafuente, María León and Pablo Chiapella are the five protagonists of this new show that, happily and tragically, combines monologues and drama. We talked about all this with David Lillo, creative director of El Terrat and co-creator of Zasback, and Daniel Rodrigo, Head of Programming at La Caña Brothers and co-creator of this unusual, daring and committed television format. Committed to laughter and drama conveniently exorcised and transformed into liberating comedy.

You both say that Zasback goes beyond your standard stand-up comedy show. Why?

Daniel Rodrigo (D.R.): You know when you’re watching a comedy monologue and your head starts generating all these images at breakneck speed? Well, we’ll do that work for you. We’ll  stand up there on the stage to tell you the story, but we’ll also let you see it with drama. This is where the novelty of the format lies. Real stories, told in a monologue and drama by our protagonist. It’s their story and they narrate it and relive it for you.

So, what’s the difference from the monologue programs we already know?

David Lillo (D.L.): We’ve done a lot of stand-up shows, everything from the classic 15-minute stand up, comedy club appearances, to current late show monologues, savage monologues for roasts… We’ve explored so many avenues, and this one is different because it’s very true. It’s authentic. Truth is always present in comedy, but the norm is to slap some make-up on it, so it’s not directly exposed. Most ‘autobiographical’ monologues are not. These are. We have worked for weeks with each of our guest characters to express their experiences and feelings associated with them in the purest conceivable way. And, on the other hand, it’s different because in this show, we complement the monologue by recreating the anecdote explained by the guests. A recreation they star in either playing themselves or their parents.

D.R.: We like to say that Zasback isn’t just stand-up comedy: it’s also stand-up tragedy. The monologue is the basis from where we structure the anecdote and from where we enter and leave the drama so that we can see with our own eyes what our guests are narrating on stage.

Do you think the time had come to take that qualitative leap, to reinvent the genre to prevent it from becoming stagnant, dusty and all covered with cobwebs?

D.L.: The genre is alive and in constant reinvention. Zasback is one more color in a very varied palette. Every comedian strives to contribute something new. What Bo Burnham did during the lockdown was wonderful. And it’s also being wholeheartedly reinvented from the Catalan school with Tomás Fuentes, Charlie Pee, Adri Romeo and Raquel Hervás. In Madrid we have the unclassifiable Ignatius, Iggy Rubín, Litos and Eva Soriano. New comedians are really playful, and they are continuously creating new things. TV has a harder time innovating and reinventing itself, and that’s why it’s one step behind. But, increasingly, TV directors are affording greater space to those who truly know about the subject.

D.R.: Personally, I believe stand-up is in its heyday, healthier than ever right now. People like Kevin Hart, Dave Chappelle and Ricky Gervais are enjoying enormous success all over the world. This format of ours is another ratchet up.

Tragedy becomes comedy: a truly attractive jumping off place.

D.L.: It’s not new, because we were introduced to the formula by Woody Allen in Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), where one of the characters sounds it out. Increasingly, the time that separates tragedy from comedy is becoming shorter. September 11 changed that. In this case, we apply the formula to our guests life stories, who aren’t laughing at historical events you’re not supposed to be able to laugh at. They’re laughing at embarrassing events from their own lives, things that once scared them, worried them, and even made them feel like they were going to die.

D.R: Absolutely! Lillo likes to say, “any past time was pathetic.” And the truth is that photo albums prove him right. Well, that’s Zasback: an photo album of life’s most embarrassing anecdotes.

By the way, the title? Zasback?

D.L.: We had another one that we loved but Movistar+ weren’t all that convinced and they suggested Zasback, which is brilliant, thanks to Martikorena and all his team. It’s a play on the word flashback, which, in audiovisual terms, refers to interspersing fragments of the past in a narrative in the present. And that’s what the program does: the guests explain in this present anecdotes from their past that we are seeing. In this case, instead of a flash, the guests get a ‘zas’, a healthy clip around the ears from the past. We tend to idealize it, and that’s fine, but, if you think about it a bit more, our pasts are full of embarrassing moments for us and stuff that makes you cringe from other people.

D.R.: Zasca + flashback = zasback.  Well, that, that clip around the ears life delivered and that you narrate now and all you can do is laugh about it. We all have one or two of these in life. I always love asking people about their cringeworthy moments, their zasback, and I assure you that everyone has one worthy of a program. The other day, without going any further, a friend told me that, at a party in the housing estate where he was spending his holidays when he was 15, and in the presence of a girl he was trying to chat up, a scorpion that had secretly climbed inside his swimming trunks, bit him there, and the lifeguard was treating him for the bite, right there in front of all the neighbors. He’ll never forget the face of the girl, against the backlight as she observed the affected area, a horrified look on her face. Textbook zasback.

The stars of Zasback are Hugo Silva, Anna Castillo, Pablo Chiapella, María León and Andreu Buenafuente.

D.L.: Those are five brave people. It’s not easy to playing the first season of Zasback, and they agreed out of friendship and trust. Now that we have one season behind us to showcase, and others have heard it on the grapevine, we get requests to make Zasback from people we would never have dreamed of, people up for getting involved in something new, folk who are already stars, it’s the stuff of visionaries. Andreu, Anna, Maria, Hugo and Pablo have been very generous. They have opened up the channel and have trusted that Zasback was a kind of Disney ride created just for them. And it’s been wonderful. We are very grateful to the guests. Playing your father, for example, is a tough journey. In Andreu’s case, he lost his dad at an early age. Or, confessing that you feared for your life while acting the asshole. Or that you tricked the public health authorities. These people are the pioneers of something that we would love to see becoming a genre that transcends the program. Like roasting, which started in a New York club, went on TV, and now, 70 years later, it’s a genre in itself that’s celebrated in small clubs around the world.

D.R.: We’ve put a lot of thought into this. It’s been an arduous process, above all, because of the novelty of the format: you have to explain it really well so that guests understand, get involved, and feel like narrating something they’ve never told anyone before and relive it for us.

Daniel Rodrigo. ‘Zasback’

From Berlanga to Martínez-Lázaro, from José Luis López Vázquez to Carmen Machi, Spain has been and is the cradle of great and inspired comedy creators and actors. We’re a gold mine!

D.L.: Yes. And Azcona, Cuerda, Jardiel Poncela and Mary Santpere. And Los Chanantes, joke tellers, Cimas, who’s a category of comedy in itself, Las Chicle, the Broncano universe or Andreu Buenafuente as godfather of several generations. And series like the ones Berto makes, Nasdrovia, and Bob Pop‘s work. There has been and is a truly impressive sense of humor here in Spain and given that Spain is such a culturally rich country, there are so many nuances in the humor. We Catalans watched a lot of English comedy in the 80s-90s, because our regional TV broadcast so many jewels from the BBC. On the plains, they shelved their hang-ups and let their surrealism run riot. In the south, they turned being funny into an art-form. And new generations are building on all that, in admiration of their predecessors: Gila, Rubianes… Comedy in Spain is so elaborate. I only wish our comedy would travel better. It’s a pity we haven’t yet made the major leap to Latin America or the United States , where we share a language. That’s starting to happen now, and I think it’s going to mark the coming years.

D.R.: Without a doubt, all those names you’ve mentioned and many others, would make one hell of an anthological Zasback. All the classics who perfected the art of laughing at themselves. And that’s what our guests do here. It’s the comedy that comes from drama, all very Berlanguian.

David Lillo. ‘Zasback’.

We’ve seen Anna Castillo and Hugo Silva, almost always, doing dramas, crying more than laughing. In Zasback will they reveal themselves as excellent and gifted comedians?

D.L.: Both of them do. It’s impressive. When we saw Anna Castillo doing the monologue, we couldn’t believe our eyes. Her directors, Dani Amor and Oriol Pérez, who are lifelong friends of hers, had worked on the monologue with her, and beyond a “it’s going fine”, they hadn’t said much else about it. And when Anna arrived and was on form, she had a ball, laughing at herself, improvising, being bad… it was mind-blowing to watch. She’s amazing! We had huge respect for Hugo, because he’s a really serious actor and we didn’t know to what extent he would accept laughing at himself. We talked to him a lot to write the scripts for the drama and the monologue, but, the weeks before the recording, he was filming outside Spain. When we sent him the script, he sent us an audio, all very serious and professional: “Perfect, don’t worry, I can handle it.” And it was also mind-blowing. Anna and Hugo reveal themselves as the excellent and gifted comedians they are, and even better: as people with a profound sense of humor.

D.R.: Hugo Silva’s comic side is unbelievable. Apart from being a stellar actor, he’s hilarious up close. And that’s another of the incentives of Zasback. As it’s a true story and the actors themselves play the part, you can get to know the person behind the actor. Hugo is (was, rather) exactly as he appears in the drama in his episode. The three stars of Hugo’s episode thanked us for being able to relive their mythical trip to Brazil, and they were genuinely moved by the end of the shoot. Anna Castillo is savage! If she wanted to, she could win Emmys with the monologues. Anna is cool because she makes you laugh laughing, and that’s a gift. Again, it was wonderful how generous everyone involved has been and they went all out to tell us about their misfortunes.

After the monologues, there’s a second part. Without spoilers, what is this dessert, this climax, this twist?

D.L.: It’s complementing what they narrate in the monologue with drama. Comedy Club stories dance together with drama in natural settings. We were obsessed about not being redundant. To avoid repeating in the drama what had just been said in the monologue. And we’re well satisfied with the results.

Do you think any of the five participants will regret having done Zasback, for the fact that they’ve revealed something very, very secret?

D.L.: No. Zasback was very clear, from the beginning, that they were holding the reins. We merely provided a crew of professionals with experience at the service of their stories, but they directed us. They were the ones who gave the scripts the green light and chose the directors for their episodes and cast the cameos. Zasback is a tailored suit that was cooked up slowly. It’s not a “wham bam thank you ma’am”. That’s why I don’t think anyone will regret it. Quite the opposite in fact, as confessing your sins should make you proud. Our guests present a very authentic and tender image. Redemption is always an epiphany.

D.R.: I hope so, (laughing)! But I also hope they have a fun time in the process and that they feel that the piece is theirs, that it is a gift to them. If you look at it from a positive angle, telling an embarrassing secret is always a relief, so telling it for everyone should alleviate much more, (laughs). In that sense, Zasback could even be described as therapeutic.

Anna Castillo. ‘Zasback’.

So, in fact, others have taken it as a therapy, as an exorcism, as a way of ridding themselves  of something stagnant in their soul?

D.L.: Zasback is therapy they’ve encountered without being entirely aware they were looking for it. First they think about the event they want to tell us about and that’s where the initial profound self-analyses begins. Do I really want to tell people about this? How do I want to tell it? Why do I want to tell it? Then, when we write, we dig even deeper and that awakens distant feelings. But, when we’re on set and they see themselves in character, in the locations where the stories actually happened in the past and performing, that’s absolutely therapeutic. The episode with María León is about guilt, and she was clear about it from the beginning, because she feels very sorry about what she did, and it’s been a thorn in her side for more than 10 years. Andreu Buenafuente and Pablo Chiapella interpret their own parents! It’s impossible not to stir things up playing your parents. Andreu kept repeating: “I’m my father.” He sent a picture to his sister with him in character, and she was moved by the resemblance.

In Hugo’s case, he tells us a story in which he thought he was going to die in his early twenties. He was adamant that a portion of the monologue should be really serious because that’s how it felt at the time. Another story narrates what the guest thought was an attempted kidnapping… and that happened the same day she ended up meeting the love of her life. Pablo brings out his inner child to face his father… played by himself! Everything that comes out in Zasback must have stirred a lot of stuff up for them, yes.

The directors of each episode also have their personality and prestige, isn’t that right? And they bring their unique touch to the story they direct.

D.L.: Yes: Alfonso Cortés-Cavanillas, Dani Amor and Oriol Pérez, Andreu, Israel del Santo and Raúl Cimas are the directors, with Alejandro Rodríguez Morales from La Caña Brothers, and the creative team of El Terrat collaborating on every episode. From the beginning, we thought that each episode should be unique and very intimate. Both El Terrat and La Caña like to make ‘tailored suits’ and involve the teams, and that includes the guest. The game, if they accepted it, is that they had to work with us to make the program unique. And that’s why some of the guests accepted the proposal, because among other aspects, they felt their criteria would be respected. And that’s normal, because coming to Zasback involves a huge degree of generosity on the part of the guests, and we return that by creating the very best atmosphere for the program. There’s one case, Andreu’s, in which he directs himself, not out of vanity, but because the director who had initially agreed to do it, had a mishap and couldn’t shoot it, so he decided that the most honest thing would be to not put his name to it. Andreu was the de facto co-director, so his name appears on this episode.

D.R.: This is a fundamental part of the format since we gave birth to it. It is mandatory that each chapter fully captures what each protagonist is, and, for this, it is essential that he surrounds himself with his people, his favorite director, his actor friends. Having different directors leaving their mark on each chapter is another of the strengths of Zasback. It’s been a wonderful process to see how each of these directors approaches the format and makes it their own, how they understand it and how they execute it. A luxury.

Does Zasback have a target audience? Or, as is often said nowadays, is it a cross-cutting program?

D.L.: The wonderful thing about working with a company like Movistar+ is that it matters diddly squat because they bet on originality and authorship knowing that’s what works. I hope lots of folk enjoy it because each episode is different. Will Generation Z like Anna Castillo’s more? Maybe, because she and the directors connect very well with that audience, but when you see that David Fincher air the episode has, you see how it can also connect with the boomers. These are tales that come from a place of honesty, and that’s hugely attractive.

D.R.: Each episode is completely different from the previous one, that’s something we sought out intentionally. There’s not a single common header. We like the difference, and as such, we feel that it appeals to many different audiences. If you like comedy along the lines of Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (Danny Leiner, 2004), you’ll definitely have a favorite episode. If you like the craziest surreal humor, you’re going to find one that you’ll love. I tested it out during post-production and practically nobody agrees on which one is their favorite. “I like Anna’s.” “Buenafuente’s is savage.” “Pablo Chiapella’s is the best, because I had never seen him in that light before.” We’d have to do a ranking with call-in voting kind like what they do for the  Eurovision.

Hugo Silva. ‘Zasback’.

In anticipation of the (surefire) success of Zasback, are you already working on a second installment?

D.L.: You always have to wait to see how the public react and what the critics say. But we would like to do a second season. We already have a list of real heavyweights who’ve asked to   participate in the event the show continues. And we’re dying to apply, in a second season, everything we’ve learned in the first, when we were starting from scratch.

D.R.: Everything points in that direction. Fingers crossed. This format has a future and unlimited growth. Another game I like to play is to imagine castings in other countries. If it were in the USA, who would you like to see? Will Ferrell? Jennifer Aniston? Ben Stiller? And in the UK? Ricky Gervais? Sacha Baron Cohen? Keira Knightley? Zasback ticks all the boxes to become a genre in itself, like MTV Unplugged, or Roast Battle or Carpool Karaoke. I can see it very clearly.

Pere Vall
Pere Vall. Journalist covering the world of cultural and entertainment in general, specialized in cinema. Pere is a regular contributor to Time Out, Ara, RNE and Catalunya Ràdio, and was editor-in-chief of the magazine Fotogramas in Barcelona for more than 20 years. A fan of Fellini, of good, regular and bad horror movies, and of humor and comedy in general. As a child, he wanted to look like Alain Delon, and has ended with a certain resemblance to Chicho Ibáñez Serrador. Not that he’s complaining though.