Cuba's Jackie Mason

It's showtime at Miami Beach's Club Tropigala on a recent Saturday night, and Cuban comedian Guillermo Alvarez Guedes is headlining. He's half an hour late for his stand-up routine, and the audience is starting to squirm. Finally, at midnight, he ambles onstage -- even that is funny. His top two shirt buttons are undone, and his pot belly protrudes from his otherwise long, skinny frame. He wears a black jacket, black pants, and matching pointy shoes with heels. For about an hour, Alvarez Guedes stolidly delivers mostly raunchy jokes, one after another, in a manner so natural he makes it seem like breathing. His delivery is rapid-fire, no time for pauses or crowd interaction; before you finish laughing at one joke, he's told two more.

"A drunk guy gets on the expressway, and he's going against traffic. Someone who sees him calls a local radio station so the DJ can alert other drivers. “Those driving on 836 be careful,' the DJ announces. “There's a car going in the opposite direction.' The inebriated driver, who is also tuned in, says to himself, One car! Coño, no jodas, there are about a thousand."

The audience laughs hysterically.

Toward the end of the show, the 73-year-old Alvarez Guedes offers a few words about getting old. "You shouldn't go against the laws of nature," he warns audience members. "You should obey the laws of nature. There are people who shit on the laws. There are laws we don't like, for example getting old. Who the hell likes getting old? But everybody gets old. The other day, coming from Los Angeles, there was an elderly woman on the plane. No jodas coño, I don't know how old she was, but I imagine she was somewhere between menopause and Medicare."

The audience again bursts into frenzied laughter, but Alvarez Guedes stops for no one.

"Coño she was fighting outside of her weight; she was dressed like a teenager, with tight-fitting pants. I imagine that when she took them off, her body said, “Thank you, God.'" More laughter, but the comic is sober: "The war against years is always a losing battle."

For months my colleague Gaspar and I had been planning to see Alvarez Guedes perform live. "Okay, time to iron la guayabera, bring out those shoes I have with the Cuban heels, the Sansabelt pants.... It's gonna be hot ... oh, excuse me, I was just getting into character," Gaspar e-mailed me.

We grew up in the United States and, like most Cuban Americans, on high doses of Alvarez Guedes, the only Cuban comedian -- the only Cuban for that matter -- with a license to freely criticize the exile community in Miami and face nothing but laughter in response. Neither of us had ever seen Alvarez Guedes perform live, and we looked forward to it.

"Oye, don't forget to shine those shoes," I e-mailed back. "And the guayabera better be steam ironed. Oh and don't get too funny in the presence of Don Guillermo. You know that when it involves Cubans there's only room for one comedian, and Alvarez Guedes is king."

He's also a living legend. Alvarez Guedes has been able to capture and preserve Cuban national humor on foreign soil without having set foot in his homeland for 40 years. At the same time, his humor is universal. No matter where he performs in Latin America, using Cuban Spanish and dirty words, he leaves audiences with abdominal cramps from laughing so hard.

The State University of New York at Stony Brook professor Roman de la Campa considers Alvarez Guedes to be a figure of great cultural and intellectual significance. The comedian's use of language and the experiences he relates through his jokes, de la Campa says, are historical markers of the Cuban-American exile experience, el exilio. Joe Garcia, executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), agrees. Not only is Alvarez Guedes hilarious, Garcia opines, but his jokes are topical and very particular to Cuban-American reality. "He followed our social and economic climb." For example Garcia relates a joke that follows wealthy Cuban Americans on a ski trip to Colorado: "There they are in Aspen, roasting a pig."

De la Campa also gives Alvarez Guedes credit for bringing Cuban vulgarity out of the closet. "Vulgarity is part of Cuban culture, and there has always been an interesting dichotomy between the sacred and profane," explains the professor, who is chairman of the Department of Hispanic Languages and Literature at Stony Brook. "But despite this Cubans have tried to hide their vulgar side. Alvarez Guedes has removed it from our collective subconscious and inserted it into the mainstream."

Emilio Ichikawa, a former philosophy professor at the University of Havana who recently left Cuba and now lives in Miami, goes so far as to label Alvarez Guedes as the island's greatest anthropologist. "He's the person who has best been able to understand the psychology of Cubans," says Ichikawa, who wrote the introduction to Alvarez Guedes's latest novel, Cadillac '59. "He has a certain intuition." This perceptiveness, Ichikawa says, has enabled the comedian to tune in to Cuban society, both in and out of Cuba.