Image source: Univision

Image source: Univision

Last weekend, the Spanish-language variety show Sábado Gigante came to an end with a star-studded finale. Par for the course for the fast-moving world of television, where channels rearrange time slots, switch hosts, rework formats, and often cancel shows after one short season, all in the name of higher ratings. But Sábado Gigante (“Gigantic Saturday”) is no ordinary TV show: It was a Latino institution, a show beloved everywhere from southern California to southern Argentina, from Peru to Spain. It brought generations of Latinos together for 3 hours every Saturday night: grandmas and grandpas, teens, little kids, and their parents. It has the distinction of being the longest-running variety show ever: 1962 – 2015. That’s 2,600 consecutive weeks. Its internationally celebrated host, Don Francisco, only missed one episode, back in 1974, when his mom died.

Sábado Gigante premiered in a very different era, when TV was still a novelty and TV stations around the world were still feeling their way around the new medium. Don Francisco’s true identity is actually Mario Kreutzberger, a German-Chilean descended from Holocaust refugees. His father originally wanted him to be a tailor, but watching TV on a visit to America convinced him he had a future in entertainment. Sure enough, his show (originally called Show Dominical and airing on Sundays) was a smash hit, and gradually expanded until it filled a full 8 hours of airtime. It later shifted to a more manageable time frame, and moved to the US in 1986, where it found fertile ground in that country’s huge Latino population and well-funded Spanish-language TV market. But Sábado Gigante wasn’t about 2 countries; it was broadcast in more than 40, and attracted tens of millions of viewers on average — sometimes up to 90 million. That’s why it counts as a Transnational Topic and valid material for this blog.

Sábado Gigante was a true variety show; it never stuck to one format for too long. Most of it basically boiled down to “Don Francisco trying to make his audience laugh,” and it was heavy on comedy and slapstick. Skits starred broad archetypes and plenty of over-the-top, goofy acting and cartoony antics.

Don Francisco was also backed up by a familiar stable of recurring characters, like the poor buffoon Cuatro Dientes (4 Teeth), or the mysterious Chacal de la Trompeta (Jackel of the Trumpet), who presided over music contests with humiliating punishments for the ear-piercingly awful.

But the show wasn’t all about Don Francisco and his performers; he involved the audience in the program as much as he could. The aforementioned Chacal segment would involve audience members. Sometimes Don Francisco would visit kids in the crowds and ask them questions. A local lie detector would test audience members accused of cheating on their spouses. Don Francisco would lead the audience in singing along to commercial jingles (for the show’s sponsors, of course). Sometimes an audience member would get lucky and win a new car.

Over its 53 years on air, Sábado Gigante also spanned the gamut of Latino pop music, featuring performances and interviews with most of the region’s biggest stars: Selena (Tejano), Enrique Iglesias (pop), Marc Anthony (salsa), Ricky Martin (pop), Prince Royce (bachata), Shakira (pop again), Plácido Domingo (classical, mostly), even representatives of more modern genres like Pitbull (rap) and Daddy Yankee (reggaeton). Many of these musicians credit the show with launching their careers. Don Francisco didn’t restrict himself to music, though; actors (Salma Hayek, Sofia Vergara, Antonio Banderas), athletes (the soccer titan Pelé), American presidential candidates and gringo celebrities like Bill & Melinda Gates all showed up on the Gigante stage.

These musical performances and celebrity guests helped keep the show relevant and up-to-date even with its archaic background and creaking, 70-something host. But a lot of it also harked back to a bygone era. Its roots in corny game shows of the ’60s and ’70s showed in its predilection towards slapstick and goofy sound effects. A lot of the humor was based on mocking dwarves, the handicapped, the overweight, gays, etc. Don Francisco’s pervasive fixation on hot babes sometimes bordered on the creepy; he was involved in a sexual harrassment case in 1992 and could get awfully interested in the sexy models he would introduce. Beauty contests fixated on crass things like butts and boobs, and even little girls would be judged on their looks. This is hardly unusual for Latino TV, but in the 3rd millennium some women are getting fed up with it.

Accordingly, Sábado Gigante‘s once-impregnable ratings were slipping by its 50th anniversary in 2012. Although still very much a family show, despite the double entendres and buxom babes, it appealed more and more to an older crowd who had followed it for decades and less and less to the “millennial” generation, who prefer a more sophisticated style of comedy and (especially in the US) have better English than their elders and therefore watch English-language TV more often. Even though Don Francisco loved hosting and was a total workaholic behind the set (he even claimed to want to do the show for the rest of his life), Univision, the channel, pulled the plug this spring. Sábado Gigante went out with a blaze of glory, featuring congratulations from Barack & Michelle Obama, the mayor of L.A., and a who’s-who of Latino pop stars, as well as a heartfelt performance of the plaintive classic “Gracias a la Vida.”

The first 10 minutes of the finale.

So what’s next for Latino TV? The 3-hour time slot occupied by Sábado Gigante is so vast and has been fixed for so long that it’s unclear what will replace it. For now Univision is replacing it with…. a different variety show, Sabadazo. Telemundo, Univision’s rival Spanish channel, is also developing a Gigante-style show to follow it up. So Don Francisco’s legacy might live on. (He, by the way, will linger on the channel, but in a reduced capacity as a host of charity specials and the like.)

The era of Sábado Gigante might be over, but its influence will long be felt. As the son of immigrants to Chile and an immigrant to America himself, Don Francisco empathized with the Latino immigrant complex and tried to provide them with a voice in the crowded arena of American entertainment. With his appeals to different age groups and nationalities, he did a lot to create a pan-American forum, even if this meant broad strokes and crass comedy. Generations of Latinos grew up with him putting on a spectacle every Saturday night. His TV show probably ranks as one of the most important in history. So while it might have been disposable, superficial, sexist, and stupid, it also helped foster the notion of a Latino “family,” spanning classes, countries, ages and decades — and shows like that are hard to find these days. ¡Gracias, Don Francisco!


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