Sábado Gigante—the ratings giant and longest-running variety show in television history, broadcast by Univision in the U.S.—will air for the last time on Sept. 19. For Spanish-speaking Americans, the show’s cultural influence is legendary. But it also leaves behind a very dubious legacy.
Sábado Gigante, which has been parodied by such esteemed American outlets as Saturday Night Live and The Colbert Report (or El Colberto Reporto Gigante), is a combination of Maury, The Price Is Right, and American Idol—except a Mexican luchador with a trumpet decides whether the contestant gets fed to a lion, and Don Francisco, the show’s charismatic host, wears a lot of bizarre hats.
The fact that the show remains incomprehensible to non-Hispanic Americans is not a question of language. Sábado Gigante is a universe unto itself. It has accomplished exactly what it set out to do 53 years ago: become a three-hour, one-stop entertainment institution for Hispanics of all ages. This meant it had to appeal to all of Latin America, a region of 600 million people in 20 countries with histories and landscapes as varied as their accents and idioms. The way to reach an audience that vast is to appeal to the lowest common denominator. And it got pretty low.
There have been llamas, a Tarzan impersonator, time machines, bullfights, all interspersed with skimpy-clad models gyrating aimlessly–though nothing in Sábado Gigante is really aimless at all.
There’s also a timed joke-telling contest, and a Kids Say the Darndest Things segment. The show knows its audience well. It distilled the essence of the soap opera with on-air family reunions and a segment involving a lie detector test. The latter actually has fascinating cultural implications: it usually involves a man who cheated on his wife, or vice versa, who gets asked questions by one of the only two non-Hispanic Americans on the show, who effectively plays the part of the Gringo—entertaining viewers with the Gringo’s misguided attempts at reading the questions in Spanish, as Don Francisco condescendingly corrects him and comes up with sexual double entendres out of every single word he mispronounces. For immigrants who feel, for most of their day, like they’re on the other end of this joke, turning the tables can provide a moment of subversive relief.
The face and soul of the show is Don Francisco, or Mario Kreutzberger, the son of Jewish immigrants who fled Nazi Germany for Chile. He started hosting the show in Chile in 1962, when it aired on Sundays. The show later switched to Saturdays, until it was picked up by Univision in 1986 and moved to Miami. According to the Miami Herald, Don Francisco, now 74, has only missed one broadcast, 40 years ago, when his mother died.
Kreutzberger’s interviewing and improvisational skills are impressive. He has interviewed heads of state, like Chile’s Michelle Bachelet and Barack and Michelle Obama. He is also the founder and host of an annual telethon for children with disabilities, raising tens of millions of dollars every year. Even if you’ve never watched an entire episode of Sábado Gigante, if you speak Spanish—regardless of your age or where you live—you know it as an institution. It is hard to avoid its grasp. And that’s why the show has been dangerous, too.
A running theme in Sábado Gigante’s segments, skits and jokes is the continuous and unapologetic sexual objectification of women and girls. Little girls, of 5 or 6. During the Miss Chiquitita segment, which is as creepy and depressing as any child pageant show, three kids decide which of five girls, ranging from 5- to 7-year-olds, is “the most sensual.”
“This little girl, at only 6 years old,” an impossibly tanned and optimistic adult model announces, “wants to be a model when she grows up—but she doesn’t know how to stay in shape! That is her biggest problem! Because she really likes chocolate and ice cream!”
“She says she wants to be a doctor! SHE WANTS TO BE MISS CHIQUITITA!” interrupts Don Francisco.
And of course, there are plenty of adult, barely-clothed women constantly parading on camera. At times the show feels almost indistinguishable from soft-core porn, with dizzying close-up after close-up of headless bouncing boobs and butts. Millions of viewers—innocent children, impressionable teenagers and kindhearted abuelitas—have been absorbing these images for decades, effectively held hostage by Univision because they don’t speak English and can’t watch anything else. You could even say this has been the secret to Sábado Gigante’s success.
As a Spanish speaker watching this show, you’ll be moved, you will laugh, with it and at it, though in any case the joke is most likely on you. Sábado Gigante found a formula, and spent more than 50 years perfecting it. We can only hope that its cancellation will make room for something better.