If I were asked to count off the number of gay, Filipino comics I knew of off the top of my head, I wouldn’t even make it halfway through my first set of fingers. One of those shortlisted names would be Nico Santos, who currently stars on Superstore, NBC’s retail-themed comedy show. A Filipino American who emigrated from the Philippines in his teens, Santos is a member of a surprisingly diverse cast featuring quite a few people of color, at least by current Hollywood standards. According to him, that was more by accident than design.
“They really were just casting the funniest people for the part,” he explains, “and it happened to be a diverse cast in the end. I was really shocked to see that so many people of color were cast because that’s so rare in Hollywood. Also we are working in a big box store, so it just makes sense. Can you imagine if they had cast all white people? That wouldn’t be believable. It’s about time that shows reflect the real landscape of this country.”
His character, who is also openly gay, is more a reflection of him than the writers had originally intended.
“None of the roles written had any specific ethnicities tied to them,” he admits, “except for mine. Mateo was originally written as a straight, Mexican, machismo gangster-type guy. I can play butch, but not that butch! So I just kind of played a version of myself, and they really liked it. They changed the role and tailored it to me.”
That’s not a common scenario these days, especially when it comes to roles drawn from Asian/Pacific Islander characters (I’m looking at you, Scarlet.) It’s telling, in fact, the Santos is often described as gay and Filipino before being described as a comic. But, in a society where we’re often defined more by how we diverge from accepted norms than anything else, embracing those distinctions can be empowering. He’s more than the sum of his parts, of course, but being queer, being Filipino, and being an immigrant help define who he is and, therefore, his comedy.
“It’s definitely what I draw from the most,” he confirms. “Having those three distinct experiences certainly gives you a unique perspective on things. Everything I write will always pass thru those lenses–but part of the magic of comedy is making people realize that we’re not all that different. It’s something that brings us all closer. I love it when you tell a joke and the audience responds with: OMG! Yes! I’ve thought the exact same thing!”
Santos said that he’d know he was gay from an early age, but lacked the language to describe it. He just knew he was different. It was’t until the Summer Seminar at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival during his junior year in high school that he finally had the courage to come out for the first time–although even then he almost chickened out.
“There were a couple of guys who were out and that just amazed me,” he described. “One day, I was driving with one of the gay guys from the camp and he just asked me if I was gay. I froze…then said no. We drove in silence for about 10 minutes then I pulled over the car and started to get all emotional:I’m gay! I don’t know why I lied, but yes I’m gay. I immediately felt such relief, that weight finally being lifted from my shoulders. It was amazing.”
While he came out to a few others after that, he officially stayed in the closet for the rest of high school.
“Not that it would have been a surprise to people,” he admits. “I was the vice president of the drama club, for fuck’s sake!”
Coming out to his family was easier, despite coming from a religious family.
“Even though my family is quite catholic, it really wasn’t an issue,” he says. “I’m very lucky in that regard.”
It was even a non-issue for his mother.
“I had to tell my mom over the phone,” he explains, “because she was still living in the Philippines at the time. I called her all nervous and finally told her. Her response was: Didn’t we talk about this last year? I was like: I think I would remember coming out to my own mother! It was a non issue.”
“She said she knew I was gay when I was a young boy,” he adds, “because I would always sketch evening gowns on the back of my homework assignments from school. My mom is the best and has supported me in every step of my life.”
His later experiences as a dresser at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival also led him into doing comedy, at least indirectly.
“It was one of the actors who suggested it to me,” he claims. “‘You’re funny man, have you thought about down stand-up?’ Even though I was a fan of stand-up, it didn’t dawn on me that I should pursue it until that guy suggested it and a light bulb just turned on. I left that small town soon after and went to San Francisco. That’s where I got my start. It took me a while to muster up the courage to get into it but after my first open mic, I was hooked!”
Making the transition from stand-up to acting seems more natural than from costuming to stand-up. Still, it took some getting used to.
“It’s a weird transition,” he agrees. “As comics, we are used to instant gratification: Tell your joke, get a laugh. When you’re auditioning, there’s usually one person in the room and they don’t laugh at the scene that you’ve prepared.”
“I always leave the room feeling like shit,” he adds, laughing.
But stand-up can be a lonely life, compared to working with other cast members and a film crew. Before starring in Superstore, Santos appeared in 2 Broke Girls and as a regular panelist on Chelsea Lately, in addition to scoring a part in Mall Cop: Blart 2. It gave him a chance to appreciate some of the differences from stage comedy.
“With stand-up, it’s all on you,” he explains. “What I like about TV and film is that like theatre, it takes a village. All of you are working on this amazing show. After doing stand-up for so long, its nice to be in a collaborative work environment.”
His collaboration as part of Superstore continues into a recently announced second season, which is enough for him, for now.
Season 2 premieres Sept 22,” he exclaims. “Thursdays 8pm! Must see TV is back! Superstore is keeping me plenty busy, and I like it that way. We really are a big happy family.”