No matter whether you habla español or not, you’ve almost certainly come across “Sábado Gigante,” the longest-running TV variety show in the world.
Channel-surfing on Saturday nights, surely you’ve encountered the booming voice of host and creator Don Francisco, his flock of barely clad models, the retro game shows and slapstick sketches that make you feel as if you’re watching “Benny Hill,” “The Dating Game” and “The Carol Burnett Show” all at the same time.
Forty-five years old and counting, the three-hour Spanish-language show airs in 42 countries and has been a Univision staple in the United States since 1986. According to Nielsen, about 2.5 million American viewers tuned in weekly this season. Many attempts by the Los Angeles Times to glean from Univision how the show is faring globally these days were unsuccessful. A publicist for the show said the network, which produces the show and sells it internationally, and Don Francisco himself do not have data about the size of the worldwide audience.
But in an age in which television shows come and go in primetime before viewers can learn the names of characters, what makes “Sábado Gigante” keep on ticking?
Judging by the enthusiasm of the 200 people (Hispanics of almost every nationality) who line up in Miami to watch the show tape, there are undoubtedly those who enjoy the host’s sardonic, buffoonish, kissy-face behavior; the wacky contests — like a version of “The Newlywed Game” that mandates that couples appear in their wedding attire — and the bootylicious models selling everything under the sun, including crackers, soap and even bodysuits that flatten your tummy and lift your bottom, a part of the program beloved by advertisers.
Whether you tuned in last night or in 1989, nothing much changes on “Sábado Gigante.” Sure, the babes get exchanged every few years for newer models. The games get updated. And Don Francisco is getting older. But the success of the show lies largely in its consistency, which is why attempts to copy aspects of it have been fruitless.
Beyond all of that, the show’s biggest draw remains Don Francisco, the son of Jewish parents who fled the Holocaust in Germany to Chile, and whose real name is Mario Krautzberger, a man who has managed something no world leader has.
The 66-year-old scholar who speaks five languages has created a communal space for Hispanics across nationalities, cultures, age and gender, influential enough to prompt President Bush and his 2004 opponent John Kerry to stop in for interviews.
Who could imagine that a slick pompadour and a permanent on-camera smile could do all of that?
“Sábado Gigante” airs 7 p.m. Saturday on KTVW (Channel 19).