Merce: A Modern Day HIV Comedy

Writer & actor Charles Sanchez talks about his new online comedy series

by Alina Oswald

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A Merce logo web[dropcap]F[/dropcap]lamboyant, funny, outrageous, glamorous, bawdy, while also very much “the guy next door” (in a funny, glamorous way that is), Merce captures, ever so candidly, and also fearlessly, the reality of living with HIV/AIDS in today’s society. Who or what is Merce you might ask? Merce is the lead character of a new online musical comedy with the same name, created by Charles Sanchez, and directed by Tyne Firmin.

The idea of Merce started out three years ago as a web series called Manhattan Man-Travels, written by Sanchez and filmed by Firmin, about a middle-aged man called Merce, living in New York City. After two seasons, with no budget, and not much experience, they decided to give the character, Merce, a makeover…and also think about an actual budget for their project, as well as professional filmmakers and actors. The result was a new online comedy series, called Merce.

Some may think that HIV and comedy don’t mix. Merce might just prove them wrong. “HIV is a subject

Mama (Tyne Firmin) Skypes with Merce. Photo courtesy T. Firmin
Mama (Tyne Firmin) Skypes with Merce. Photo courtesy T. Firmin

that doesn’t get a lot of press these days, but it hasn’t gone away,” Sanchez comments, reflecting on his new show. He goes on mentioning that HIV is still affecting many people, and that it is not always easy for HIV-positive individuals to know how to live with the virus. Also, there is still too much stigma attached to it, even today. Hence, the idea of a show that would help end HIV/AIDS-related stigma. “I wanted to create a modern HIV story,” Sanchez further explains, “one that didn’t end in death. Every show or movie with an HIV theme seems to only tell a story from thirty years ago, and is tragic. Those are true and necessary stories, to be sure, but I wanted to show someone with HIV today, who isn’t ruled or defined by the condition, and who, like me, is actually enjoying his life.”

It turns out that Sanchez didn’t only create Merce (he wrote the role of Mama especially for Firmin), but he also plays Merce in the series. When I inquire about the name of the show, Sanchez mentions that he’s always loved the name, Merce. “My father had wanted to name me Merce when I was born, [but] my mother won. I’ve just always thought it was a cool name, and here was my chance to use it.”

Sanchez and Firmin fundraised their project on Indiegogo, raising $15,000. They cast over twenty actors, and brought amazing artists to the team, including composer and lyricist Ken Kruper, who wrote the original songs for the show.

Merce creators Charles Sanchez and Tyne Firmin. Photo courtesy T. Firmin
Merce creators Charles Sanchez and Tyne Firmin. Photo courtesy T. Firmin

“I think Merce is about more than HIV or gay people,” Firmin says. “I think it’s about surviving and having a great attitude about life, no matter what happens to you. We all need a support system of family and friends to make the rough stuff a bit easier. And everything is better with a song, a dance, and a bawdy joke!”

There will be eight ten-minute episodes of Merce. A premiere party is scheduled on July 15, at the LGBT Center in New York City, to celebrate the release of Merce the very next day, on July 16 After the first episode on July 16, new episodes will air every Thursday until September 3.

While, at this point, there are no concrete plans for the future of the show, there is hope that it will succeed, and, in turn, lead to a second season. “And we don’t mind if some big networks found us, and produce [Merce] on a larger scale,” Sanchez concludes. “I mean, Oprah’s network could use a good comedy, no?”


 

To find out more about Merce, and keep up with the show, please visit www.mercetv.com.


 

Alina Oswald is Arts Editor of A&U.