In June of 2021, comedy writer and performer Joe Hernández-Kolski ’96 spent hours scrolling through Facebook posts in Spanish about the COVID-19 vaccines. He only cared about the inaccurate content — this was for research.
UnidosUS, a Latinononprofit advocacy organization, had hired Hernández-Kolski to write and produce a collection of sketches tackling COVID misinformation in the community and social media. Advocacy groups began flagging the trend back in 2020, urging tech giants to crack down on community standards.
“As bad as social media outlets like Facebook are at weeding out COVID misinformation in English,” Hernández-Kolski says, “it’s far worse in the Spanish-language community. Because of the language barrier, things are getting through.”
His four-part video series “Will Abuelo Get the Vaccine?” follows a sharp little girl and her non-vaccinated grandpa — “Angry Abuelo” — as they talk through his worries about getting the shot and headlines he’s read online.
“They’re tracking you with the vaccine, they have microchips in it,” Angry Abuelo says to his granddaughter in the first episode. “The vaccines were made too fast.” Christina is quick to reply: “Well, God created Heaven and Earth in six days. Don’t you think that’s a bit fast?”
From the start of the pandemic, Hernández-Kolski has been writing and acting from inside his home in Los Angeles. For a series with LA’s Center Theatre Group, he created a digital piece titled “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” about being an artist in isolation during COVID. And last spring, he solicited friends to record themselves dancing and singing to lyrics he wrote for an original song called “This Rap Makes No Sense.”
Long before lockdown, in 2002, the film, TV, and stage actor co-created an open-mic program for high school youth called Downbeat 720. Sponsored by the City of Santa Monica, it welcomes young poets, DJs, and musicians to perform on stage at the Miles Memorial Playhouse twice a month (for now, by Zoom). The television version that Hernández-Kolski produced and filmed, Downbeat Showdown, received a Los Angeles Area Emmy for outstanding youth programming. He’s also appeared in the Netflix reboot of Gilmore Girls, in a role originally written for Broadway star Lin-Manuel Miranda, and in HBO’s Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry, a spoken word poetry series.
Hernández-Kolski’s work with UnidosUS long precedes this latest project. He began hosting events for the organization’s live and virtual conferences in 2016. Last year, he drafted a pitch for “Will Abuelo Get the Vaccine?” and, once accepted, shot the sketches with a small production team over two days in Los Angeles. His approach — to merge activism and satire — makes for an honest, approachable conversation interrogating vaccine hesitancy.
“Comedy has always been a wonderful tool to getting to truths,” says Hernández-Kolski, who studied history, African American studies, theater, and dance at Princeton. “Hopefully people will watch these sketches and say, ‘Oh, my God, that’s my family. He’s saying what I’ve always wanted to say to them.’”
By the third sketch, after going back and forth in a debate that seems futile, Christina’s persistence pays off. “Will you do it for me?” she asks. Angry Abuelo gives in. A nurse appears suddenly and gives him a dose of the vaccine. “Oh,” he says, “that felt like a mosquito bite.”