March 19, 2013 -- The death of Hugo Chávez has left Venezuelan humorists Juan Andrés Ravell, 31, and Oswaldo Graziani, 33, scratching their heads, as their hit animated series, "Isla Presidencial" (or "Presidential Island"), has suddenly lost its star.
"Isla Presidencial" portrays caricatured Latin American presidents stranded on a deserted island. Among the cartoon cast is a perpetually stoned Jose Mujica (the President of Uruguay), a trigger-happy Juan Manuel Santos (the new Colombian president) and a wide-eyed, busty Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (Argentina's head of state).
But it's Venezuela's late bombastic president who steals the show.
"He's the Charlie Sheen of 'Two-and-half Men,'" says Ravell, referring to the void created when Sheen left the hit U.S. sitcom.
"We're really going to miss him," says Graziani.
The creators of "Isla Presidencial" had Chávez, known as "Hugito" on the show, playing an ersatz Skipper--with Evo Morales (the president of Boliva) as his "little buddy"--in a bizarre spin on the once popular "Gilligan's Island" series.
The comic duo's brainchild was an instant Internet sensation. The first season has tallied some 15 million views on Youtube since it debuted in 2010-2011. Now, with the show back after a two-year hiatus, more than two million fans have already tuned in.
Graziani and Ravell explain that "Isla Presidencial" is a departure from their fake news website, El Chigüire Bipolar, which highlights standard Venezuelan humor á la The Onion or "The Daily Show."
The website, which is named after a typical Venezuelan rodent, was launched in 2008 as creative refuge after Graziani and Ravell's first venture, a short-lived animated series called "Nada Que Ver," was deemed too racy for its broadcaster, Sony Entertainment Television.
The site has come up with catchy quips like "'If [Opposition presidential candidate Henrique] Capriles wins, he'll lead the country from Washington,' says Chávez from Havana," and "The Opposition celebrates that it was beaten in only 87% of the country," referring to the near sweep by Chávez's political party in last December's gubernatorial elections.
Even Chávez's death and his dramatic state funeral did not stop El Chigüire, which filled its front page in those days with headlines like "Planet Earth continues its rotation..." and "Entire country says in unison, 'How annoying, more elections.'
While many forms of media have run into trouble with the Venezuelan government, when it comes to political criticisms, Chigüire Bipolar has managed to stay beyond the reach of national regulators, as its humor hammers both sides of the country's political divide. Yet even with widespread success on a local level, its writers admit their material can fall flat on an international audience. "If you're not Venezuelan, or if you don't keep up with the national news, you won't get 80% of the jokes," says Ravell.
"Isla Presidencial," however, does find fans beyond Venezuela's borders. The cartoon show has been featured on newspapers from Mexico to Argentina, and is a favorite on Facebook, for Latin Americans from all nations.
Even Chávez himself mentioned the show during a weekly TV program back in 2011, in which he was chattering away next to a patently weary Evo Morales.
"There's these cartoons my son showed me, the 'Isla,' something or other" Chávez said. "Have you seen this yet, Evo?"
Chávez giggled as he recounted an episode in which the castaways spend the day "angling" for food. Chávez's character rambles from dawn till dusk, causing almost all of the stranded presidents to fall asleep and drop into the water below; only the ever-faithful Evo Morales stays by his side.
"You've got to see this show, Evo!" Chávez boomed to his staff, laughing about how Morales was left snoring while "Hugito" sang until sun-up. "They sound just like us!"
Two years later, Graziani recalls that broadcast with near-disbelief. "It's something that's definitely going on my résumé," he says, shaking his head.
Both publicists by trade, Graziani and Ravell admit that, despite their success, they're nowhere near a spot on Forbes' wealthiest list. After paying for the first season entirely out of pocket, they're just now poised to turn a profit after Nuevon, an Internet channel with a Hispanic focus, picked up the second season of "Isla Presidencial."
In the series' short lifetime, the castaways have managed to (mostly) survive everything from the King of Spain accidentally serving up poisonous fish to Evo Morales's coca leaf and LSD cocktails--even attempts by "imperialist" monkeys and volcanoes to do away with the Latino leaders.
While Chávez's death may have sent the show's creators back to the drawing board, they are convinced that the Venezuelan leader's demise doesn't spell doom for "Isla Presidencial."
"It's an interesting process," Graziani says, now confronted with a void. But being an animated series, he ads, there's always a chance too, that Chávez will continue to make appearances.
Graziani and Ravell are now trying to develop existing characters, such as Morales and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, while deciding how to fill Chávez's quirky revolutionary boots. Venezuela's upcoming presidential election, set to happen in less than a month, promises still more fodder. The candidates are Interim President Nicólas Maduro, a former bus driver who invokes Chávez dozens of times per day in his speeches, and Henrique Capriles, a scion of a rich family who walks around in tracksuits to demonstrate a "popular" touch.
"Venezuela is always going to offer plenty of material," explains Ravell.
Just last week, in fact, Maduro claimed that Chávez--from beyond the grave--managed to convince Christ to have the Vatican to elect the first ever Latino pope.
The real frustration, Ravell says, is when the jokes write themselves.