Comedy saved Felipe Esparza’s life. Mexican-born, Los Angeles-bred Esparza was fascinated by comedians as a child, but a troubled adolescence threatened to put his comedy aspirations — and his life — in jeopardy.
After escaping gangs, prison and drug addiction, Esparza kicked off his standup career in the mid-‘90s and has been working steadily ever since. For years, Esparza looked like the heir apparent to Mexican-American comedians like Paul Rodriguez and George Lopez. It wasn’t until 2010, when Esparza won “Last Comic Standing” on NBC, that he appeared poised for his big breakthrough.
It didn’t quite happen, but it led to a standout Netflix special, 2012’s “They’re Not Gonna Laugh At You.” Since then, Esparza has made several guest appearances on the NBC comedy “Superstore” and launched the “What’s Up Fool?” podcast. Now, Esparza is back with another stand-up special, this time on HBO — a gig usually reserved for the best of the best in comedy.
mitú spoke with Esparza about his rough upbringing, meeting some of his comedy heroes and what it’s like for Latino comedians who are pressured to “cross over” to mainstream (read: white) audiences.
He was fascinated with comedy at a young age, but gangs got in the way.
“I got into comedy when I was a little kid. I saw a Bill Cosby album. My friend Jackie Escalera, he put in on one of those record players — the suitcase record players — and I memorized the whole bit. I was in seventh grade. Before that, I never memorized anything from a book — nothing — and I kind of knew right there that I wanted to be a comedian. But along the way, you get into trouble, you get jumped into a gang when you’re 19. I got jumped into a gang when I was 19. I was hanging around with these same kids since I was 13, but I never got jumped in. Like they would get into trouble, and I would go home. But then I turned 19 and I had nothing else to do — I had no hopes. And I already had a nickname. So they jumped me in — I felt like was jumping THEM in, ey.”
Not only did he get involved in a gang, Esparza became addicted to crack and eventually started selling it. Father Greg Boyle of Homeboy Industries helped Esparza turn his life around.
CREDIT: Credit: felipesworld.com
“Crack doesn’t discriminate. So I got hooked. I got into a lot of trouble after that. Like, I bit some guy’s ear off. I got into a fight with a cholo and I bit his ear off. He went straight to the hospital.
And I didn’t know it then but this guy had just come out of prison. He was about 30 and I was 21. So he had a lot of juice, he was a connected guy in the neighborhood. Like, he could just tell somebody to kill me and they’d kill me. And I didn’t know him because he was locked up when I was growing up. So when he came out, of course, I disrespected him. So we got into a fight.
My mom was scared. I was walking around with a .38 pistol. I had a gun on me and I was ready to kill somebody. And Father Greg knew. Father Greg from Homeboy Industries. Back then, when I was growing up, there was no Homeboy Industries. It was called Jobs For The Future. It was only Father Greg on a beach cruiser stopping gang violence.
He would ride by and say, ‘Felipe, what are you doing here, you’re in the wrong neighborhood.’ But I was too drunk to know. So he’d ride his bicycle, go to the church, wake up the priest there, grab the keys, ride the van and start picking up kids in the van and take them to the right neighborhood so they wouldn’t get killed.
So my mom went to go plead with him to help me. I didn’t want to stop gang banging, I didn’t want to stop using drugs, I didn’t want to stop selling drugs. But I also didn’t want to die. I had a black eye and a busted lip when I went into rehab. He put me in rehab and I did it for about a year. In the third month, I realized that I wanted to stop using drugs.
So I go back to my neighborhood, the same guy I sent to the hospital is right there, healthy. And this fool looks at me and he charges me. I had a bible, I had short hair, I was in shape. I was ready to fight. I probably would have murdered him. So I ran inside the house to pick up a baseball bat. And my dad stopped me right there.
He said, ‘Think about what you’re doing, you’re doing so well. You want to be a comedian, don’t you?’ So then I started crying and I started beating shit up in my house with a bat. And then I stopped.”
While in rehab, Esparza got the push that would eventually lead him to a stand-up career.
“In rehab, I was losing it in there, and this guy named Tim, he was a Catholic brother, he said, ‘Write down five things you want to do with your life.’ So I wrote down ‘comedian.’ And for number two, I love Olive Garden, so [I wrote] ‘I want to go to Italy.’ And three, I wanted to be sober and happy. Notice how I wrote I wanted to be a comedian before ‘sober and happy.’ Number four and five I forgot.
I thought he was gonna judge us on our notes and read it in front of everybody, so I just put [the list] in my pocket. When I came out of rehab, I started thinking about things I wanted to do.
Back then, there was no social media, no places to find information. So I had to go to the Los Angeles County Library. And I had this lady come up to me and ask, ‘Can I help you?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’m trying to find information on writing comedy.’ So she took me to the section and I learned comedy writing from old school people like Steve Allen, Gene Perret and people who wrote for television, like the ‘Tonight Show.’ So I learned how to write their way. I checked out a bunch of comedy from George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby, Steven Wright, Paul Rodriguez and I applied what I learned to do my jokes.”
From there, Esparza began doing open mics in the mid-’90s. Fast forward to 2017: Esparza got a call from Louis CK, who asked him to hang out.
“[He called me] out of the blue. I was chillin’ at home and my wife got a call from his manager Dave Becky. He said Louis CK was trying to get a hold of me. So finally I got his phone number — I was nervous to call — and I called him. He said, ‘I saw your special, I thought it was hilarious. I don’t know if anyone’s ever told you this but you’re like a Mexican Mitch Hedberg.’
I thought that was a very good compliment coming from a legend like that. So then he wanted to go hang out with me, so I hung out with him and we talked. I met Albert Brooks and Greg Daniels from ‘King of the Hill.’ We talked about a cartoon. They’re thinking about using me one day.
I felt good that I’m accepted by the older comics, like, I can walk proud knowing that Louis CK likes me.”
Esparza says Latinos put him on the map and he’s loyal to his audience.
“Comedians that came in after Paul Rodriguez, George Lopez and Carlos Mencia were very worried about crossing over, like, they wanted to please white people. They wanted white people to get them. So when I spoke to Paul Rodriguez about that, he said, ‘Listen, man, don’t worry about any of that stuff. If you’re funny enough, they’re going to cross over to you.’ So that’s been my main focus: be funny first and let them cross over to me. If I start worrying about crossing over I’m gonna lose my audience. I don’t wanna lose my audience. My audience is my bread and butter. I’m not going to forget who put me in the limelight. It wasn’t white people. It was Latinos.”
Esparza says the HBO gig hasn’t changed his subject matter.
CREDIT: Credit: HBO
“I didn’t change anything [about my set]. It was very Latino-focused. I talk about growing up in a family where no one spoke English but me and my brothers. My mom learned English after I graduated high school, but my dad never learned. So I was always translating for them. I have jokes where I talk about how I couldn’t even do my homework because I was filling out immigration forms. I was always translating for my mom. I made that funny. I was worried that joke wouldn’t go over with white people, so when I did it in front of white people, I didn’t change anything, to see if they’d get it. And they got it.”
Now, like many popular comedians, Esparza hosts a podcast. He says he doesn’t focus on inviting Latino guests, but it organically happens.
“Even though I’m getting more popular, I’m a real underground comedian. Like if you know me, it’s because you’re cool. For reals, if you know me, it’s because you know what’s up. Like, if you like Felipe Esparza, you probably like Vice, too. If you like Felipe Esparza, you probably shared that mitú rainbow unicorn corn video. Bro, I’m not lying. That’s how I know my audience. Cause I shared that video — shit, I want likes too!
So, I pick people for the podcast if they interest me, if there’s something about them.
2Mex, I picked him because I already followed him on Instagram. I saw that 2Mex lost his leg. And I left him a message because everyone was leaving him messages. I go, ‘I don’t know who you are, bro, but I hope you get better because I feel that you’re loved by everybody here. You seem to be a great talent. He goes, ‘Ah, Felipe, I’m a big fan, thank you for your message.’ See, I get goosebumps talking about it.
Another guy was MC Pancho. He’s a guy from Harbor Area, ex-gang banger. I thought he was just a cholo — because he has that long pinky nail and he dressed like a pimp. But no, he’s a blue collar guy, a longshoreman for 30 years. But he spends all his money on the way he dresses, his appearance. All the money, all the gold, all the jewelry, he got it the right way: working nine to five. I had to have him.
And Miklo from ‘Blood In Blood Out.’ I know people who love me love ‘Blood In Blood Out.’ So I had to have him on the show.
It’s just people that I like, it doesn’t have to be Latinos. I look around at all the other podcasts and I see that they don’t have the guests that I have. I want to put guests that are loved by Latinos… and white hipsters. And Chipsters. I want to be the Marc Maron of the underground Latino community.”
Esparza’s HBO special, “Translate This” airs on Saturday, September 30.
CREDIT: Credit: HBO
HBO Released The Trailer For Felipe Esparza’s Stand Up Comedy Special, “Translate This,” And We’re Already Cracking Up