Felipe Esparza is like the raptors in Jurassic Park: He threw himself at every angle of the fence before finding his way—and a career in comedy. Winner of Last Comic Standing in 2010, Esparza can now be seen on his HBO and Netflix stand-up specials, heard on his live vinyl recording and appearing in recurring roles on shows like NBC's Superstore. Along the journey, he’s overcome addiction, got serious about his work and carved a name for himself as only he can.
How did you get into comedy?
I started out around '94, but quit because I had a baby. I started again in December '95, and I was going up. A lot of people told me where to go, and I got my first TV credit in 1996 on a show with Greg Giraldo, John Mendoza and a bunch of Latinos. Edward James Olmos was there, Cheech Marin, Paul Rodriguez, Daisy Fuentes. I was a young clown at best. I didn't know what the hell I was doing there. It was my first time where somebody paid for my hotel. My first time anything. I only had seven minutes of material. Honestly, that's it. I didn't know how to stretch out material to 25, 45. Nothing. I was coal. I needed to get squeezed into a diamond.
How long did that take for you to get squeezed into a diamond?
A long ass time. Before all that, I was living in the projects. Pico-Aliso Housing Projects in Boyle Heights. It doesn't even exist anymore. They knocked it down. I got into a lot of trouble when I was around 20 years old. I went to rehab and got into a fight with somebody, and I thought they were going to kill me. I'm glad I left! After I did, things got really violent and crazy where I used to live, but I was in rehab for a year, so I was saved from all that madness.
In rehab, [I met] this guy named Tim. He was a Catholic brother and did volunteer work. He gave us a goal to write down five things we wanted to do with our lives. I wrote, “I have a dream where I have money, but I wake up, and it's gone.” He said, "No, not those kinds of dreams. I'm talking about your goals. What you want to do in life."
I told him that, one, I wanted to be a comedian, and two, I love Olive Garden, Italian food and pizza, so I wanted to go to Italy. With The Godfather, I always wanted to go where Michael Corleone had his little wedding when he left New York. Three, I wanted to be happy, and four and five, I didn't write anything down. I thought those three were good enough.
When I came out of rehab, I went to a public library, Barnes & Noble, and whatever bookstore I could to be able to go to coffee houses and buy a coffee. I was sober, so I’d buy a coffee and grab so many books, and I would sit there, drink coffee and read for free. I’d write the titles down, sometimes I would put the book back with a bookmark [in] it. I went to the Los Angeles County Library downtown on Grand, and I asked the librarian if she could help me find books on comedy writing. I got this book, Comedy Writing Workbook by Gene Perret and read it.
After that you landed on a TV show?
When I came out of rehab, I had a bald head, and I looked like those gangsters who try to look like a normal person but still look crazy. I might have had a bright green t-shirt, and I wore jeans and tennis shoes to the set. But I killed, surprisingly. I didn't have a manager but a talent coordinator, Pat Buckles. By the way, she [was] at The Improv when it was in New York—the famous one. When the manager of The Improv moved on to be the head of HBO, everybody moved back to the west coast, and she moved out here and became a manager. They reference her in Seinfeld—Buckles is the name of the prop comic in the show.
She saw a lot of comedy. She really liked me right away and helped me put my set together. I took my little six-minute set and that was my set. I had a joke where I said my dad would walk around the neighborhood and pick up furniture and fix it like MacGyver.
That show was SAG-AFTRA, by the way, and I didn't know nothing about no union. But that show and the producer helped me jump out there because he put me in again in '97 and '98. Three years in a row he gave me a TV credit. Even though I wasn't ready for the headline, I was building a TV audience with a bunch of Latinos and whoever was watching TV back then.
In 1999, there was a guy named Mike Robles, a comedian from New York, and he had a local access show called Que Locos that was hot. He was putting up something for the Latin comedians of New York, and I really didn't know Latino comedians in New York until I saw them. Galavisión loved the show and wanted to put it on their network. They took a big risk and paid the money. From 1999, I got lucky to be on that show nine times.
Then there was a slow time until '05, but I went on tour with Gabriel Iglesias, Willie Barcena, Archie Moreno, Gilbert Esquivel. They'd switch us out, but we were doing big arenas because our show was being aired on Galavisión at 10 p.m., and it was getting popular. Not just Latinos watching it at that point. Everybody was watching it now because it hit. People were telling their friends to watch. They made a deal to get George Lopez to host, and it became an even bigger show. We went on tour, and it was perfect. We were getting paid to perform the show.
How has your career fared since Que Locos?
I've been doing well the last eight years since I won Last Comic Standing. I started headlining the other Improvs in America—Irvine, Ontario, San Jose, Pittsburgh, pretty much all of them—even D.C. Improv. But before that, I wasn't headlining much. I was doing like a Tuesday night at the Improv maybe, if I was lucky. I was struggling, man! Trying to get gigs, not making no money but still going up every day. In 2005, I went to the Montreal Comedy Festival, and I signed with an agency, but I was too young. I wasn't focused, or I was drinking too much. When I wasn’t, they would send me to auditions, and I didn't know how to act. I would go in, and I wouldn't even practice my lines. In '05, I was on Comedy Central Premium Blend with Damon Wayans.
You’ve mentioned in the past that your father didn’t support your career choice. When you started going on tour, did your family warm up to you becoming a comedian?
No. I pretty much stopped going home. My dad's proud of me now. But you know what's funny? My dad started acting. I was on the road one day, and somebody called me up and said, "Hey man, I think I saw your dad on TV right now on this Mexican version of The People's Court." And he was. He was there with a fake son, pretending to fight his landlord. All the time he wanted to do it, he was crushing my dream. I think he didn't want me to because he said, "Well, I couldn't do it, he can't do it."
Do you work cannabis into your comedy? Into your writing process?
Oh, hell no. I get paranoid. I don't understand, man, how these guys just sit down and write a whole script or a song. I don't use marijuana to create. I tried, and it wasn't for me—I'm so creative already. Doug Stanhope, he just hits a bowl, and he goes immediately on stage. Me, I have an act, but if I go out there high, I try to over-create my jokes. My jokes are already funny, but marijuana makes me want to create more. I'm on stage writing my jokes as they come to my head.So if I'm doing a show where they're paying me to be funny for an hour, and it's sold out, and people paid good money to get in, I go up there sober. I finish the whole act and then you're not gonna see me again, man, because I'm going to be paranoid watching Forensic Files.
But if I'm doing like the Comedy Store, like improv, I might be on the stage with Bert Kreischer, Theo Von, Whitney Cummings or Joe Rogan. So of course, I'ma be “processing” all night if Joe Rogan's there. I bought a little weed today. If I were to go up on stage and write new material off the top of my head, I'll go up there super, super high, but not in theaters.
Tell me about your podcast What's Up Fool?
It’s about giving advice, telling you how to live your life, what to eat or giving you the weather. It's just real people. We don't have an agenda. Sometimes we bullshit a lot. We don't know what the hell we're saying, but we have good guests because they're people who we want on the show. No one pays us to be on the show. We actually had to pay them.
Our guests have ranged from ex-sheriffs and ex-cons to a BBW porn star named Desiree and the head writer of Chappelle's Show, Neal Brennan. We also interviewed one of the guys who dresses up like the Incredible Hulk on Hollywood Boulevard. That guy had an interesting story. He left South Carolina to become an actor and had no money so he sold his PlayStation and left with $300. On his way there, they arrested him for murder. They held him in a cell for three days and then let him go because it wasn't him. When he gets to Los Angeles, he has nowhere to sleep. A guy goes, "You look like a nice guy. I'm gonna let you sleep in my shop." That night, the Los Angeles riots started. He doesn't know what to do so he goes into a Big 5 [Sporting Goods] while everybody's stealing, grabs a tent and goes and lives in the Hollywood Hills until the riots stopped.
How do you come across those stories?
He was in a documentary about superheroes. They interviewed a Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman and the Incredible Hulk from Hollywood. I ran into him at this place called Kushmart so I said, "Hey buddy, you want to do my podcast?" He said, "Yeah."
What kind of stories are you looking for?
Whatever is interesting. I was getting my blood work, and this guy comes up to me, "Felipe, I’m so happy. I saw when you won Last Comic Standing. I voted for you."
"Thank you, ese."
"I was in prison when I voted for you," he continues.
"Oh, that's great. Okay, thanks for voting for me in prison."
"You know, I just came out of prison like a year ago," he says.
"Really, that's awesome. What were you in there for?"
"Wow. Okay, murder. So what happened?" I ask.
"I didn't do it," he explains. "When I was 17, they locked me up for 22 years. But thanks to the Innocence Project, I got out. One of the witnesses retracted their story, and they let me out."
I had him on the podcast, and he told the whole story. I found out a year later that he went on to settle for $10 million dollars and he's running for Security Commissioner of his hometown. He went to UCLA and practicing law. He's getting a law degree.
If you got to book your favorite venue for the night, which comedians, living or dead, do you want to see on your show?
Dave Attell, Greg Hahn, Joe Rogan, Paul Rodriguez, Hannibal Buress and Mike Epps. And Mitch Hedberg, too, man. He's dead, but yeah. And Rodney Dangerfield. We need a one-liner guy in there.
What else can your fans be on the lookout for?
You can go to my website and find my full podcast What’s up Fool. I did a little marijuana short web series on YouTube called The Shop. It was basically based on the customers that come into the dispensary, how weird they are and how they always ask for free stuff. Also, check out my HBO special. Check out my other special on Netflix, and my album [Translate This] is on iTunes now. You can download the whole album, and I have a vinyl if you want to buy it. It's a collector’s item, double-sided album, that comes with a poster and an old-school photo album.