COMEDIAN FELIPE ESPARZA INTERVIEW
September, 28 2013
interview by Celeste Leal. Photography Frankie Leal
Where were you born and raised?
I was born in Sinaloa, Mexico, along with two of my siblings. The rest were born here in the United States. I didn’t know we were illegal until I was in the 8th grade. We would call other kids wetbacks, but we were the real wetbacks!
What was it like growing up in the Esparza home?
It was alright. There were seven of us. My mom cooked the same food every day -- tortillas, beans and meat. If it was enchiladas, it was -- tortillas, beans and meat. If it was burritos, it was still -- tortillas, beans and meat. My dad worked every day, under a fake name obviously. He was a welder.
What was it like being the oldest? Were you held responsible for the younger ones?
No, but I would watch the younger ones get whipped whenever they got in trouble. If my parents asked me to go look for the belt for somebody else, I would find it fast. But if it was for me, I could never find it. Or if I knew I was going to be in trouble, I would hide all the belts.
Were your parents supportive of your comedy?
They are not involved with my comedy so it’s not like I told them, “I’m going to be a comedian.” We didn’t have a relationship where we could just open up with our feelings. For example, if somebody was to ever get molested in our home, they wouldn’t ask us, “What happened?” Instead, they would ask crazy questions like, “What shorts were you wearing? And “Porque? (Why?)” Everything was our fault. You could cut your leg and my parents would say, “Porque? (Why?) How could you bring this disgrace to our house? Now we have to give our information to the hospital. They’re going find out we’re illegal!”
Were you shy as a kid?
Yeah, I was shy. I was afraid to talk to girls so I just stared at them until they got scared. I also had a stuttering problem. In a Mexican home they don’t give you speech therapy; they don’t even know what speech therapy is. They just get the belt. If there’s a parrot in the house, you better talk better than the parrot.
Who was your biggest comedy influence growing up?
Eddy Murphy, Richard Prior and Paul Rodriguez were all influences. I think Paul Rodriguez is for Latinos to what Richard Prior is for Black people. Even though he won’t admit it; that’s a fact. You can’t have one without the other. You can’t be a Latino comedian without steeling a joke from Paul Rodriguez. Paul wrote the foundation on how to be a Latino comedian.
Has it always been easy for you to make people laugh?
Yeah, it’s the only thing I’ve got going for myself. I was funny in class, but I wasn’t the class clown -- I was the guy who would open up for him. When they would send him to detention then it was my turn!
At what point did you decide you wanted to be a comedian?
I decided to be a comedian the first time I heard a comedy sketch.
When was that?
It was in 6th grade; I was with my friends Jackie, Rapha, and my brother Angel. We went to this guy’s house that lived across the street from the projects we lived in. He owned a record player and played Bill Cosby’s To Russell, My Brother, Whom I Slept With. I memorized it right away. I couldn’t memorize two plus two, but I memorized Cosby’s album in one sitting. I repeated it over and over. I knew it forward and backwards. I said, “This is something different”. So, right there I decided I wanted to be a comedian.
Where did you do your first stand up?
It was in 1995. A guy named Johnny Roberts hosted a show on cable’s channel 3 Local Access. It was called The Johnny Roberts Variety Show. It aired out of this coffee house on Fountain Avenue in Los Angeles. I met comedians Alonzo Bodden and Freddie Soto there.
I didn’t own a car to drive myself every Monday to this place so I convinced the gangsters in my neighborhood to take me. I was like, “Hey, you guys want to take a break from gang banging, slanging crack and shooting people? I’m doing a comedy show. Give me a ride.” So they gave me a ride! Every Monday I had a comedy show there and my gangster friends would sell drugs outside until it was time for me to go on. Then they would come inside and watch me.
How long were you on the stand-up comedy scene before you did The Last Comic Standing?
Oh man, I had my first TV credit in ‘96 so about 15 years.
When was your first TV credit?
I was on a show called Latino Laugh Festival on Showtime. It was hosted by Paul Rodriguez. We did it in San Antonio. It was Daisy Fuentes, Greg Giraldo, Cheech Marin, and Cristela Alonzo. It was a big Latino event. Because of this show, I joined the union AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Association) without even knowing what AFTRA was.
Can you tell us a little bit about AFTRA?
The union (AFTRA) gets involved when you do a big television show like for Showtime. They make sure the people producing the show pay the talent. I got paid $800.00 however, the next year I did the show I didn’t get paid at all. I didn’t know that I had to pay monthly dues so because of that I didn't get paid. The third time I did the show; I got paid. Then the rights of the show got sold to CBS. CBS was airing the show at 2:00 in the morning and I didn’t even know it. People found out so they called the union and we got more money. I actually made enough money to pay for a used car.
At what point did you start making a name for yourself?
I did a show, called Que Locos on Galavision, that didn’t pay anything, but it got me popular. It was the only comedy show on a Spanish network. It aired every Sunday at 10 p.m. George Lopez, Gabriel Iglesias and I would host the show. I hosted it nine times -- I was the only one that did it nine times. Gabriel, George and I later toured the country off this show and we sold out shows.
So what or how did you decide to audition for The Last Comic Standing?
I didn’t want to audition because I didn’t want to get my feelings hurt. I knew I was funny, but I had to perform and get judged by three comedians. It could have been anybody, but you don’t want to get judged by three comics. If one says, “No”, you want to tell them, “Whatever, I’m funnier than you!”
The first time I auditioned, I was doing a show at the Laugh Factory and I told these fools to hold my spot at the Improv because there was a very long line. Luckily, we were closer to the front of the line. There were so many different clicks waiting in line. There was our click, the comics from L.A. who live in L.A. and perform in L.A; around the corner were other clicks; like comics from Riverside, who never leave Riverside. It’s weird how the comedy community works. I work everywhere, but there are comics that just work in the “909”, there are those comics that just work in the “619”, and then there are those comedians that just work wherever their friends are. We waited in line all night. My friends would go to the car and fall asleep. I just stood there with my mask on. Finally, I got picked to make it to see the judges; the last ones who tell the comics if they’re going to Vegas or not. So I’m standing there waiting to get picked and they pick the other guy, Jay London. So he goes to Vegas and I don’t.
The second time I auditioned they said, “No, I don’t see anything,” so I got mad and got all messed up.
The third time around I didn’t want to addition anymore, I said, “screw this, I’m not going to audition”, but they got me an audition anyway. This time, I didn’t have to spend the night in line and I made it through to see the judges. I knew all three judges. I knew Greg Geraldo because I opened for him in 2000. I knew Andy Kindler from watching old video tapes I used to own. I remember one of his jokes said, “I like this shirt man. I bought it for five dollars, and at that price I could afford not to like it.” And the third judge, Natasha Leggero, she was mean, but I knew her too because I threw up in her room once. I don’t know if she still likes me because of that, but I met her in 2005.
I did my stand up with confidence, like I didn’t care what they thought. I went in like this, “Hi, how you guys doing today? Good. Alright. So I met this girl last night, she said I’ll sleep over your house but we can’t have no sex," I said, "alright tomorrow morning we’ll have breakfast, but you can’t have no food.” Then I said another joke and another joke, they were all laughing. I told them, “You guys want more, less, what?” They said, “No man, you’re great, you pass!” So, that was that.
Would you say winning Last Comic Standing was your big break?
No, I got my big break when I was on a regular television show, but what helped me pass the audition this time was that I didn’t drive a car there. I didn’t want to drive home all sad you know. So I road my bike to the audition and I locked up my bike outside the Improv. When I left, the cameraman asked me, “Well Felipe, you just made it to the next round of The Last Comic Standing, what would you have done if you had not made it through?” I said, “What would I have done? …What I’m doing right now, unlocking this bike and ride home sad.” The cameraman replied, “You rode a bike to the audition?” I said “Yeah, I don’t have a car.” So they saw that and were like “aww”. They felt I was a good story. You know… this guy struggling as a comedian, rides a bicycle and funny as hell. So, my bike worked in my favor. Everything I did worked for me the third time around. But I didn’t plan on it. It just worked.
Can you give me some behind the scenes on the last comic standing?
Well, I’m a lazy writer, but I have a lot of jokes in my head. I write them down one time and that’s it. Once I made it through, we had to write down all our jokes on paper. Everything we were going to say on the show. If you were going to say, “um” there had to be an, “um” on paper. The jokes were taken to the NBC lawyers who reviewed them for legal purposes. These are people in suits who don’t know comedy. They would read our jokes and say, “This joke? No. Oh, this joke? Heck no!” You know, so they would scratch our jokes that might get the network sued.
I had a joke about “Guitar Hero” the video game. It was, “I play so much Guitar Hero, I forgot the words to the songs, I just know what color it is. Is that Iron Man? Yeah! Green-green-yeeelllow-blue and red together (to Iron Man melody). The lawyers didn’t allow me to say “Guitar Hero”, so the whole joke was messed up. I couldn’t even sing “green, green yellow, blue and red together to the “Iron man” tune because it passed the amount of seconds you can use a song before they start charging you. So I had to change the joke over night.
My revised joke was, “You ever play that video game with the guitar? I play it so much; I forgot the words to the songs. Whenever I play it, I only know the colors.” But I couldn’t sing the Iron man melody so my joke was not as funny. Comedian Roy Woods Jr. had a joke about "Wendy’s," but he couldn’t say Wendy’s on national T.V.
So how did it feel to win?
Better than losing. I was farting confetti for two weeks.
You had to do many press conferences, how was that?
The press sucked at first because I wasn’t used to it. I would get up at five in the morning and do interviews. I did about 100 radio interviews one morning. Finally, for my last interview of the day, man, I was exhausted. I was getting interviewed by a Midwest station. I guess they weren’t a fan of me because they asked me questions about the comic who lost. They asked, “What do you think about him?” I replied, “I don’t know man! Who is this guy? He lost; you’re talking to the winner! Address me as The Last Comic Standing winner! That’s how you address me!” Then they hung up on me. They are the biggest Midwest station in America. I thought, “Well, I never heard of them,” so they can’t be that big. Also, I was featured on a cover of a Catholic Magazine.
Are you Catholic?
Yeah, but I don’t go to church. I only go to church when I have to. You know, Palm Sunday, Easter and Christmas.
What are your current projects? Can you give us a sneak peak of your new material?
I have a one hour special that I’m working on. I’ve been working hard on it. It’s all new material. You’ve only heard it if you’ve seen me live this year. It’s hard to keep material fresh these days because of the internet and all of the social networks. I want my material to be fresh for my TV specials. Some people record me during my shows, then they upload the footage on social media sites and the joke is gone, but I’ll give you a sample of my new jokes.
“I’m a single father. Being a single father is a hard job to do, but an easy job to get. There are no books for single fathers. There are no books on what to expect when she expects you to be there; Or how to raise the perfect child on Saturdays; Or what to do when your son calls another man dad. For example, I have a girlfriend with a 10 year old son. One day we were walking the mall and I was holding his hand. Then, what do you do when you see your real son walking your way? You’re holding another kids hand! I’m like, “whoa!” I feel like I just got caught cheating! But I didn’t let go of his hand, I told my real son, “Hey man, don’t get it twisted. Your day is Saturday!”
Half of my new material will be about being a single father and the other half will be about coming here illegally. I have a joke where I say, “My girlfriend is white and I took her to my mom’s house. My mom looked at me and said, “‘Pos’ (Well), I guess you made it.”
I talk about how sometimes my girlfriend cooks Mexican food, but it’s not real Mexican food. Its trailer trash Mexican fusion. So that’s some new material I have coming out.
Would you like to be in the movies?
Yeah, I go to many auditions, but I never get the part. It’s always between me and the guy who gets selected. Yesterday I turned down a role because the character was too stereotypical; like the chubby long haired goofy neighbor. Look at my face. How many roles can I really get? I might play the pothead guy or the terrorist guy getting kicked by Steven Segal in the face.
What accomplishments are you must proud of?
I would have to say throwing the first pitch at Dodger Stadium. I have done everything you could possibly do at Dodger Stadium. I sold souvenirs. I sold merchandise. I made hotdogs there. I worked the Taco Bell there. I got kicked out of a game twice there and finally -- I threw the first pitch there. All I have to do there now is sing the National Anthem.
Did you throw a fast ball or a curve ball?
I threw a knuckle ball and I still didn’t make it to home plate. It’s on YouTube.
So what advice would you give to someone pursuing comedy?
Quit! Don’t even try it! …Just kidding! I would say establish yourself as a good writer in school. If you can’t write, then you can’t do comedy.
Five years from now what will Felipe Esparza be doing?
Counting my money, man! Five years from now, I see myself doing my fourth comedy special and hopefully I will have written some movies. I want to do a movie called, Not Another Latino Movie. It’ll be all the spoofs from all the Latino movies. Danny De La Paz will get stabbed in every other scene.
Is there anything you would like to say to your fans?
Follow me on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. And watch me live, its better!