Q&A: Felipe Esparza
Felipe Esparza and his wife Lesa went the do-it-yourself route to produce the special that HBO broadcast in September as Translate This. It was a gamble that paid off for the 2010 Last Comic Standing champion, as his career took an upward arc he’s been riding ever since. He performs at Treasure Island on Feb. 23. Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Kelemen interrupted his late vegan quesadilla lunch to find out more.
How long have you been vegan?
I’ve been vegan since 2011 but I’m still fat. People don’t believe me. They say, “What are you eating, crops?”
In your act you talk about how your mom filled you up a lot.
Yeah, no more cheese, no more meat.
That sounds like a good decision. Did you make any bad decisions this week?
Oh yeah, man. I didn’t bring a warm jacket to Chicago. It was freezing.
It looks like your Bad Decisions Tour made a successful stop in Chicago. You had to add a date at the Vic Theatre, and the first show was well-reviewed.
Thank you. Was that the Chicago Tribune?
I believe so.
I was really surprised because I’ve never read a review of my show. If I would have known, I would not have let him in there. (Laughs) I’m trying out new jokes and I don’t want them to be published, you know? How was the article, was it good?
Yeah, it was mostly positive. I got the impression you were still on a high from the HBO special. Is that giving you an extra boost onstage?
Yeah, man. It’s giving me a little boost onstage. More people are showing up. I’ve got newer fans who have never heard of me. I’ve been doing this for 20 years, so it’s amazing.
Are you seeing bigger crowds and more enthusiasm?
I’m seeing more crowds and more tickets being sold. I can’t believe that. That’s never happened before, so I’m very grateful for that.
You have something going on this Friday (Jan. 19), bringing it back home to Boyle Heights. Is Coffee with Felipe something you do often, or more occasionally?
This Friday at 10 a.m. I’m doing Coffee with Felipe. It’s a meet and greet, and I’m going to sell tickets to my comedy show March 23 at the Noble Theater. It gives the fans a chance to meet me and buy tickets at the regular price with no taxes and no surcharges. I’ll take a photo, and I’m selling my vinyl there too. I have a vinyl, double-record comedy album, and it’s all my jokes from HBO.
Does having your own vinyl record take you back to when you started listening to Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor albums?
Yeah, man. I’m hoping my record inspires someone to be something.
The generation that grew up listening to comedy on vinyl had a different experience than people that heard it on cassette first.
I grew up listening to comedy on record, and man, when you hear that needle hit that thing and the audience claps it feels good. It feels like you’re there.
A lot of people talk about the difference between listening to music on record and digitally, but there’s something to be said about listening to it on vinyl. You’re more likely to listen to it with other people, and absorb the material.
Yeah, when you’re listening to comedy on record it sounds different than cassette or CD. It sounds better. … I memorized everything, bro. I memorized every single word, and I remember coming home from junior high school watching these cholos who had asked me to be in their gang in my neighborhood. There were gangs like the Bloods and Mexican gangs, and they got along. I remember when I as coming home these guys, they were smoking weed and they had a ghetto blaster, and they were all listening to Eddie Murphy’s Delirious on a boom box. And I said “Whoa!” I stood there for 20 minutes listening to Eddie Murphy, and I memorized everything.
I think most people only listened to Eddie Murphy on cassette.
Yeah, it was cassette, bro. Side One and Side Two.
Were you the guy that did Eddie Murphy routines for your friends at the bus stop and at school, or did you just absorb it?
I listened to the cassette over and over. When I met my friend Emilio Garcia, he was an older guy that went to a rival high school. They put kids that went to Roosevelt High and Garfield High together at our school in like five bungalows that were for college (preparatory). We got to take college classes at my high school on those, which was awesome. Those college units were worth more than college credit. That’s where I met my friend Emilio Garcia. He was a college student, and he was hanging out near the high school quad where I was. … We started talking to him and we befriended him, and started hanging out at his house. He put on a Richard Pryor album, and man that was amazing. Amazing. I memorized all the jokes.
How soon after that did you know you wanted to be a comedian?
Oh, right away. As soon as I heard Bill Cosby I knew I wanted to be a comedian. I was in junior high school.
Do you remember the first time you got onstage? Did you have enough material, or did you wing it?
I had no material. I had no jokes. I went to a library and I asked them to help me find books on comedy writing. I knew I was funny, but I didn’t know how to construct a joke. I read Step by Step to Standup Comedy by Greg Dean. He used to write for Jack Paar, Johnny Carson, Steve Allen, all these older guys. So I read the book. I learned a lot of technique on how to write jokes, the way to write. The other book, Comedy Writing Secrets: (The Best-selling Book on) How to Think Funny, Write Funny, Act Funny, and Get Paid For It, I read that book. And then I read a bunch of other books at the library. I would check out VHS videos from George Carlin, Lenny Bruce, and I got to know a lot of different styles of comedy. And I loved deadpan. That was my style growing up. I loved Steven Wright, and Rodney Dangerfield, even though he wasn’t deadpan. I was bombing a lot trying deadpan. A lot. I was bombing. So then I started being honest with myself, and that’s when I started getting more laughs.
Were you consistently doing standup between the time you got started and Last Comic Standing?
Yeah, I did it for like 21 years. I was performing like six times a week. I didn’t get paid, but I was still making it. I think at one time I was making $5,000 a year.
You were grinding it out but you had good audiences.
I was what you call … you know the Blue Collars of Comedy? I was blue-collar comedy. I would work from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., drive to Dodger Stadium and work from 4:45 to 10 p.m. And then after work, where I’m selling hot dogs and beers, I would drive my car to the Comedy Store and I would go up there at midnight, and I would be there for a long time.
Was Last Comic Standing your first television appearance?
I did a show that was filmed for a special called Latino Laugh Festival. Jeff Valdez had a Latino comedy festival in San Antonio, and I got to meet a lot of good comics like John Mendoza, Greg Giraldo, Cheech Marin, Paul Rodriguez, Freddy Soto, Johnny Sanchez. We all did the show, and it was my first TV credit. And then I was on Que Locos. I was on nine times. Then time slowed down for a while, and in 2010 I was on Last Comic Standing.
How did you get that opportunity?
The first time I tried out I didn’t have management, so I had no connection. I spent the night outside of the Improv with 30 other comedians I knew. There were 1,000 people standing in line by 6 in the morning. I had friends who were going to be at the Improv that night, and they saved me a space. I was No. 30, out of that whole line. And I passed. They passed me. I came back to audition at nighttime in front of the cameras, and I remember man, I’ll never forget. I was standing next to Jeff Dunham, and they said, “We have one more ticket for Las Vegas.” I remember they showed me for three seconds on television, and then they chose Jeff Dunham. … This was the year he won.
And then you had a second one?
The second one, I had an audition. My manager got me an audition, and they passed me. They said no. I went home, cried, got drunk, did a lot of drugs, and said, “F*ck that show. I’ll never audition for them again.” Then in 2010 I went to audition. Man, I was so broke. I didn’t want to ask no one for a car, for a ride, nothing. So I got my beach cruiser with the red tires, and I put on my coat, my backpack, and I rode on my bike to the audition. And then when I went to the audition they didn’t pass on me. They said I’m moving up. … They interviewed me for a long time and I moved up. And I won.
In the highlights I saw you were very comfortable. Did you kind of reach a point that because of what you had gone through you almost didn’t care?
I was ready, man. I was ready. If that show went on for another six weeks, I had six more weeks of material to do. Solid, good sh*t, you know what I mean? Those guys on the show, they threw up their best material in the beginning of the show. Man, they weren’t ready for someone like me. I was a joke machine.
Did your career change immediately after you won?
My career changed immediately after I won. Immediately. People liked me. I remember when we went to Connecticut and we did a show somewhere on the Last Comic Standing tour, when I went up on stage there was this old white couple on stage in their 60s. They made their own Team Felipe T-shirt. What’s up with that?