KPCC's Erika Aguilar goes in-depth with Felipe Esparza about his transition from the streets of East LA to being a highly successful stand-up comedian who won NBC's "Last Comic Standing" in 2010, and says being an immigrant is central to his comedy.
Where does your story start?
My story started when we crossed the border when I was six or five. From Sinaloa, Mexico. My father, he came to America first, started another family, then came and got us. (Laughing) That’s part of my comedy routine. I did a lot of translating for my parents like most immigrant kids. I would go to the hospital and translate for the doctor and they would tell me things like, "Tell your father he has back spasms." And I’m like third grade. I never heard back spasms in Spanish or English. So I would translate English the way I saw white people do it. You know, the way I saw my teacher do it. The way I saw the white police man do it – just add an “O” after every English word. "Papa, tienes backo spasmo." And the doctor would look at me and he would go, "That’s pretty good, kiddo."
Why is immigration, Latino issues … why is it so much part of your work? Why is it so important to you?
Because I find it funny. And I could relate to it, being an immigrant myself. And I like saying it, you know, because not a lot of people talk about it, so I want to talk about. Some kids had their birthday party at McDonald’s, Chuck-e-Cheese’s. I had mine at the snack bar at Kmart. I got a lot of gifts ... but I had to put them all back. "Hey, hey, hey. Mijo, mijo, you get that toy in three months. Esta layway, c----n.”
Tell me what happened after that night you got high on PCP and got into a fight with one of your rivals?
The next day I’m walking around with blood on my shirt. There’s blood on my shoes. I don’t know what to do. So I’m walking around with a loaded pistol now for like a week because I’m scared there’s going to be retribution for what happened. So my mom -- you know how most Catholic moms are – they pray and thank God for everything.
So, Father Greg Boyle comes to my house. And he goes, "I heard you got into a lot of trouble. What are you going to do?' And I said, “Well, I ain’t going to run. I’m right here. They know where I live.” He said, "That’s what your mom told me. Maybe you need a break." I said, “Break. Where am I going to go? I’m not the Fresh Prince of Bel Air. We have a long talk and we sit and pray and then I decided to go to rehab. I was 21.
So, I’m there for about a year and I finally get out. I get out on a break and I go back … first person I see is the guy who I beat up. And he wants to revenge. And he started walking towards me, in front of me and my mom. And I just came from church. I’m just ignoring him. And I turned my back to him and I shouldn’t have done that, and he just kicks the Bible off of my hand. And he goes, “You think I’m going to stop just because your f------ mom is here. And I go, “I’m going to f--- you up right now. We’re going to fight!”
Then, I just … I thought about it – and it’s always sad because … I really wanted to go kill this guy, man … I really, really! … wanted to just end it all right there and just … But I cried, instead, which made things worse. “You gonna cry you, pussy!” So, I just went inside; I grabbed this big as bat and I just – I just rushed outside.
And my Dad with all his might, he just hold me. Hold me. And the more he hold me, the more I cried; the more I cried. And I could just hear this guy … Seeehhheee, man. I just didn’t not go outside … and um, … my Dad just … he ended up taking me back to the rehab that day and then, I couldn’t go back home.
Then you went back to rehab, where you met a mentor who asked you, "What did you always want to be in life?"
And I said, “Umm, do you mean like goals?” “Yeah, like goals. What were your goals? Well, I never really had goals. I never thought about being anything but a comedian. Write that, number one: comedian. And then it goes easy! Then, I was like happy! But like happy tears come out of my eyes. The second one was to be happy. Easy. The third one: I always liked Olive Garden. I wanted to go Italy, not just taste it. And then four and five, I couldn’t think anymore. I was too excited about the first one. So what I would do, I would bring in all the homies from my neighborhood where I lived, you know, and they would give me a ride. I had an audience and I made them laugh and it felt good, man.
I want Latinos to laugh the hardest at my jokes. I want white people to laugh, too, but I don’t want them to laugh as hard as Latinos do.