Felipe Esparza On His First HBO Comedy Special & Crossing the Border in Disguise

Courtesy of HBO

Felipe Esparza has always understood why his father didn’t want him to be a stand-up comedian. It wasn’t the fact that his family, who immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico in the late 70s, came from a long line of blue-collar workers. He had just never seen a Mexican stand-up comedian on TV before.

“When I told my father I wanted to be a standup comedian, he straight up told me, ‘That’s not for you,’” Esparza told Remezcla. “He thought comedy was just for black and white people.”

Esparza didn’t blame his father for not believing in his dream. He had brought his entire family to the U.S. in search of a better life, and Esparza, who was only four or five when he came, wanted to prove to him he could achieve his own American Dream by making people laugh. It didn’t matter to him that comedians like Eddie Murphy, Steve Martin, Bill Cosby and George Carlin were some of the only faces he saw on television growing up.

It took Esparza some time to get on the straight and narrow early on. His teenage years were plagued with drug and alcohol addiction, a habit he was able to kick in his early 20s. It was then when Esparza decided to make a major change in his life and take some sound advice his father gave him when he was a kid. He remembers him coming home every day from work with “dirty hands like a mechanic.” One night, he sat Esparza down and told him he wanted him to have an easier life than someone who makes a living doing hard labor.

“He looked at me and said, ‘Mijo, I don’t care what you do in life, but if you get a job where you come home and you don’t have to wash your hands, then that’s a good job, Esparza said. “He wanted me to have a job that made me happy and didn’t break my back.”

Suffice it to say, Esparza, who was awarded $250,000 when he won Season 7 of the NBC reality talent show Last Comic Standing in 2010, has never had to run to a restroom to lather up his hands when he walks off stage after a comedy set. Seven years later, he sees how winning the competition has changed his life and put him on a path to live out his dream (maybe not the exact dream his father had imagined, but still a dream).

That dream continues with the debut of Esparza’s very first stand-up comedy special on HBO. In Translate This, which airs on Saturday, September 30 at 10pm EST, Esparza, who also hosts the podcast What’s Up Fool?, talks about his career, personal life and what it was like to grow up in Boyle Heights.

During an interview with Remezcla, Esparza talked about his new stand-up special, what he did with the quarter million he won on TV and why always he tries to stay away from overtly political jokes.

On finding out HBO would air his stand-up special

When I found out that my special was going to be on HBO I was super excited because I always wanted to be on HBO. As a standup comedian, it’s a dream to be on HBO and have a standup special. I was very excited when HBO decided to buy my special. I did my special DYI and my agent submitted it to HBO and they fell in love with it. It was one of the first specials that HBO bought where they didn’t have to change a lot about it.

On the $250,000 he received in 2010 for winning Last Comic Standing

I have a lot of money left. I had to pay a lot of taxes, of course. When I won Last Comic Standing, my son’s mom filed for child support. So, she became the Last Baby Mama Standing. She got most of the money tax-free. I pay all my debts. Everything that I’ve ever owned, I paid it all off. Most importantly, I made a lot of donations to people. I made donations to [L.A.-based non-profit] Homeboy Industries (provides training and support to former gang members and previous incarcerated men and women).

On being the only Latino to win Last Comic Standing during all nine seasons

I’m very proud of that. Gabriel Iglesias was on the show during [Season 4] and he got kicked out for using his phone. When I was on the show, I was the only Latino and I made it all the way through. I always thought I was going to get kicked out of the show somehow or some way.

On his immigration status

I’m not a DREAMer, I’m a believer. I came before [President Ronald] Reagan did amnesty [in 1986]. Reagan did his own thing. I just made it, bro. I remember there was so many checkpoints in California. I remember crossing the border twice in a car and [border patrol] caught us. The third time we tried, we came disguised and crossed the border. It was like that movie Argo. We were El Argo.

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On his support of the DREAMers

I can tell you, I am for the DREAMers. But, really, am I? What am I doing to help, know what I mean? Am I going to take one of those kids in? Am I going to give him money? No. All I can say is that I do support those kids. They need help. I left all the phone numbers of all the hotlines where they can get help on my website. A lot of people say they are for the DREAMers, but all they do is more “likes” on their Twitter and Snapchat. They’re not going to help. They’re not calling their congressman and senators every day.

On people getting offended by jokes

When stand-up comedy is live, it’s so funny. When it’s on paper, comedy might look offensive. Let’s say a joke was blown out of proportion – what you don’t see on paper is the comedian’s attitude when they say the joke like the little smirk he did afterward or the way he moved his head. When they don’t see all the nuances or the personality behind the joke, it may come off as offensive. But if you’re watching it live with a bunch of friends and you’re having a beer and nachos and hot wings, it’s hilarious.

On that time he offended someone with a joke

I was doing a show for a corporation that was paying me good money – like $200. (Laughs) They told me to be clean and not to drop any F bombs and not to say the B-word or the N-word or the alphabet. So, here’s me doing my joke: Man, every time my brother comes out of prison, he comes out worse. The first time, he came out a better thief. The second time, he came out racist. He hates black people. But this time, he came out worse – he came out a born-again Christian. They took the microphone away from me, bro! The lady snatched it out of my hands like we were in a relay race. And then she put her hand in front of my face. She was like, “That’ll be all from Felipe Esparza!” She didn’t even let me finish the joke! The end of the joke was something like, “Yeah, now he steals in the name of the Lord!”

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On political humor

I try to stay away from politics because it’s only going to be funny for about five minutes till something new comes along. I try to tell jokes that will make people laugh for many, many years. I think the majority of people are tired of [political jokes]. I’m like a vacation for people that don’t want to hear that. I take them to a different place. I can’t write a funnier President Trump joke than the people on late night TV. They are professional writers. I have a joke where I say that white people don’t want to do the jobs that immigrants do. I say, “Well, I must be white because I don’t want to do that shit either!” That’s as political as I get. I’m not taking sides with anybody.

On the future of his sitcom  that ABC showed interest in

It’s not happening this year, I’ll tell you that much. ABC [showed interest], but they turned down the pilot. So, Fox fell in love with the show. They’re going to look at the pilot in 2018. So, we’re in sitcom pilot limbo right now.

On why he doesn’t have a Wikipedia page

I don’t have a Wikipedia page because you have not put one together for me, bro! I can’t do my own Wikipedia! It doesn’t work that way! So, somebody has to do it for me and do all the research. I got friends who I grew up with that are in jail right now that have a Wikipedia page and I don’t!

Felipe Esparza: Translate This debuts September 30 at 10 p.m. on both HBO and HBO Latino.