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Last Comic Standing's Felipe Esparza

By Mark Fisher
Published: Thursday, September 09, 2010, at 10:36AM
Felipe Esparza Eva Rose Alaniz

Growing up in the rough streets of Boyle Heights isn’t easy, but perseverance and determination can certainly help make dreams come true. The neighboring community just on the other side of the L.A. River has produced many success stories, including Joe Gold (Gold’s Gym), (Black Eyed Peas), entertainment mogul Lou Adler, and even Mayor Villaraigosa.

You can add Felipe Esparza to that list.

Despite being turned away at the Season Five auditions, the wild-haired comedian just won $250,000 and a development deal on NBC’s 7th season of “Last Comic Standing.” Not bad for someone who went from serving hot dogs at Dodger Stadium twenty years ago to throwing out the ceremonial first pitch this summer.

It wasn’t an easy trail to fame, even with Hollywood being just a bus or bike ride away. Esparza grew up in the Pico Rivera projects and fell victim to drugs and gangs in his youth. He had to reach rock bottom before a well-known local priest was able to put him back on the right track. Thanks to great guidance and humanity, Esparza used comedy to turn his life around. By using true-life experiences from East L.A. to connect with audiences, Esparza was determined to do what he loved most. It wasn’t long before touring the country and supporting established acts like Paul Rodriguez, Gabriel Iglesias and Russell Peters became a reality.

Nothing has been off-limits in Esparza's routine, which includes references to Silver Lake hipsters, Mexican birthday parties and what it's like to sit in the back seat of a police cruiser. He currently holds the title of most appearances by any comedian on Galavision‘s “Que Locos.” He has also appeared on Comedy Central’s “Russell Simmons Presents: Stand-Up at the El Rey," ABC‘s “Comics Unleashed,“ Showtime‘s “Comics Without Borders,“ and BET‘s “Comic View“ and “One Mic Stand.“ He recently completed two films, including “The Deported“ which stars Nick Turturro, Talia Shire and Paul Rodriguez.

This week Esparza makes a double appearance Downtown, with his second film “I‘m Not Like That No More“ (also starring Paul Rodriguez) screening at the Downtown Film Festival on Friday, September 10th, and the Last Comic Standing tour making a stop at Club Nokia L.A. Live on Saturday.

Esparza took some time to speak with blogdowntown about growing up near Downtown and how Homeboy Industries’ Father Greg Boyle changed his direction and outlook on life.

MARK FISHER: What got you into comedy?

FELIPE ESPARZA: I listened to my first comedy album in 6th grade. It was Bill Cosby. My brother and I would play it over and over on a Fisher Price record player. A friend in high school also introduced me to Richard Pryor. I wasn’t writing material back then, but I would say funny stuff. I was good at making fun of people’s moms. If I knew something personal about you, it would be used against you.

MF: Who are some of your influences in the world of comedy?

FE: George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Paul Rodriguez, Eddie Murphy, and Lenny Bruce. There was no internet back then, so I used to check out comedy cassettes from the Central Library in Downtown.

MF: How did you become so close with fellow comedians Gabriel Iglesias and Paul Rodriguez?

FE: I met Gabriel in Montebello. I was running the door at a comedy venue. I had a night every Wednesday at 10pm for ten years. Gabriel came in one day and we didn’t know who he was. He went on stage and killed it. We became very close after that. In fact, he mentions me a lot in his act.

I met Paul in 1996. He was hosting the first comedy TV show I was on. After that, I’d occasionally run into him. He’s been a big fan and huge focus for me over the past five years. Every time I felt broke, he came through. He asked if I would like to open up for him in Vegas. He didn’t have to ask twice. This is why I asked him to be in my movie. He helped the movie a lot.

MF: Can you talk about growing up in Boyle Heights?

FE: We moved to L.A. when I was two. I went to Sheridan Street Elementary and grew up in the Pico Gardens housing projects. I started drinking at age 15. When I was 19 or 20 years old, I went from selling crack to smoking it. I was hooked. My life went downhill. People were already calling me an alcoholic. I got into many fights and got beat-up. My mom took me to meet with Father Greg Boyle. This was before Homeboy Industries was started. He prayed for me and I felt I had no other choice but to go into rehab. I was there for a year. I returned home and couldn’t hang, so I went back to rehab. I recovered again and then found a job. That’s when my life turned around.

MF: Being that you lived so close, did you ever venture into Downtown as a child?

FE: We used to go to Grand Central Market when we were kids. My dad used to take us to get fried shrimp next door. I remember when my mom used to take us to the Million Dollar Theater to see the performers and Mexican artists. I would love to do a half-hour comedy special in Spanish there. Growing up, I always wanted to see my name on the marquee at the State Theatre. I remember seeing Jaws 2 there.

I still like to hang Downtown. I like Clifton’s Café because that place looks like a lodge. I also like Philippe’s and Farmer Boys. My girlfriend and I will usually come down for Art Walk.

MF: Your act has evolved over the years. It went from a fast-paced delivery to a slower, burned-out pace. Why the change in direction?

FE: It wasn't a conscious decision. I was just finding my voice. I slowly became more comfortable with being myself on stage. I was also not trying to sound like every other comedian out there.

MF: What do you plan to do with the $250,000 you won from NBC’s Last Coming Standing?

FE: Pay rent! Actually, it hasn’t sunk in yet. The check isn’t here yet, but will be in a couple of months. I’m like that guy in the neighborhood that’s won a settlement. I’m actually going to donate to a couple of causes and Homeboy Industries is one of them.

MF: Any words of encouragement for those looking to break into comedy?

FE: Have something to fall back on…like a girlfriend. I’m not going to lie. It’s a lonely career. It doesn’t matter how old you are or where you are in life. Hit up the nearest comedy stage by yourself. Pull together three minutes of your best jokes and go to open mic nights. Keep at it.

Felipe Esparza’s “I‘m Not Like That No More“ will be screening at the Downtown Film Festival on Friday, September 10th at the LAPD's Ron Deaton Auditorium (100 W. 1st).

The Last Comic Standing Tour will stop at Club Nokia L.A. Live this Saturday, September 11th.

Want to see Felipe live? We've got five pairs of tickets for Saturday's Last Comic Standing show at Club Nokia. Just leave a comment letting us know why you should win. Entries close Friday at 10am.

Felipe Esparza's Final 5 performance on "Last Comic Standing"


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