This Saturday, HBO debuted a brand new hour from Latino comedian Felipe Esparza. Esparza won NBC’s Last Comic Standing in 2010, and has plenty of film and TV credits including Superstore, Lopez Tonight, The Eric Andre Show and The Tonight Show, but this is his first HBO special.
If you missed the premiere of Esparza’s Translate This, that’s okay because you can catch it on HBO GO or HBO On Demand and it will be running again on the network throughout the month. Recorded at the San Jose Improv in San Jose, California, Esparza talks about immigration, the pressures of being the child of parents who don’t speak English, returning to visit his native country of Mexico, and the challenges of raising a blond, blue-eyed stepson. The hour has plenty of new twists on familiar ground– growing up with immigrant parents has been a fertile ground for comedy for decades– but Felipe has his own unique angles and stories. Like having to learn to translate words that he didn’t know the meaning of yet (like back spasms) when he accompanied his parents to the doctor or having to do his parents’ taxes before he even had his own basic math down.
We spoke to Felipe about the new special– and he told us that having an HBO special was a dream come true. “I’ve always wanted to be on HBO series,” he said. Of course, it would be difficult to find a comedian who didn’t dream of having their own HBO special- the network that essentially created the mold for the stand-up special and has been followed ever since. But Esparza’s favorite comedy growing up was on HBO, making filming an hour with the network particularly meaningful. “When I was a kid, I saw the ‘Young Comedians’ show with Rodney Dangerfield, and I saw my idol, Paul Rodriguez. I always wanted to be a part of the group.”
Esparza and his wife produced the special himself, and sold it to HBO. “We were sitting down one day and said ‘We’ll do our own special.’ We have enough money saved up. We got our own director, Claude Shires. He’s one of the guys that edited my last special. And my wife, she edited the last special with Claude. So together, we found a crew on Real Media. We got the background, was my eight by 10, we did our own background. I did the craft service. We did it all ourselves.” They didn’t want the special to look homemade, so they went all in, and it was a learning experience on many levels. “I think one of the most expensive things that we had to use, we got a crane, and I didn’t know that when you … My wife, Lisa, she didn’t know that when you rent a crane, you also got to rent a crane operator. So we had to scramble around asking everyone in the crew, ‘Is anybody here certified to use a crane?'”
They filmed the hour at the Jose Theatre in San Jose, California– a 500 seater with a balcony. Felipe chose the Jose for a few reasons– it was the right size, the right location, he loved that the room had so much history– Chaplin used to perform there, Houdini performed there– but most of all, he was already scheduled to perform there, so it was free.
The DIY spirit has been a part of Esparza’s entire career which started when he was 21 years old and in drug rehab. He was in a group meeting where he and the others were asked to write down their dreams. “A lot of us didn’t know what he was talking about,” he said. “Some of us wrote ‘Dreams, I had this dream where I’m holding money and when I wake up, it’s gone. I have a dream where I’m naked in school.'” He goes ‘No, no, not those kinds of dreams, your goals, what you want to be in life.’ So, then I realized what he was talking about.” Number one on Felipe’s list was to become a comedian, so when he came out of rehab, he decided to figure out how to make that happen. “I didn’t have no computer or have computer skills. So I went old school,” he told me. That meant a trip to the public library and a stack of books on writing comedy. “I started reading these books every day. I would go there Monday through Friday, from 8:00a.m. to 8:00p.m., whenever I had the chance. I would stay there for hours reading.” He also checked out videos of his favorite comics– Lenny Bruce, Eddie Murphy, Rodney Dangerfield. “One of his favorite comedians was Paul Rodriguez. I was so happy to find out that Paul Rodriguez’s favorite comedian was Richard Pryor and Rodney Dangerfield, who I also loved.” Once he had read enough, he checked LA Weekly and learned about open mic shows. “I pretty much knew what that was, kind of like try-outs. So I went to a place called the Natural Fudge on Fountain Avenue and I did my first comedy skit of what I had. I got some laughs. And I met Jamie Kennedy, he was just starting off too. I think he was living in his car, you know? He was a nice guy to me,” he recalled.
Years later, he got to meet and get some advice from his hero, Paul Rodriguez, and now he’s finding himself inspiring other young kids, but he’s not quite comfortable with that yet. “It blows my mind when I get an email from somebody, ‘You inspired me, man.’ Or ‘I had a horrible day and I’m feeling good now.'”
He’s starting a new tour called the Bad Decision Tour with all new material and you can look for dates on felipeesparza.com. Felipe’s HBO special, Translate This premiered on Saturday, and is now available on HBO GO and HBO On Demand.