Translating Struggle into Standup with Felipe Esparza

Felipe Esparza’s story is a twisted, modern-day fairy tale: The son of immigrant parents learns English to help his parents, joins a gang, gets addicted to drugs, has his life threatened, then meets a spiritual advisor who pushes him to get clean and follow his dream of being a comedian. These vignettes make up Felipe’s act, an act that stands out as being incredibly original and deeply personal. Much of his life story is captured in his new HBO special Translate This, available now on HBO GO and HBO NOW. I talked to Felipe about selling a DIY special, his wild teens and 20s, and overcoming demons to achieve his goals.

HBO, buddy. That’s exciting.

I’ve always wanted an HBO special since I started doing standup comedy. As a kid I would always try to videotape hours of comedy. They were all HBO specials: Robin Williams, Howie Mandel, Paul Rodriguez. I had a special before on Netflix. That special wasn’t really my special. It was like someone else’s special. They just paid me a little bit of money. But for this special I did all of the production myself. I put in the money. My wife executive produced and edited it. She hired a guy to direct it, Claude Shires with Unreel Media. My wife chose the location of the shoot. She went scouting and liked the San Jose Improv. I was booked there anyway and thought it would be perfect to shoot there because we could use the theater for free and cut costs. Everything I did myself. The background is my own photos. If you watch the credits, craft service is Felipe’s Fuego. I did the craft service too.

So you decided to front the money for the whole thing in hopes of selling it?

Yeah. Time was going by and we didn’t sell it, but my agent had a meeting with HBO and showed them the special and they fell in love with it. They usually don’t buy specials from a third party. Most of the specials HBO has are produced with HBO people. But they loved it, offered me money, and we made a deal.

The title is Translate This. What’s the meaning behind that?

The title I came up with nobody wanted. I wanted to call it Wetback. They thought people from the Midwest might see the name Wetback and not want to watch it. So then I thought Bad Hombre. They said no. My wife said, “You talk about translating for your mom and dad through your act. Why don’t you call it Translate This?” The story is about me growing up with immigrant parents who really can’t speak or read English at all. I had to learn English and translate English to Spanish without any help when I was four years old. I’ve been translating for them my whole life. I still do.

Were you born here or did your parents bring you here when you were young?

My mother brought me here when I was a kid. She brought me and my little brother. My father was already here living in America. I grew up in a family of seven kids. Three of them were born here and four were born in Mexico.

Why did it fall on you to be the one who, at age four, started translating for your parents?

Because the other kids were idiots. No, they were too young. I had no choice but to step up. They made me step up. I was filling out immigration forms before I was doing my homework. Any time I needed a permission slip from my parents – they didn’t know what that was – I signed it for them.

How do you think your experience shaped the way you look at America and the state of immigration here?

The way I was raised and everything that happened in my life, good or bad, has shaped me into the person that I am right now. I wouldn’t change anything. I learned a lot from the bad and I learned a lot from the good. My parents are American citizens because of me, probably. I applied for them to take their citizenship tests. They’re living the American dream. They came here, worked really hard, their kids all went to school. Felipe Esparza got a little crazy along the way, but it’s okay now.

When I first wanted to be a comedian I was in the 6th or 7th grade. My friend Jack turned me on to Bill Cosby. We’d listen to Bill Cosby all night. I loved it. In high school I made a friend named Emilio Garcia. He introduced me to Richard Pryor. That right there changed my life. That album was the funniest album I’d ever heard. I used to imitate Richard Pryor’s jokes to my friends. Of course, I didn’t have any goals, structure, anyone to lead me or tell me how to live my life when I was a teenager. I went into a gang. They jumped me in. I was a gang member. I sold drugs to people. I sold drugs to myself. I was an addict. The drugs they gave me to sell, I took.

You were the worst kind of dealer.

Yeah, man. I was in debt.

You ended up in rehab in your early 20s, right?

Yeah, I got really, really messed up. I started smoking PCP. I used to get so spaced out. I talked about this on Ari Shaffir’s This Is Not Happening. One night I got into this crazy fight with a known gang member in the neighborhood. I bit half his ear off. I sent that guy to the hospital and he was almost dead. The cops asked who did it and he didn’t rat me out. He said, “Don’t worry about it. I’m going to take care of it myself.” Word got around that he wanted to kill me. I was scared and didn’t know what to do. I was walking around with a loaded .38 pistol for a long time. I wasn’t ready to shoot nobody, but someone loaned it to me. They said, “You’re going to need this.” I was like, “What? Well, I have a gun now, I guess.”

My mother was scared. She spoke to a priest named Father Greg Boyle about putting me out of danger. He talked about moving me out of here. She said, “We’re the only relatives he knows here in America.” So he put me in a drug rehab. I checked in. I lived among other drug addicts in the house. It was non-denominational. You didn’t have to be a Catholic or Christian. You could be Muslim, Jewish, Presbyterian. Addiction does not discriminate. One day a Catholic minister…he wasn’t a priest. He was way below a priest, below a nun even. He wasn’t really a priest, but he did all the priests’ dirty work. He was talking to us because he was an ex-alcoholic too. His name was Tim. I’d call him Timmy and he’d get mad. He told us to write down our goals in life. “I know nobody has ever asked you that. I know you didn’t wake up one day and want to be a cholo gang member who sells and does drugs.” I immediately wrote “Number 1: Comedian.” That’s what I really wanted to be. For Number 2 I wrote, “Italy.” I always wanted to go to Italy because I loved Olive Garden. I wanted to go where that delicious food came from. How much did I know, right? Number 3 was, “I want to be happy.” I thought he was going to read these notes in front of everybody and I’d get judged, but he didn’t. He told us to put it away and save it and know now that we have goals. Now everybody goes out with a purpose in life. I came out of rehab and said, “Fuck it. I’m going to be a comedian.”

I went to the public library and asked a very nice librarian if she could assist me in finding comedy writing books. It was so hard to find standup comedy writing books. Now there are probably a million of them. I might write one. But there were none. I had to find books on comedy writing for Toastmasters. I found one by Steve Allen and another by a guy who used to write for Johnny Carson named Gene Perret. I read those books, took notes, read more books, books on sketch writing, checked out VHS tapes of all the greats. I picked up an LA Weekly one day and saw “Open Mic.” I didn’t know what open mic was. I researched it and saw “comedy.” I went to my first open mic. I was so new I put on a sports jacket like those ‘80s comedians. Sports jacket, shirt, no tie, jeans, tennis shoes. I looked like Fozzie Bear. I had no material, no jokes. I went up and turned into the guy I was in the neighborhood. I started talking to the audience and I made fun of them. Making fun of people was my first set.

Was Last Comic Standing the thing that pushed you to the forefront?

That was the pinnacle of my career. It opened so many doors. I became a hot commodity. A lot of agents wanted to sign me because I was new. They’d never heard of me.

What do you have coming up once the special drops?

I’m going to a my Bad Decisions tour. The new tour is about all the bad decisions I’ve ever made.

Translating Struggle into Standup with Felipe Esparza