After two months taking the stage in front of all of America, 40-year-old comedian Felipe Esparza was named the winner of the seventh season of the hit TV talent show “Last Comic Standing” on Aug. 9. The win included $250,000 and a deal for a sitcom on NBC. Originally from East Los Angeles, Esparza, who is the first Latino to win the title since the series started back in 2003, jumped on the phone with me last week to talk about his victory and how he went from a troubled teenager to a champion comedian.
You looked pretty dumbfounded when you heard your name announced as the winner of “Last Comic Standing.”
Man, white people haven’t seen that look since O.J. [Simpson] was released.
Have they cut you your check for $250,000 yet?
Not yet, man. They said in 90 days.
Then it’s straight to the bank, right?
Nah, I’m taking it to the check cashing place, dawg. They’re going to charge me $20,000 to cash it.
You’ve been doing stand-up comedy for 16 years now, but how else were you making a living?
I worked at Dodger Stadium cooking hotdogs. When the game was over I would run over to the Comedy Store to go up on stage at midnight.
How do you like your hotdog?
Oh, man, I like them boiled and then grilled. Then I like mine with mayonnaise, tomatoes and onions, and avocado.
Growing up in East L.A. you’ve stated that you used to run with the wrong crowd when you were a kid. Can you expand on that experience and how you were able to escape that lifestyle?
Yeah, I grew up in Boyle Heights, the capital of East L.A. I lived in the housing projects. It was eight blocks of housing projects. When I was a kid there were a lot of gangs. We couldn’t even go outside and play. There were always fights outside and we always heard gunshots. I ran with gangs when I was 13 years old all the way to 20. When I was 20 I was a drug addict. I went to live at a men’s home for a year and a half. When I got out I was sober. I got a job with UPS, but I quit. Then I got the job at Dodgers Stadium and was there for a long time.
Your adolescence doesn’t sound like the optimal place for an aspiring comedian to find the humor in everyday life.
All I knew was my neighborhood and I always made everyone laugh. I turned everything into a joke. I said this joke on “Last Comic Standing”: I grew up in a gated community. The windows were gated. The back door was gated. The front door was gated.” It was a fortress.
How does it feel to be the first Latino to win “Last Comic Standing?”
Oh, man, it was the best to win but after I won I thought, “Oh, man, I’m also Latino, too!” So, after I realized I was Latino, it made the winning even better. I beat them not just as a comedian, but a Latino comedian. I should get two awards.
Too bad you don’t get another $250,000 for being Latino.
If that were to happen they’d probably give it to me in payments or they would have given me an IOU.
How do you feel when people throw all Latino comedians in the same category?
People do throw us in the same category, but after I won, not anymore. Before, they would just say, “Oh, he’s a Latino comedian. He tells Latino jokes. His comedy is just ethnic humor.” Not this time baby. This time a real motherfucker won.
So, how do you feel about Latino comedians that base their jokes only on race?
I say good for them. It opened doors for us. Paul Rodriguez opened doors for George Lopez. George Lopez opened those doors for Carlos Mencia. Carlos Mencia closed the doors. Then I got here and reopened them!
Not too many comedians think too highly of Carlos, huh?
Nah, because they consider him a joke stealer, that’s why. And good for him. Carlos kicked everybody’s ass and he did it his way. That guy is a millionaire. Leave him alone.
What if he steals one of your jokes?
Oh, man, believe me, there would be a hit on him. A lot of inmates in Chino prison have cell phones and voted for me. If Carlos Mencia or any of his family members get locked up, they’re going after them.