With his hilarious stories, energetic stage presence, and signature, “What’s Up Fool?” catchphrase, comedian Felipe Esparza has been building a rabid following of comedy fans for the last 20 years. During that time, he won “Last Comic Standing,” and earned his place on both stage and screen.
Esparza started doing comedy in the mid-’90s and immediately hit the ground running.
“I started stand-up in 1996,” he said in a phone interview. “I got a TV credit in ’96, too. I’d been doing it for eight or nine months. They had a show called ‘Loco Slam’ with Carlos Mencia and Paul Rodriguez. It was supposed to be like the ‘Latino Def Jam.’ The guy who produced that show did a show called ‘Latino Laugh Festival.’ It was a stand-up comedy show with Greg Giraldo, Cheech Marin, Paul Rodriguez and this Puerto Rican/Irish comic named John Mendoza.
“I’d been doing open mics for about eight months and I auditioned for that show,” Esparza said. “I stood in line at a cattle call. This woman named Pat Buckles liked me a lot. She eventually became my manager. She pushed for me to be on the show. I only had a tight seven (jokes). Pat helped me make a set list. I’d never used a set list before. She recorded me and then told me, ‘Do this joke, do that joke, set up with this one, finish with that one.’ I followed her advice and ended up on Showtime, man.”
But Esparza’s big break came when he won season seven of “Last Comic Standing.”
“I didn’t start going on the road, touring, being a working comedian, until 2010. After I won ‘Last Comic Standing’ is when I really started working the rooms and headlining comedy clubs,” Esparza said. “A lot of the comedians that were on the show with me, especially the top five, had already experienced that. They were already touring, but I’d never had those opportunities. I learned from those guys how to promote myself and how to stay relevant. When I won ‘Last Comic Standing,’ I got all of that and more. It felt good because I had a built-in underground following. That’s the reason I won.”
Esparza went on to release a one-hour special, “They’re Not Gonna Laugh at You,” on Showtime, followed by a live album, “Rebound Material.” He spent the next few years touring and refining his act, which led to his taping an all-new hour of material at the San Jose Improv last November.
The acting bug
Like many comics, Esparza has been expanding his resume to include acting, most recently on “The Eric Andre Show” and NBC’s “Superstore.” He’s still relatively new to the screen game, but realizes that each opportunity is a chance to learn.
“When friends call me to be in something I never ask how much it pays. I just consider that I’m going to be taught to act by a professional,” Esparza said. “If you worry about the money you’re going to have a short career, brother.”
Currently, he can be seen in the comedy documentary “Dying Laughing.”
“It’s all about what it’s like to bomb on stage,” Esparza said. “It has (Jerry) Seinfeld, Amy Schumer, Chris Rock, Russell Peters, the late Garry Shandling. ... It’s like 51 comedians talking about what it feels like to bomb.”
Comedy is an emotional roller coaster. It can hurt to bomb, but there are perks, too. For instance, getting an encouraging call from a comedy icon like Louis CK.
“Louis CK is cool. I was surprised to get a phone call from him last month,” Esparza said. “He had his manager ask my agent for my phone number and if it was alright to call me. He called and told me that he saw my special, and thought I was hilarious. That’s one of the things that keeps me going. Getting a phone call from a big comedian lets me know that I’m in their ear.”
When asked if he can pinpoint one thing that has contributed the most to his success, he credits his ability to play nice with everyone.
“The most important thing I would say is that I was always cool with everybody,” Esparza said. “Nobody could say, ‘Felipe treated me bad.’ Even the people that nobody liked, the people that had beef with each other, I’ve always been nice with both sides.”
For those who have never seen Esparza perform live, he had a quick quip.
“They can expect to laugh,” Esparza said. “I sound like the crazy guy that they used to know, the friend who should have been a comedian, but now he’s dead or in jail.”