There is nothing off limits with Felipe Esparza, he assures me. And I don’t just mean that in the cliche way you might say about a comedian who doesn’t have any boundaries. But when it comes to talking about his own life, and his own “bad decisions”, Esparza has gotten to a place where he can own the stage with them. It’s his stage, and he’s going to take you on a journey with them. Hence the title of his first Netflix special. Bad Decisions.
His first Netflix special is unique. He decided that he wanted to do the same special, twice, in both English and Spanish. (In Spanish it translates to Malas Decisiones). And how did he prepare himself to do this? By literally going to Tijuana a few times a month to play a comedy club there. By doing this, he got to perfect his Spanish and learn the difference between playing a Hispanic crowd in California and actually being in Mexico to do so. And he put everything he learned into the special itself.
In addition to his work as a stand-up, Esparza is also starting to gain prominence as an actor, having appeared on Superstore and popping up in two episodes earlier this year on the critically acclaimed Gentrified on Netflix. Not to mention, Esparza also has his own podcast, What’s Up Fool?. So needless to say, the man manages to keep himself busy during a time when so many are figuring out what is coming next.
We recently spoke to Esparza last month about his new special, his trips to Tijuana to prepare, how his family feels about him being so open and raw onstage, how Diff’rent Strokes made him want to be on TV, making bad decisions, and what he misses most about the pre-pandemic days.
The first thing I want to ask about is what goes into developing the same special for two different audiences?
Well I started working on the English special in 2017 and I had it pretty much polished and ready by the middle of 2019. And I was approached to do a Netflix Special. I said “Ok, I’ll do a Netflix Special, but can I do it in Spanish too?” And they asked me, “How good is your Spanish?” And I said “Well it will be good enough to memorize a one hour set.” And I had no idea how hard this was going to be.
So I really had to start at the bottom. I didn’t have a lot of comedy in Spanish, all I had was in English and the few English that I could translate into Spanish was only like 7 minutes of Spanish material. So I opened up for a comedian in San Diego, a headliner. She was a traveling comedian who was doing stand-up in Spanish in the border states of America. And I asked her if I could open up for her for the two shows that she was doing in San Diego and she said yes. And I got to meet her and a bunch of other different comedians. And along the way I had a comedian transcribe my English set to Spanish. And one thing I noticed right away was when I was doing my comedy in Spanish, here in California, it was received well. Everybody was getting it. But I was worried because the people that I was performing for, were also people who speak English, too. Like these people speak English all day. They probably speak Spanish on the weekends, when they visit their mom. So I wanted to have a better perspective on my Spanish so I decided that I have to do shows in Mexico to make this work right. So I went to Tijuana, Mexico, and I started doing comedy shows at a club three times a month so I got better and comfortable.
Wow. And what was the biggest thing you learned from that? Like what are the clubs and crowds in Tijuana like?
What I learned right away was, in Mexico, the crowd wasn’t as forgiving as the American crowd when I messed up a Spanish word. Like, if I messed up a Spanish word in America, in California, they thought it was cute. You know, “Oh, he missed the one word. How cute.” And they would give me a chance to fix it and make it better. When I got to Tijuana, Mexico, for the second show, I started to realize that half of the audience does not speak English at all and they’re fluent only in Spanish. So when I would mess up a joke, I would get just total silence. Like a joke bombed so I had to recover real fast. And if somebody heckled me in Spanish, I had no idea what to say to him because I was just focused on my set. (Laughs).
I remember somebody heckled me in Spanish and normally, in English, I would have known what to say immediately to shut him down. I remember, he said it in Spanish, but it got a big laugh. I was like “Hey! I’m not good enough to respond to that right now but talk to me in 6 months.”
I like that. That’s actually pretty funny in itself. And so was there anything that got lost in translation between the two specials?
Yes. I had a joke, I guess it was a dirty joke because I don’t think we have a clean reference for what happens. There’s something that happens when a young man is speaking to a woman at a club and then his friend shows up and smooth talks her and then she wants to pay attention to his friend and they call it, “Woah, bro, you just cockblocked me.”
But there’s no word for that in Spanish at all. Like I tried every type of word. And I workshopped the phonetically way to say it which is cockblocking. I said “bloqueador de pollos”. And that did not work in any language because that cock or penis in Spain, they call it “pollo”, which is chicken in Spanish. So it got lost in translation, that joke. There is no word for cockblocker in Spanish.
So what did you do with the joke?
Oh man. I just dropped it.
So it’s an English exclusive!
Yes, it’s exclusive. Oh and also I did a joke about the food truck where I was getting a burrito getting robbed and that joke, I only did it in Spanish, I didn’t do it in English. because that joke couldn’t segue into another joke in my English act. But in my Spanish act, it segued perfectly to another joke.
Nice. So if you watch each special, you’ll get a little something different.
If you watch the second special in Spanish, you’re going to see 10 minutes of different material on that special.
And can you tell me the process of finding all that out? Were these jokes you were already doing that just couldn’t make their way into the English or Spanish special?
Well, what we did was when we shot the special, we shot the special in one night, we shot it in English back in January. We did two shows. And then on the second night we shot two shows in Spanish and we cut them together to make one special. But what happened is that at the Spanish date, I had a great set on the first show. It was great and everybody pumped me up. “Felipe. Great set in Spanish. You did it. I think this is the one that we’re going to tape and put on television. This is the one we’re going to tape. You did it. No sweat. Have fun on your second show.” So on the second show, I went balls out in Spanish, and just had a lot of fun. And I don’t even know what I said. I don’t even know if they mixed a Spanish set together. I just know that the second show in Spanish, I was on cloud 9.
Now I’m very curious to see the second special, even though I don’t speak Spanish at all yet.
The subtitles for the Spanish one are verbatim of what I actually said because my wife, we edited it together to make sure the right tone and the right words are put in in the subtitles. Because sometimes, I don’t know if you watch Narcos, a lot of the stuff that the characters are saying is not the exact words that they’re writing down in English.
Yeah, it’s a little alarming when they do that. And so did you ever encounter a moment, when you’re doing your set, where you accidentally slip into English during the Spanish set or vice versus?
Oh bro, in the beginning when I was working out the Spanish set at various, clubs, I would snap out of it and start doing English and then snap back. And I made a huge mistake at The Comedy Store. We put up a Spanish show together and I did not know that the heads of Netflix were going to be there to watch the Spanish show. And man, it didn’t go too well. They were having doubts. But I told them this is only my first Spanish show, it’s going to get better. We’ve still got like 8 months to fix it up.
And one night, I’m doing a show in Sylmar, California. And this is one of those Mexican places that has three different types of tortilla makers because it’s so busy, and they have like three different banquet halls because some of them are used for parties or weddings, and they have two performances, one for mariachi’s and one for bands. And I went in to the smaller banquet hall to do my comedy and there was like 150 people tight inside the place before CoronaVirus. It was tight. And when I finished my show, I saw the heads of Netflix walk up to me, “Felipe, you did it, congratulations. This is the show we want to see on Netflix.” And I was like “Woah. You guys came to this ghetto-ass bar?” And they were like “Yeah, and you killed it!”
I love the idea of them seeking you out when you wouldn’t expect it. And so, now that you’ve done this and you know you can perform in Spanish, do you think you’ll do it again?
Most likely, yes. I already have 15 minutes of Spanish that I’m working on right now. It will be ready in a year and a half. Little by little.
I love that it opened up a new world. And so in the special, you have a moment where you are encouraging couples in the audience to get married. I remember Daniel Sloss had something that was dubbed by those in the press as a “breakup special” and he actually had a running tally of breakups and divorces. Do you have a similar tally of people who have gotten married after seeing you?
I’ve had women email me to tell me that “I dumped my boyfriend after your show.”
Yes, I had a woman say that “I dumped my boyfriend after your show because we were together 12 years, 15 years, and he never popped the question.” Then I’ve had people tell me that “He asked me to marry him after the show. And we got married a year after your show.” I get that a lot.
Wow. And how does that make you feel? That you have this impact on their life?
It makes me feel great because I don’t like preaching to the audience, you know about anything, about life or politics. I don’t feel that’s my job. My job is to entertain first and get laughs. But I do want to tell people that you need a family structure for your kids. Kids need to know mommy and daddy are together. A kid needs to know that he has to be committed to something. When you commit to something, you gotta do it. So if the parents aren’t married, it’s going to be tough for the kid to realize or stay with somebody or stay committed to one thing if he doesn’t have the example in front of him. So what I was saying with that joke was“If you’re not around, your kid ain’t going to be around either. And this whole family structure is gonna fall apart. There’s going to be a new guy taking over. And it’s going to be creating all this chaos in your life.”
And there’s a moment in your special where you get very honest about your family, particularly an event that happened to you as a child. How does your family feel about that being out there?
I feel bad for my little brother, who had to go through that. I think about it when I say the joke. I get super, super sad. I get sad right now, thinking about him. I think about him laying on the floor with the air burst out of his stomach from a 265 man. He was like, what, an 89 pounds little boy. And he just didn’t deserve that. Nobody deserves that. You know but I took my mom to see the show and she gasped. She said “Oh my god! I can’t believe they know our family secrets!” And most American people, you know, like anybody that goes through that they don’t want nobody to know about it. And that’s the problem, you know. We want nobody to know and we’re never going to heal from it either, which is wrong. We should’ve been dealing with this when it happened, not 30 years or 40 years later in a stand-up set. Like when my mom saw it, and when I was doing the meet and greet in New York City, people were saying “Is that your mom?” ”Yeah, that’s my mom right there!” And everybody said “Oh my god!” And then my mom said out to the audience “It didn’t happen the way that he said it right, by the way”. She was still trying to defend herself.
Yeah, it really is a pretty dark moment in the show that you manage to make funny. And the thing that I think is positive from putting such a dark chapter from your family’s life onstage in a comedy show is that it sort of gives you a chance to take ownership of that moment. It’s yours to own.
Oh yeah, man. Good way to put it! I mean, you said it yourself, man. I owned that story and I owned the situation. You know what? I took a really really dark passage in my life and I made it better. And it took me forever to do it. And last night I had my brother Angel on the podcast [What’s Up Fool] and we talked about it. We talked about that night, how that happened. And let me tell you, bro. We never talked about that night until last night. And it shouldn’t have been that way. We should’ve spoken about it years ago. And man, all that stuff that we buried, my brothers and I… my brother want on to be a drug addict, just like me, from the situation. And I’m just glad that my brother and I can now talk about it and laugh about it now.
I can’t wait to hear that. And I wanna ask. Your special is called Bad Decisions. Is there any bad decision from your life that you consider off limits to go onstage?
I think no. I think every bad decision that made, I can talk about it.
Did it take you years of doing stand-up to get to the place where you can be comfortable enough to be so honest onstage?
I think it took years because I have to get comfortable with myself and I have to get comfortable with my stand-up comedy. Because when I first started doing stand-up comedy, I was doing running jokes, jokes, jokes, then set-up punchline, jokes, jokes. And it wasn’t until I started being honest with myself, and allowing these dark moments in my life, that I started getting big laughs and a lot of respect from the audience.
It takes years sometimes. And you can kind of tell actually when a comedian is not ready to open up or tell a certain story because there’s this awkwardness there.
You’re so right. Because let’s say 8 years ago, I wouldn’t be able to tell this story without crying or making it funny or without making my mom look bad or myself look like a jerk, you know. I didn’t know how. But I noticed when I started telling the story, I realized that if I tell it from a little boy’s point of view, it’s funnier and I don’t look like the bad guy here. And I’m not the bad guy. I’m innocent here! I didn’t do anything wrong, you know. To this day I assume that I didn’t do anything wrong, and I got blamed for everything, you know. And that took me a long time, you know, because when I was first telling that story, I would start crying. Afterwards I would walk away like (crying sound) and get really sad. But it just took a while to get it right.
And, to jump around a bit, last year you were on Gentrified, which has gotten all sort of praise. When you started doing stand-up, was acting ever in the back of your mind?
When I was first starting stand-up, I didn’t think that I would be an actor, too. Because I just wanted to be a stand-up comedian. But I’ve always liked television and I wish I was on Different Strokes or The Facts of Life, hanging out with Blair as a foreign exchange student. I would have written myself into roles. I always wanted to be on TV, bro. Like when I was watching Different Strokes, I was like, “Wait a minute, I could be the Gooch! They never show the Gooch. I could be the Gooch!”
Just as long as you’ve weren’t in the bike shop!
Yes. (Laughs). And I was also shy. And I had like a speech impediment when I was little. I guess I was shell-shocked or I had PTSD. But I developed a stuttering problem after that incident that happened when I was little with my mom getting beat up. And I would stutter when I would get nervous, like really bad. And my dad would make fun of me and like put a belt in front of my face and tell me “You better talk right or I’m going to f*ck your ass up and hit you”. So I figured that I better like, get my bearings together. So whenever there was an opportunity at my elementary school to speak at an assembly, I would always volunteer and challenge myself.
I’ve been taking an acting class now for the last two years. Every Tuesday in person, but now I take it in Zoom. And it wasn’t until last month when I worked on this movie called 7th and Union, where I finally got what my acting techer was telling me. Like I finally get it. You know how to break down a script and how to find the character and how to play this character. Because as a comedian you come in there so negative. Like when they give you the lines for an audition and you’re a comedian, you’re so, so, negative when you see the lines. You start telling yourself, “Well, I would never say this!” I remember saying, “I can’t audition for this!” And my agent said “Why not?” “Because it’s stupid! I would never say what this idiot says!” And she told me “That’s what acting is. You gotta pretend you’re somebody else!”
It always seems like it takes comedians a little longer to get to that place. And by the way, in the nearly 200 interviews I’ve done in the past three years, you’re the first and so far only person to reference The Gooch on Diff’rent Strokes.
(Laughs). Let me tell you, man. I remember the episode where Willis was gambling and then some young kid came to collect the money. You remember that episode?
Yes. I actually do.
And I remember this actor in this movie. And I knew right away that he was a Mexican. And when I saw him, that was the first time that I had the vibe that I want to be on television. His name is Pepe Serna. He was in this movie called American Me.
I’ve never heard of it. But I’ll have to check it out. Going back to stand-up, do you miss being out on the road and touring right now? How’re you dealing with that?
Man, I miss touring. I miss eating inside of a restaurant. I miss being at the movies with a bunch of people. You know what I miss? I miss being crowded with a bunch of people and complaining about how crowded it is. I miss being free, bro! I miss contact, bro. I made a hell of an argument with a stranger.
I know a lot of people are feeling that way. And I’m sure it’s weird having a Netflix special coming out during this time.
It’s so messed up! Like normally, like, usually, like, when a Netflix special premieres, you could start seeing right away changes, you know like, comedians started getting more bookings, getting more calls for bookings, and I don’t know what kind of calls I’m going to get because everything’s closed.
Felipe Esparza: Bad Decisions is available now in English and Spanish on Netflix.