En español | Belly laughs freed Felipe Esparza from the tight grip of drugs and violence in East Los Angeles 16 years ago. These days he can even lay claim to being NBC’s Last Comic Standing 2010 winner.
Humor has transformed his life and brought him success. The same is true for Monique Marvez and Oscar Nuñez of The Office.
See also: Interview with John Leguizamo.
Cheaper than therapy
Wild-haired Esparza, 42, now jokes for a living, but life wasn’t so funny when he was younger. “Nobody wanted to be with me,” he says. “I didn’t even want to be with me. I had no future.” Even after a stint in rehab and a warehouse job, his future looked bleak. “This job sucks,” he told himself, then asked, “What else can I do?”
His answer: “Living in a neighborhood where there’s poverty and alcoholism and drug abuse … You put all that together and you don’t graduate from high school. You become a comedian, man.”
A Hollywood café’s ad for a comedy open mic night caught his eye. He signed up and the laughs kept him going back until, comic’s tongue sharpened, he moved on to bigger venues.
Poverty, love and culture are fertile ground for Esparza. “I write jokes like Bill Cosby, jokes that everybody can understand,” he says, “Everybody understands poverty or losing weight.”
Being poor — and laughing — were a necessary part of life for the oldest of seven children. “I have a relationship with laughter that’s better than the relationship I have with my mom,” Esparza jokes. “It’s what keeps me going, because when I was a kid, that’s all we had. We were so poor that when burglars broke into our house they couldn’t find anything to steal, so they woke us up to make fun of us.” You wonder if he’s joking.
Winning Last Comic was a special triumph for Esparza, who’d been told he was “too ethnic” for the show. “I proved that I didn’t need to crossover to get laughs, America crossed over to me,” he says.
But he still considers ethnicity when he performs. “I’ve got a joke that says, ‘I live in a very bad neighborhood. A new restaurant just parked in front of my house.’ If I say, ‘There’s a taco truck in front of my house,’ everybody will say, ‘Of course, you live in the Latino neighborhood.’ But [my way], everybody can understand it because these taco trucks aren’t just in Mexican neighborhoods [anymore].”
Whatever your background, just laugh, Esparza says. “People should laugh because it’s cheaper than a movie, cheaper than Disneyland and it’s cheaper than therapy,” he says. “I’m not the greatest lover in the world. I’m not the greatest painter. I’m a joke doctor. I’m the cure to your disease.”
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