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.”
Next: Get serious. >>
Standup comic Monique Marvez used to sell malpractice insurance. Good joke fodder? Perhaps. But she prefers to probe relationships — mainly her own.
“I’ve had the good fortune of being married and divorced three times. I say ‘good fortune’ because I’d rather be divorced than be unhappy,” says Marvez.
She gets serious — for about 30 seconds — when she talks about risa. “Laughter saved my life,” she says. “Comedy gave me a purpose and a vision and a drive and a goal and a focus.”
So much focus that she can tell you the date she first stepped onstage: May 31, 1990, at the Coconuts Comedy Club in Coconut Grove, Florida, walking distance from her childhood home.“I started comedy because I was bored and broke and divorced and people told me I should be a comedian because I’ve always been funny,” she says.
When she started in comedy, she recalls, “it was pretty much the good ol' boy system: overweight, middle-aged white men talking about the same crap.” Nowadays, she says, “Funny is funny; it doesn’t matter what sex you are. It doesn’t matter what you look like, what’s your sexual orientation. All that matters is, can you bring it? The audience is much more demanding.”
And the jokes that comics hurl at audiences are changing too. “I used to see a much bigger cultural gap,” she says. “The comedy is different depending on what people can identify with. What’s changing now as a nation isn’t so much our culture or ethnicity but our socioeconomics.”
But the benefits of laughter transcend culture, socioeconomics — and age, she says.
As we age, we start feeling we’re running out of time, Marvez says. “We put horrible expectations on ourselves. It’s awfully hard to laugh when you put all that pressure on yourself that you have to do something by some imaginary deadline.
“Laughter is living,” says Marvez. “People should laugh because it’s an option, it’s free and it’s available to you. Why shouldn’t you take it?”
Next: A matter of taste. >>
A matter of taste
Oscar Nuñez, who plays Oscar Martinez, a gay accountant on The Office, knows about transcending categories and using what life throws you.
His family left Cuba when he was 2, and he’s lived in South America and Boston, grew up in Union City, New Jersey, spent time in Washington, D.C. and now lives in Los Angeles. And he’s studied fashion, writing and dental technology. “Yes, I’m a certified dental technician and worked at that for about six months to a year,” he admits. “But I couldn’t stand it.”
So he turned to what he loved: comedy.
“That’s the best job in the world for me,” he says. “I guess subconsciously I had something for smiles already,” he jokes, then turns more serious. “But what I wanted to do was to create those smiles from inside the person’s feelings. I don’t think you wake up and say, ‘I want to be a comedian.’”
Nuñez’s first audition — in his early 20s — was for Shock of the Funny, an improv group in New York’s East Village. He got a callback and spent two years with the troupe. “When you’re small, you start saying things you think are funny and people laugh,” he says. “Then you figure out, ‘Well, I guess I’m kind of a funny person.’ Then there’s nothing else you can do.”
While he plays a gay accountant in The Office, he’s also played a male prostitute in Halfway Home, a series he wrote and sold to Comedy Central, and a stripper in The Proposal, which starred Sandra Bullock. “It’s a lot easier to play Oscar. I get to be funny in a different way,” he says. “I think if it’s funny I’ll do it, but sometimes you walk that fine line between funny and bad taste.”
Nuñez’s ideas about what Latinos find funny? “I think cultures have different senses of humor, but there might not be only cultural differences but economic [ones]. A Mexican professor, an American professor and a British professor have more in common than the Mexican professor has with someone who’s illiterate in his or her same country. Your education has a lot to do with what you find funny.”