To successfully tell a joke is to show a mastery of the language. In his latest release for Netflix, Felipe Esparza shows he can do this two times over, in two separate specials: one in English, another in Spanish. Despite being a native speaker, the process entailed lots of education, practice, and heckling.
“I had to learn Spanish again,” Esparza told VICE. “The Spanish that I speak is only spoken in border cities like Los Angeles, San Diego, El Paso. It’s a very local Spanish that’s not spoken all over the world. So I had a comedian translate my English to Spanish correctly.”
Even still, when traveling from California to practice Spanish sets in Tijuana, the 44-year-old comedian said his audience was less than forgiving when he’d flub a pronunciation.
“When I was messing up the words in Spanish, they were heckling me,” he said. “They were telling me to say the word right. Or go back to California.”
Esparza released Bad Decisions and Males Decisiones simultaneously on Netflix on September 1, marking the first time a comic has released an English and Spanish special on the platform at the same time. Whether he’s talking about the conundrum of whether or not to acknowledge hearing his spouse’s fart or retelling a brutal account of domestic violence in his family that he witnessed firsthand, Esparza is characteristically light in his delivery.
His playful approach to the most serious topics is one that Esparza’s fans have come to expect, and his perspective is informed by his life experience. After moving from Tijuana to East Los Angeles, Esparza became involved with a gang and began using drugs—both topics which have made it into his previous material—eventually ending up in rehab. It was in rehab, through the encouragement of a mentor that Esparza met, that he began to work towards a career in standup.
Esparza spoke to VICE about what it’s like to bomb in Spanish, the gastrointestinal effects of the Atkins diet, and the significance of the movie Blood In, Blood Out.
VICE: Can you tell me how this package of an English and Spanish came together?
Felipe Esparza: I went to go meet with Netflix. When I got to Netflix, the buildings, it was a Lamborghini parked at the valet. It was a nice Lamborghini, the hood was made out of this see-through glass. I remember joking with my wife that it was made out of Wonder Woman’s airplane. And when I get there, to the office, I see Kevin Hart, and his friend Pookie from the Laugh Factory. And Kevin Hart is walking out of the same meeting that I’m going to. He had just met the same people. He told me, ‘Don’t worry about it, I already warmed them up for you. They’re ready.’ When I get to the meeting, they offered me a Netflix special right away, and I offered them a Spanish special, too.
Does it feel different to bomb when you’re speaking in Spanish?
I had to learn how to bomb in Spanish [laughs] because when I bomb in English, it hurts. But because I was new at [performing in] Spanish, I had the same thing when you first start off as a comedian when you don’t know you’re bombing, so you think you’re doing OK. Til you go home and listen to the tape and realize, Whoa. Nine jokes didn’t work.
It must be weird to have this special come out and you can’t really tour off of it.
That’s the sad part of the special coming out now during the pandemic because I would’ve been getting a lot of offers to do Spanish shows or English shows. But most comedy clubs and venues are closed. I have nothing until 2021.
You mentioned something about possibly doing some drive-in comedy?
Yes, I’m going to do a show at the Irvine Spectrum September 25. It’s going to be a drive-in show with a big screen. The next day I’m doing a show in Norco, California—that’s about a 400 car drive-in theater. I think they’re charging per car. So if you have a hundred people with you, they’re OK. As long as they’re inside the car.
That’s weird because Gary Owen, he was gonna do a show at a club, and that show was outside, and they were providing everybody with headphones and the comedian had a headset with a microphone. I thought that was weird because I have big hair. I don’t know if I want to mess it up.
Is this the biggest break you’ve taken from standup?
Since I started stand up in 1996, I have not taken a break. This is the longest break I’ve ever had, ever. I used to go up every single day, I’d do six shows a week, eight shows a week, but this is weird, man. When I did my show in Oklahoma, I thought that I was going to forget my jokes or my timing. But it felt like home. But, what I’ve noticed is that the crowd is laughing at everything. I mean, everything. I can’t wait for the crowd to realize that some of these jokes aren’t funny. But the crowds are super happy to be there.
You mentioned you’re vegan in the special, how long has that been?
I’ve been vegan since 2011 but I started off slow. I started by not drinking dairy milk before that. I drank soy milk for many many years, then I gave up beef for many, many years, and only ate chicken, and finally, I just gave up everything: cheese, everything. It took a long time. I did it in baby steps. I know I couldn’t do it all at once because I love cheese. Love cheese.
But also, bro, you know how everyone does that keto diet now?
I’m old-school, bro. I was doing the Dr. Atkins diet, which is exactly the same diet. But I got constipated because I was doing it wrong. I was eating only beef and cheese all week. No water. So I was constipated, so I had to go to Lamaze class. I went to the restroom, and I said, you know what? If meat gets stuck like that with no water, I’m not going to eat meat ever again. Because I cannot go through that again.
For those meaty diets you gotta supplement with fiber, I think.
Now they tell me.
The things you talk about are so personal, but you speak about them so lightly, you’d almost think they’re made-up. How do you think about how you present those kinds of stories?
Let me tell you, Ashwin, man. That story where I talk about my little brother? [There is a moment in the special where his little brother steps in to protect his mother from physical violence.] It was tough because it was hurting when I first started doing the joke, I couldn’t do it without holding back tears. Every time I say it, it’s happening again. I never had closure for it. My brother and I, we finally talked about it. I had him on the podcast, my brother Angel, and we talked about it. And we never talked about that, ever! That was the first time we talked about it in forty years.
And my mom, when she saw it, she was shocked. I did the whole set at Caroline’s and my mom got to see the whole show four times that week.[She said], ‘Oh, of course that’s exaggerated. That never happened that way. I never said that.’ [laughs]
What’s your family’s response been to the special?
My sister loves it. My sister Marsha, she’s a big supporter, she always goes to my shows, never asks for free tickets. My cousin, Nancy, too, they always go together. My brother loves it, he lives in Mexico, and my daughter—she lives in Sweden—she got to watch the show with Swedish subtitles. She said that her mother-in-law loved it. So I’m happy about that.
You mention having a rescue dog in the special. We rescued a pit bull at the beginning of this quarantine, so I very much related to the joke about going out and thinking about what your dog is up to, has she knocked anything over, is she scared—
The dogs here, man, they hear the keys, they know that somebody’s going bye-bye. My dogs, I have one, she’s 11 now, and the other one is ten [or] 11. Both of them were in really bad shape when I got them. The first one, Squishy, she was mangy, she was overbred, she had bumps, her tail was practically pink. But now she looks like a full pit bull. The other dog, she was tied up to the dog house. The owner, or somebody who found him, tied him up to the gate, and he was just there with his head down, bleeding from his groin, he was a mess. But he was a bait dog. His ear was chewed up, he had a broken jaw. But he’s good, now. He’s the happiest dog. He’s like a puppy because he never had a chance to be a puppy.
Going back to the specials; did you find that some jokes from the English special hit better in the Spanish one?
A lot of comedians, they get hung up, This is my closer! This is my opener! I like to not get hung up on an opener or closing joke. So if I have a joke that’s killing in the end, I challenge myself and open up with that joke. So I can keep that moment of laughs going at the same time, so I don’t have highs or lows in laughter. I noticed in the Spanish show, the joke about the taco truck getting robbed, it killed more in Spanish than it did in English. I fumbled the words in English. At the end, we had to cut jokes to make room for the one-hour time slot that I was given, and we had to cut that joke out. It didn’t work out. But the domestic violence joke, I feel when I did it in Spanish, it resonated better to the people.
In the special, you namedrop Miklo [from the movie Blood In, Blood Out_**]. What does that movie mean to you?**
That movie, man, is like _The Godfather for us. For me. And for everybody all over the world, probably. It’s like the modern-day Godfather. The story of a guy growing up in a Mexican-American family, chasing the American dream, he falls, becomes a prisoner and the leader of a Mexican prison gang, while his other cousin, who was supposed to go to prison ends up being a police officer, and the other brother becomes an artist. But this guy was thrown into a life that he wasn’t ready for. Like most people in the world, if you get thrown in a life where you’re not ready, and you have to deal with it, and you have to come up on top.
Are you noticing a response to your special online, in terms of gaining new fans from the Spanish special?
I’ve gotten emails; this guy hit me up from Venezuela, this guy from Dominican Republic, the other guy from Peru, in Spanish. They said they liked it in Spanish. There’s also some people who never heard of me in English, and they’re emailing me apologizing. Some guy’s like, ‘Felipe, I just saw your special. I apologize for sleeping on you.’
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
‘Bad Decisions’ and ‘Males Decisiones’ are streaming on Netflix right now.