Felipe Esparza brings his hilarious stories and stand-up to the Granada
When: 7 p.m. tonight
Where: Granada Theater, 1214 State St.
Information: granadasb.org or (805) 899-2222
With a shaggy mane of hair and towering presence, Felipe Esparza makes for an imposing figure on stage…until he starts talking. A master of hilarious storytelling and a very humble demeanor, he’s been slowly rising up through the comedy ranks with frequent television and film appearances, and now a return to Santa Barbara to headline the Granada Theatre tonight.
He’s never had top billing in Santa Barbara, and his memories go back over 20 years, mentioning performing at the Coachhouse—located in the funkiest zone of our city years and years before there was a FunkZone.
“We’d drive up for a one-nighter and then drive back home,” Esparza remembers.
Home was, for most of Esparza’s career, Boyle Heights, Los Angeles, the unofficial capitol of East L.A., as some call it. As he’s talked about in his set over the years, Boyle Heights is both a center of Chicano and Latino culture and a place where cycles of gang activity can get caught in a destructive loop. As he says, it took a young Esparza getting into a gang, getting hooked on crack, and being sent to rehab to take him out of the cycle and on the path towards his original dream of being a stand-up comedian in the style of his heroes George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and Bill Cosby. (Yes, he addresses the “problem” of Cosby in his set sometimes).
In a story he often tells, he was given a chance by a Reverend at the rehab center, to write down five things he wanted out of life. The first was to be a stand-up comedian.
He started attending open mics in the early ‘90s.
“My first time I spoke too fast, I didn’t pause,” he says. “I didn’t know where the arc of the story was. I just talked. But people were still laughing.”
His breakthrough was in winning “Last Comic Standing” in 2010, which put him in the national spotlight. Since then, he’s produced two standup shows, “They’re Not Gonna Laugh at You” for Showtime and “Translate This” for HBO. And he’s appeared on “The Eric Andre Show” and “Superstore” among others. His latest work is a role in the upcoming sitcom “Gentefied,” a look at a Latino family dealing with increasing gentrification.
Over the last year, Boyle Heights became the flashpoint of gentrification issues, as art galleries found themselves the visible target over issues of class, capitalism, and ethnicity.
“Boyle Heights has always be rich in art,” Esparza says. “Self Help Graphics has been here for 30 years.” But, he says, it’s the newbies coming in that are unaware of the neighborhood.
“They come in and walk around, they don’t even say hi,” he says. “You can’t walk around a pretend you’ve been there forever.”
But it works both ways, he says. “There have been people who have been gangbanging for years. Their grandmother was in a gang.”
What he is seeing now is a generation that’s breaking that cycle and who know Latino/Chicano history more than his generation.
“Generation X: all we did was smoke crack and we don’t know anything,” he says. “But we did to (millennials) what our parents didn’t do to us: We talked to them.
And for anyone who says that the young are just always on their phones, Esparza calls out the hypocrisy:
“Every morning, my father would open up the Spanish newspaper, La Opinión, wide, wide! And he’d disappear. We never saw his face in the morning. He’d read and read, and then take the sports page with him to the bathroom. So the kids, it’s okay, they’re doing the same thing.”