Felipe Esparza recently observed via Twitter that comedians who tell clean jokes are usually downright nasty off stage. But he believes it's more honest to let loose with the off-color stuff, he tells New Times: "When a comedian is blue, he's not lying to you. He's telling you what kind of person he is so you can stay away."
Where Esparza falls on the spectrum of nasty comedians is subjective, though his jokes certainly get edgy.
"I don't have to, but the character I play onstage does curse," he says. And he tackles some delicate subjects such as hard drug use and domestic violence, but he finds that most audiences aren't offended by his style. Of course, it's always easier to laugh when the story is about the comedian themselves; Esparza often tells jokes about how his father used to whip him as a child, for example.
"I show the stupidity of domestic violence and abuse," he says, "how stupid it is to hit somebody — anybody."
Esparza is headlining/hosting the Ultimate Miami Comedian competition on Thursday, May 31 at Magic City Casino, which is just one part of the greater Ultimate Miami Weekend (May 31 to June 2) highlighting the city's top comics, drag queens and mixologists. Don't expect him to cater his jokes specifically to Miami, however.
"I watch a lot of documentaries about comedians, and one thing that kills me about road comics is that they have like five or 10 sets," he says. "They have Jewish material for Jewish audiences, or if they have a Latino audience they have a Spanish set, you know? Whatever happened to having one fucking set that works everywhere? ... I can't have a set I only do for Chinese people. I'm not that smart and I don't have that much time to write."
Even so, Esparza has been on a tear since winning NBC's Last Comic Standing in 2010. He's had a couple of hour-long HBO specials, including last fall's Translate This, which he produced with with his wife Lesa, and a weekly podcast on the All Things Comedy Network called What's Up Fool? This summer, he's embarking on his multi-leg Bad Decisions Tour and rolling out a routine that draws heavily on his experiences while being raised in a gang-infested neighborhood.
"It's mostly about me growing up in Los Angeles and getting hooked on cocaine," he says. "The whole show will be like a cocaine nightmare mixed with really, really bad parenting. At the end of the show, you're going walk away saying, 'Why does this guy deserve to have kids?' ... I'm talking about driving the kids late to school every day, because of me taking forever, me not waking up, me smoking pot and getting lost on the way to school."
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Take the biting self-depreciation as a sign: Esparza is student of comedy and takes acting classes on a regular basis. He mostly lands acting roles that were written specifically for him and demand only being himself, but he still likes to stay sharp for auditions, and he doesn't want to be like comics at casting calls who don't adjust their onstage demeanor whatsoever.
"For some reason, they read their lines with their eyes moving around the room like they're at a comedy show instead of focusing on the reader," he says. "They look around and wait for a reaction after the joke comes out. They're acting, but they're acting like a stand-up comedian reading lines."
Esparza takes his lessons seriously because wants the character he plays onstage to be believable, whether or not he's nasty.
Felipe Esparza at Ultimate Miami Comedian competition. 8 p.m. Thursday, May 31, at Magic City Casino, 450 NW 37th Ave., Miami; 305-649-3000; theultimatemiami.com. Tickets cost $30 to $100.