It’s an experience that especially resonates with anyone who grew up in a household with adults who didn’t speak English as a first language. Those who were forced to order at the fast-food drive-through-window because their mother insisted “they can’t understand my accent” or wrote, in their best 10-year-old penmanship, a school absentee note for their parent to sign.
But in “Translate This,” which premieres Saturday at 10 p.m., Esparza uses his trademark crass, blunt and easygoing manner to also tell jokes about his past drug abuse, becoming a dad while in high school and his childhood journey from Mexico to the United States, when he illegally used a cousin’s passport. The hour-long set includes some of his most personal material to date — in his own irreverent “what’s up, fool?” way.
“I’ve been wanting to do some of these jokes since I thought about it, but I couldn’t. It took me a long time,” he told The Post. Then Esparza’s brother, who also used a cousin’s passport — but a girl cousin’s — encouraged the comic to go for it.
Esparza worried about offending his brother’s family or friends. “But he said, ‘don’t worry about it, bro. Just do it. Tell it as it happened. … This story needs to be told, I know you know how to tell it.’ ”
The Los Angeles comic began doing stand-up about 20 years ago after a stint in drug rehab. His big break came with winning “Last Comic Standing” in 2010. His friend, comic Gabriel Iglesias, tells stories onstage about Esparza. In 2012, Esparza released his first special on Netflix.
For this new special, a trip riding the subway inspired him to talk about translating as a child. He saw a little girl, maybe 8, on a train headed to North Hollywood. She looked like she could have been from Pueblo or Oaxaca, but had no accent while chatting with an African American man.
“She was translating the conversation she was having with the man to her mom, and then her mom would tell her something in Spanish, and then she’d respond in Spanish, then look over at the man and relay what she said in Spanish to him,” Esparza recalled in an interview. “So I was laughing: a little girl, translating a joke in both languages. I was telling my wife, this little girl is so smart. I know her life without even knowing her. She does everything for her mom. She probably fills out all the applications.”
“She’s learning how to be a grown woman at such a little age, and that’s who I was,” Esparza said. “When I was a little kid, I translated everything for my parents. So when my teacher said, ‘You’re failing math,’ I’d say, ‘You don’t know me!’ ”
That moment of realization — plus an interview on a podcast hosted by Neal Brennan and Moshe Kasher, in which they asked him to talk about his upbringing and immigrant background — led to the material in his HBO special.
But Esparza said his experience is one that anyone can relate to, “not just Latin Americans, but anybody who has helped their parents.”
It could be a fraught time for a stand-up comic who came to the United States illegally as a child to talk about immigration onstage — everything from award show red carpets to breakfast cereal has gotten wrapped up in partisan political debates. But Esparza said since Donald Trump became president, more people come out to his live shows looking for an escape. While he talks immigration, there’s no mention of President Trump.
“I never jumped into that type of comedy. I felt it’s a short run,” he said of joking about whoever’s in the White House. “That’s not funny 10 years from now. I want my jokes to outlast me. I want my jokes to be quoted the way people still quote Shakespeare and Mark Twain.”
The current stand-up comedy boom means the field has expanded, particularly in allowing for more diverse voices. When Esparza began comedy, he and other comics worried about crossing over to a mainstream, white audience.
Then his mentor Paul Rodriguez “gave me the best advice ever: ‘Felipe, right now, don’t worry about crossing over. Just get really, really funny, because if you get really funny as a comedian, you don’t have to worry about you crossing over, because everyone will cross over to you,’ ” Esparza said. “And that’s what I’m hoping with the HBO special.”