Gabriel Iglesias just may be the first celeb I’ve seriously drank with, if you can count knocking back a couple in a suite at Chicago’s James Hotel, ground zero for the star’s junket to promote this weekend’s opener and Iglesias’ stand-up concert film, The Fluffy Movie. Disarmingly sweet-natured and over accommodating, Iglesias, the wildly popular stand-up comedian turned unlikely movie star, is the kind of interviewee that makes your job easy. That is, you barely need to speak.
After warming up we got into it—and if there was any doubt about his quick wit and ability to turn even rudimentary questions into zingers, he quickly dispelled. Warm and accommodating to a fault, his nice-guy-as-comic persona is palpable in person. Over the course of our chat, we talked passion for comedy, highs and lows, universal through-lines and artist-studio dynamics (to put it mildly). One thing is for sure—Iglesias well knows, and loves, his legion of fans.
So The Fluffy Movie is probably more of a collaborative project that you typically are involved with—you had to deal with lots of other opinions, I would assume. How did that go?
It was really challenging for me. It’s my baby and very personal. So the back and forth with the film company; everyone wants their say. It originally was longer and is now 90 minutes. And even on the poster they wanted to use a red shirt, and I said, “No, I wore that in my last special and my fans are going to think they will see what they just saw.” I brand everything with a certain colored shirt so they can identify the special. That was a tough one. You don’t even understand what I had to do to prove my point! And they wanted to label me “raw and uncut” with this movie. I said, “How are you going to call it raw when I’m not cussing?” They said, “Well, people are drawn to the word ‘raw’ because it sounds edgy.” And they wanted to say, “Never before seen material.” I said, “Why would you say that? It makes it sound like all I do is repeat jokes!” I had arguments like that.
Stand-up films are fairly rare these days.
Very few have done it, and that is a big deal. Kevin Hart did amazing with his two comedy films. So they looked at the elements of what he did—social media, YouTube, popularity. And I‘m in a good position with views; we are neck and neck. Plus, Latinos are so high up there with people that go to watch movies. So if we combine all of that, they are taking a calculated risk. This is the biggest thing I have ever done and it is on my shoulders. I think it’s great because the laughs are still the same. I’ve tested the material a thousand times and I am getting the same laughs in a theater that I am getting live! They can actually see better on the screen! Every facial movement and sound is great. It’s funny to watch it in a room with people! I feel like I’ve been cloned! I’m killing it on the screen and in the crowd.
You had an early career with a cellular provider and then did a U-turn. Where does your passion for comedy come from?
I think it is more trying to find acceptance in the laughter. I was shy, bullied, had crazy teeth, acne—everything. I have always seen comedy as acceptance. When I first saw Eddie Murphy Raw, everybody was on their feet cheering for him. I wanted that, but what did I have to do? Two weeks later, I did a school talent show and got people cheering and thought, “This is greatest!”
So you were never worried about not making a living?
Man, I took it in the butt, figuratively, when I first started doing comedy. I was making $4,500 a month working for this cell phone company and my bills were $500. I had a car and a new apartment. The rest was having fun with money—going out to eat, to Bingo and to Vegas. So to give up that security was rough! I was doing both, hung over in the day job and asleep, and then I just said, “Let me take a chance.” And I ended up with an eviction notice.
How did the word “fluffy” change everything?
It took off. That nickname implies that I am not threatening, that the family can be brought and that I won’t get in anyone’s face. Sometimes people think I’ll be dirtier, and I’m like, ‘Fuck it, have a good night.” Sometimes I slip and cuss and apologize to people with kids who have come to the show, and people tell me, “They hear worse at the house!” I try to make the shows accessible to everybody and not get political, religious or controversial. So when I talk about family, relationships or being a fish out of water, everybody can relate to that.
And this is why you play to sold-out audiences around the world.
Yes, because I am not talking about the system or politics or America. Everybody can relate to having their kids give them a hard time, a crazy friend who gets them in trouble and parents with different views. And you can connect with parents and kids at the same time.
You have also performed in Saudi Arabia. Does the humor really work the same there?
The only thing they tell me in Saudi Arabia is not to mention religion, even something simple like “Oh my God,” and don’t talk about views on how women are viewed there. In my case, I’m a visitor and I respect that, and I don’t have any problems. You have to remember to say, “Hey, man, thank you for inviting me. I appreciate you guys inviting me.” But I think that going to all of these places and showing that a joke works in Austin, Montreal, Melbourne or Oslo—I’m trying to show people that it is possible.
You don’t like being labeled a Latino comic.
I don’t like it because it makes me feel like I’m not good enough to be anywhere else. People don’t say “Jewish comic Seinfeld.” I don’t deny it, but I don’t want that label because I feel like it’s a restriction. To find your identity and see your vision is really challenging.
What’s been the highest point in your career?
Having my mom see me become successful. Unfortunately she is not alive to see this, but she saw that I was doing something big and it was growing.
Did she see you in Magic Mike?
No! I don’t know what she would have thought!
You actually had some straight-up serious scenes.
Yes, I was doing drugs and getting beat up! I caught some flak from the Latino community for that one: “He’s feeding into the stereotypes!” No big deal that the guy has two jobs, right? (laughter)
How was Steven Soderbergh?
His sense of humor is very dry. It’s really hard to tell. His assistant would tell me, “You killed him.” I would say, “He’s not even laughing!” He would say, “Yeah, but he says it’s funny.” With him, I stuck to the script and didn’t want to piss anyone off and hopefully get the respect for that. But if you want me to be funny, I will go for it!
And your worst stand-up experience?
Ooooh, there’s two. One, I was doing a show at The Laugh Factory in Hollywood for a group like PETA, but mostly (dedicated to) dogs and cats. So I was doing a show with Tom Papa and Jay Leno, who at that time was still the host of The Tonight Show. So Jay goes up and does fifteen minutes about how he hates his wife’s cats, and the crowd is getting agitated. So after he’s done, he says he will donate $10,000 to their cause, and the crowd goes wild and forgets that he has just dogged cats for the last fifteen minutes. Then Tom goes up and makes fun of Jay Leno: “How about Jay Leno paying that ten grand to take a shit on cats, you know?” He killed it! Then I went up and was getting them right from the get-go, so I started talking about how I have Chihuahuas, and mentioned about how my dog had peed on my pillow. I said, “Man, I kicked him off the bed.” And then some girl the back of the room yelled, “He kicks dogs!” And the whole freaking room turned on me! The whole room came after me. And I could see Jane Velez-Mitchell in the crowd…
She’s a huge animal advocate.
…oh, my god. I’m like, “This is not going to end well.” I said, “You guys have a great time and good luck.” It was horrible. I was so depressed!
And the next one was a domestic violence survival group in Florida. This girl goes up onstage to talk about the abuse that she went through with her ex-husband, and it’s just killing the crowd. They are just crying. She said, “You too can speak up. You don’t have to stay silent.” Then they said, “Gabriel, come up and tell some jokes.” Are you shitting me? They said, “You have to keep this extra squeaky clean. And you are not allowed to make fun of domestic violence. And you cannot say the word ‘hit’.” I’m like, “What about like, that’s a hit record?” They were like, “Those are trigger words.” So I went out there with all of these stiffs in bow ties with wine, and some even have their backs turned to me. So I snapped! I said, “I understand this is for a cause but now I’m in this position where I have to make you laugh when you have just heard this story. Give me a minute of your time and you will have good time.” Nothing. I said, “A lot of you need to lighten the fuck up.” I started cussing. I don’t cuss at my shows! Some laughed and some went the other way. At the end, I said, “I’m going to donate $10,000 to your cause.” I couldn’t take the money from them. So from now on, I don’t do corporate gigs like that. I avoid it if the words “survival, abuse, animals” (are part of it).
What do you think it is that teens seem to love about you?
When I show up at a high school I shut the place down! I think my fan base is bigger because of them, and they like that I’m animated in my show with all of the voices and characters too. And they can see this movie without their parents.
What is the best part about your job?
That everybody wants my time, which is really cool, because originally the biggest struggle was to get attention, which was negative, unless it was my mom at home. Now people give me food and invite me to their homes. I’m like, “This is cool!” At NBC this morning the security cards went to the store and bought me a cake!