Growing up in Los Angeles in the ’90s, Chris Estrada learned about the shape of the region. He learned to drive at a young age, “about 13 or 14,” he says, as a necessity. His mother worked two jobs while his grandmother took care of the children.
“My mother used to say, ‘Si se pone mala tu abuelita, la tienes.’ [que] Manajar al Hospital’ [If your grandma gets sick, you have to drive her to the hospital]‘ he recalls.
Over time, he got to know the area by driving through downtown LA, Koreatown, Hollywood, Compton, and the Inglewood and South-Central neighborhoods where he grew up.
In “This Fool,” the true-to-life Hulu comedy Estrada co-created and stars in, he shows a part of Los Angeles and its people rarely seen on screen. After building a loyal following in the stand-up comedy scene over the past decade or so, in part by sharing observations from his Mexican-American working-class family, Estrada now joins the cadre of comedians whose lives have been dedicated to the screen is used.
Like his stand-up, the series is loosely based on his upbringing as a first-generation Mexican American. Estrada plays Julio, a mostly well-meaning slacker in his 30s who lives in his mother’s garage in South-Central with his former gang member cousin Luis (Frankie Quiñones).
“I didn’t want to do a show about ‘good’ boys,” says Estrada. “I didn’t want Julio to be Ted Lasso.”
Julio works at a gang rehabilitation program called Hugs Not Thugs, which finds ex-convicts jobs as cupcake bakers and distributors, a program founded and run by the comically well-endowed Minister Payne (Michael Imperioli). Much of the first season focused on Luis’ return after his release from prison and the resulting mischief he and Julio became involved in, such as when they unsuccessfully tried to assemble their old crew after they got into a brawl in one Park had been challenged .
“The way we presented the show was ‘Friday,’ but directed by the Coen brothers,” he says.
He mentions that he was inspired by the 1978 film Killer of the Sheep, which was directed by Charles Burnett. Set in Watts, it revolves around a man who works in a slaughterhouse; He is in an existential crisis and feels stuck in life. With the new season, which premiered on Friday, Estrada wanted to take a darker and darker turn without giving up the comedy and opening up Julio’s world.
The season begins with Julio losing his job after Hugs Not Thugs fails to raise enough money to stay open and his on-off relationship with his ex Maggie (Michelle Ortiz) fails again. In a mess, he’s trying to get his life back on track – he ends up opening a new coffee shop called Mugs Not Thugs – just as Luis finds some stability with a new job and a new love. Minister Payne? Well, he opened an OnlyFans account.
In keeping with season one, amidst all the hubbub, insight into the social and financial nuances that shape the lives of Julio and those around him is critical to the show’s richness. The sixth episode of the season, “Los Personas Invisables,” follows Esperanza (Laura Patalano), Julio’s mother, as she adjusts to life after quitting her job as a janitor, and evokes a tone inspired by Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar . The episode begins with a man at the company she worked for being tasked with signing her farewell card.
“What are you doing?” asks his colleague.
“I’m trying to figure out what to write in that retirement card for Es-per-anza, whoever that is,” says the man, who boasts of his Spanish.
“How about, ‘Retirement is like a lifetime achievement award. So the only thing left for us is death?” his colleague suggests.
The camera zooms in on the map and shows the following message: “Usted va a morir muy pronto. Felicidades!” (You will die very soon. Congratulations!)
Matt Ingebretson, who worked with Estrada in creating the series along with Jake Weisman and Pat Bishop, says Estrada’s worldview and ability to pull a laugh from it served him well on his first TV show.
“He’s extremely smart and smart in the way he thinks about film and television,” Ingebretson said. “He’s sort of a standard overly critical art or media person. He’s a very natural writer because he’s a real film and television student.”
“His demeanor was strongly influenced by his identity and his upbringing,” adds Bishop. “We wanted to build on that and instead develop a show about life in space or something. All the stories he told us about his childhood and life in South-Central were really funny but also interesting and had a dark side which is really compelling…he knows what he wants and he knows what sounds like true for him.”
“This Fool” is one of the few screenplay series that has a predominantly Latin American cast in the current programming landscape. For Estrada, the series has a deep personal resonance and he sees it as an opportunity to turn Hollywood clichés on their head, not sidestep them, by offering an authentic look at working-class life.
“I’m not a college graduate; I barely graduated from high school,” he says. “I had S jobs. I worked in construction. I was a valet driver. I worked in customer service. If you’re looking for such a respectable display, or what you think it is, look elsewhere. I had a turbulent past. I took drugs. My mother was a janitor, I grew up working class and without my father; He wasn’t in my life that often. This is my reality. It doesn’t have to be your reality.”
To illustrate, he puts it this way: “A lot of the show revolves around people trying to make the right thing out of their lives with minimal resources. Every achievement feels like one step forward and then two steps back. I remember working at this warehouse, working overtime and thinking, “Damn, I got a really good check.” When I got out, my car was towed. That’s what life feels like sometimes when you live in the working class.”
It’s been a few weeks since Hollywood actors go on strike, and Estrada is sitting in the Los Feliz apartment he shares with his girlfriend for our video call. He is quieter than his demeanor on stage or on the show when contemplating his journey.
If his cinematic influences, which he expressed on the series, weren’t already an indication, Estrada’s interest in film and television is keen. As a child, he grew up watching lots of movies and TV shows, reading comics and listening to punk rock. Before pursuing a career in stand-up comedy, he was initially interested in breaking into Hollywood as a screenwriter. But there was no obvious way.
While going about his regular jobs, he bought screenwriting books to learn the art of storytelling techniques like cold openings and act breaks. Eventually, he wrote special scripts for “New Girl” and “Archer,” since such rehearsals were a requirement for applying to various writing programs in Hollywood.
In 2013, when he had his nights off, he found an open mic and his stand-up career took shape performing at venues like Maverick’s Flat in Leimert Park. Always turning heads in the industry, he’s been named a comic to watch by Time Out LA and Vulture, and was featured by Comedy Central as one of the Up Next Comedians at Clusterfest.
This Fool is Estrada’s first major acting role after a string of short film appearances and an appearance on Comedy Central’s Corporate, co-created by Bishop, Weisman and Ingebretson. Estrada has been working with an acting coach, John Rosenfeld, since the first season. But he still doubts whether he feels more comfortable in front of the camera after two seasons of This Fool.
“It’s the first time I’ve acted at this level,” he says. “Because it’s a version of myself, it makes me feel good. But this creates insecurities, for example: I don’t like the way I look, and you simply have to fight these insecurities. But acting is something I really respect and I want to keep doing more of it. Working with someone like Michael Imperioli who is really at the top of his game is intimidating. Sometimes you cut yourself like, “Does he think I’m doing a good job?” It’s good because it improves your game, but it’s also nerve-wracking.”
Estrada says he’s still getting used to being noticed in public because of the show. He tells a story about his stay at Los Angeles International Airport, where he was recognized by a young woman who worked for Southwest Airlines.
“Hey, where’s your cousin?” she said.
“I left it in the garage,” he quipped.
Still, his expansion into television meant he retired from the stage — at least during the months he was filming. And that was an adjustment.
“Because I’m so attached to the stand-up act, I miss it,” he says. “You get irrational thoughts, like, ‘People are going to forget who I am, or I’m going to suck because it’s been so long and I’ll never make it again.'”
Ever since the series premiered, he’s avoided incorporating this part of his life into his everyday routine. (“I just think it’s kind of a disproportionately disjointed thing,” he says.) And he’s careful to make it clear that he’s not abandoning his roots on the stage by expanding his presence in Hollywood.
“I want to keep doing stand-up,” he says, referring to his performance at the San Jose Improv, which took place a few days after the interview. “It brought me here. I don’t think I’ll stop doing it any time soon.”