Steven Michael Quezada hears some form of the following statement just about every time he goes out on the road: "I'm kind of surprised that you're a stand-up."
I learned that because that's the simple-minded, poorly worded statement I used to open our 30-minute conversation. He doesn't seem to mind. He laughs it off as though he's heard it before from other people who recognize him as DEA Agent Steven "Gomey" Gomez and not as a comedian with more than 30 years of experience flinging jokes and stories at bar patrons and comedy club audiences.
"I've played the southwest a lot but I'm more of a bar comic," Quezada says over the phone from his hometown of Albuquerque, N.M. "I'm even crazier than a comedy club comic. We put tours together and we play bars and places people wouldn't even walk into let alone go in and do comedy."
Quezada spent the majority of his career as an actor turned stand-up comedian, but he's recently become more recognizable thanks to Breaking Bad, a show that not only has one of the biggest and most dedicated fan bases but is also widely considered to be one of the greatest, game-changing primetime dramas in the history of the medium. Now that the show is done, he has some time to go back to what he was doing before the show's creator Vince Gilligan set up a TV show in his backyard and asked if he'd like to play Hank Schrader's partner-in-crime fighting. He's scheduled to perform at Hyena's Comedy Nightclub in Dallas on 8:30 and 10:30 p.m. on Friday, May 16th and Saturday, May 17th.
He says he's not in a rush to move to Los Angeles and start doing more TV and movies since his first big break. How could he possibly pack up his life and move? Besides having a rising career in stand-up, thanks to the fame the show has given him, he also sits onAlbuquerque's school board
"I'm not in a big hurry and I don't mind doing little guest things here and there," Quezada says. "I just did The Mindy Project for her season finale and I just did a small role in a movie with George Lopez. I would like probably to do more film and I would thoroughly enjoy doing another series as a regular but I want to wait and see what I can get out here in New Mexico and maybe in a couple of years down the road if we feel we're at a dead end, maybe we'll think about going to L.A. but we just don't want to do that right now."
Quezada originally pursued acting as a career in New Mexico's thriving theater community, an obsession he picked up at 16. He graduated from Eastern New Mexico University with a theater degree where he said he basically studied the works of William Shakespeare, "which was weird for a Mexican but I did what I could do."
He only lasted six or seven years as a full-time actor because "I just couldn't eat another Ramen noodle," he said.
"I had to figure out a way to still be in entertainment and make some money and buy a car that started," he said. "That was my dream car, a car that started. I didn't care what shape it was, what model it was. I just wanted one that started."
The transition he made to stand-up comedy in the 1980s came after a play he wrote and starred in called The First Chicano President. It became a local hit that he still performs regularly in Albuquerque. A comedy manager in the audience saw his talent for making audiences laugh and he approached him about making the move to stand-up.
Quezada says he was apprehensive until he learned he could make $400 in just one night. He spent two months writing a 10-minute act with the help of his older brother.
"When I got there, I realized I was the headliner," he says. "I couldn't turn away because my name on the marquee."
He had to come up with about 50 more minutes of material by the time the opening and featured comics finished their acts, he said.
"I went into the bathroom and puked," he says. "Then I came back out and watched the opening act go up there and bomb. Then I saw the featured guy go up and he was funny and got them going. He talked about his family. He talked about his mom. I thought, 'I've got stories like that. Mine are even funnier.' I went up and did about an hour and 10 minutes. I talked about where I came from and made fun of this and made fun of that. Next week, [the manager] sent me to Flagstaff, Ariz. and I totally bombed. There's a skill set to this and I had to figure out what comedy was and how to approach it and how to travel and do comedy, all sorts of things."
He spent years on the road and built up an impressive workload that included appearances at comedy festivals and on comedy specials for HBO and Showtime. By the time he started making a living, he forgot all about acting.
"I never looked back at acting," he says. "I just went straight down that road. I didn't really consider myself an actor that much because if you're not working much, you're just an aspiring actor."
Eventually, New Mexico became a hub for film and TV productions and eventually built one of the largest studios in the country. Gillian tapped a lot of actors and performers known more for doing comedy to play otherwise serious characters for his gritty little show such as Quezada, Bryan Cranston, Bob Odenkirk, Bill Burr and Lavell Crawford.
"What was cool about my role was I wasn't even the comic relief," he says. "It was more Hank [played by Dean Norris] until they brought in Saul. Then once they brought Saul in, the writers wanted more character development about making it more real and more human. I don't know what Vince was thinking. I think he just thought that comics were going to bring a real element to the show. He wanted it to be more about the story than it was about big stars doing acting. Every actor in Hollywood big or small wanted just to do a walk-on on Breaking Bad because they loved it so much and Vince was like no thanks. It's about the story. He really stuck to his guns about that."
He wasn't worried about being too serious or not being able to be funny for the role because he spent so much time at the start of his career as a dramatic actor. He said he was more excited at the fact that he was playing a cop.
"Playing a cop was cool, a Latino playing a cop and not playing a gangster or a drug dealer or anything that was exciting for me," he says. "We knew that if this took off, the partner had a legitimate shot of being on for awhile."
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Breaking Bad fans might be disappointed to learn that he doesn't talk much about the show in his act because he's still worried about spoilers, even though the finale had one of the biggest audiences for a dramatic show in 2013.
"It's great writing and Breaking Bad was one long movie," Quezada says. "It was more than a TV series. It was this huge, long movie. I want people to go out and see it and not give it away."
He said he's also excited to get away from the studios for awhile and work the club circuit again. He hasn't ruled out a return to television or film if the right part came along but he seems to be just as happy being a husband, a dad and a comic again.
"Right now, it's a good time to be an actor of any color," he says. "TV's changing to be more inclusive. They want things that play real and we know as people now that there's all different colors of people up and down our block. When we watch TV, we want to see reality, filmmakers and writers. That's what they want to write about and make as filmmakers anyway and because of cable television and indie filmmakers, not just Hollywood, that you're seeing more and more of it. So it's a great opportunity but I fell in love with comedy. So that's what I'm going to be doing for a little bit."