Sean Sullivan was the general manager of Pasadena, California’s famed Ice House Comedy Club for 22 years, during which time he witnessed the rise of Gabriel Iglesias, alongside so many other comics who were regulars on the Ice House stage. Now the director of operations for the Improv, Sullivan recalls his long friendship with Iglesias, and what it meant to see him graduate to the biggest stages in the world.

“I think it was through a mutual friend that I first met him. We had gone to a lunch together at the Santa Anita racetrack, probably around 2001. And then I got to see him perform at a friend’s comedy show, and we became friends. It was very early on in his career, and he was doing some voices and — not really impersonations — but lots of sound effects. Just a really naturally funny guy. And then the next thing you knew he was blowing up, starting to sell out shows here and there, and it just became its own thing. But we knew him before he was Fluffy; he’ll always just be Gabe to us.

“He had started getting booked all over the place, and getting booked on our Latino show that we had, and he just started to write more and more. And really the way he went from doing sets to hosting shows to selling out shows, it felt like overnight. From the time I met him to when I started to see him start to grow was really so quick. He was on a TV show on Galavisión called ‘Que Locos!’ that we filmed at the Ice House. That show really put a lot of Latino comics on the map at that time, because Galavisión was a Spanish-speaking television network, but they did this show in English. Still to this day I have people tell me that’s where they first saw him, and George Lopez, and so many others.

“He never really had ‘an act.’ He just tells stories, and one story leads to another story, and then he starts to bring in the voices of all the characters. It’s almost like watching a live cartoon. He had his voice from really early on, and he’s always been that guy. From the very first time I saw him, he’s always been that guy. Everyone in the audience wants to hang out with him, they want to invite him to their barbecue, they want to hear his stories.

“One of my favorite sets that he did at the Ice House was a bit he did with Armando Cosio, who is a great stand-up comic and an old friend of all of ours. They did this skit about ‘when a Latino wins the lottery’; it’s the Powerball drawing, where on Saturday night they would spin the big wheel. Gabe is up there with kind of an Alex Trebek announcer voice, and he brings on Armando to spin the wheel. Armando is nervous and starts thanking everybody he knows, thanking the world for what he has, thanking his boss Jim, thanking his mother-in-law. They go back and forth. Then they spin the wheel and Gabe is making all the sound effects, and he wins the million dollars, and all of the sudden Gabe looks at Armando and says, ‘you just won a million dollars, how do you feel?’ And Armando grabs the mic and says, ‘Hey Mr. Jim, you can shove it! And to my mother-in-law…’ That’s always been one of my favorites — I remember asking him to do that one again, and it might have ended up on a ‘Que Locos!’ episode.

“Honestly, he’s just so likable. He doesn’t have to swear, he doesn’t have to be gross, he doesn’t have to have a niche. He’s just a storyteller, and he captivates the audience even where there isn’t necessarily a joke. When he does the ‘degrees of fat’ routine and he gets to the end and says ‘and the sixth one is DAMN’ — that voice that he does is the punchline. You don’t know what to expect or what you’re gonna hear. He just tells stories, and he’s so lovable that everyone wants to hug him. And that’s who he is — it’s genuine, it’s him. He’s just a regular guy, but the stories he tells and the way he tells them are just so relatable to so many different people. You see that in the different demographics he has. Obviously he has a huge Latino audience, but ironically, when he started with the Fluffy stuff, the audience members were often quite large, to the point where, of the 180 seats we have at the Icehouse, I could only sell 170. That sounds horrible, I know, but it went from a larger demographic who really related to his show, then to a more Latino demographic, and then to a family demographic, where you have a lot of young kids coming to see his shows, and then to everybody.

“When he did his first special, in El Paso, that was pretty incredible. I’ll never forget it: I flew out there, and I was hanging out after the show with Martin [Moreno] and Alfred [Robles], and there was a giant line for the merch table and a huge line for a meet-and-greet, and I swear every single person in that theater stayed to meet him. I remember going, ‘oh, this is gonna be ridiculous.’ And then I remember when he sold out L.A. Live. And then started doing the arena shows all over.

“One of my favorite moments was when he sold out Staples Center. My whole family went. We got there early, we’re saying hi to all the friends and agents and managers that we’ve known through the years, and my daughters have grown up around all of this. I’m an emotional guy, and I remember when he went onstage, I was looking around at Staples Center and seeing all of these people there, and my middle daughter, who’s kind of a smartass like her dad, looked at me and said, ‘Are you crying, dad?’ And I said, ‘Shut up! That’s my friend up there that all these people are cheering for. That’s Gabe!’ It was this overwhelming sense of pride, because of how much he deserved that moment. He took a moment to soak it all in onstage, and you could see that it really hit him. To get to be a part of that is a memory I will never forget.

“Selling out Dodger Stadium was the biggest thing I could even imagine, but if anyone could do it, it would have to be Gabe. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that it would sell out, but seeing it actually happen was like that Staples Center moment on crack. I was 11 years old when I saw the Jacksons doing their ‘Victory’ tour at Dodger Stadium, I was on the field for that. And that was the Jacksons; this is Gabe. It’s just mind-blowing, and to know that we’ll get to be a witness to that is the greatest thing. He always surrounds himself with friends and family and with people who are true to him, and we’ve been blessed to be part of his family.”