Although he majored in psychology at the University of California, Davis, JR De Guzman spent his free time pursuing his true passion: performing.
As a student, he auditioned for an a cappella group, but didn't make the cut. Then he tried out for the local improv club — he was rejected from that, too. He soon found it challenging to concentrate on his studies, as he'd spend his class time jotting down jokes in the margins of his nonexistent notes.
Finally, one night during his junior year, De Guzman attended an open mic in Sacramento.
"I thought, 'No one can reject me from stand-up comedy, right?'" he told NBC News. "I'd been a fan of stand-up since high school, but it wasn't until that night that I realized I could do it, too."
Six years later, in February 2017, the 26-year-old comedian was driving to yet another open mic when he received a phone call with the news that he'd won the comedy talent contest "StandUp NBC," beating out 600 applicants and eight finalists to land a year-long talent holding deal with NBCUniversal (the parent company of NBC News).
"I definitely shed a tear in the car," De Guzman said. "And then I had one of those cheesy movie montage moments where I thought about everyone who helped me get here."
Started in 2003 as a nationwide search for comedic talent from diverse backgrounds, "StandUp NBC" boasts a lengthy list of successful alumni, including Hannibal Buress ("Broad City," "30 Rock"), Eric Andre ("The Eric Andre Show," "Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23"), and Deon Cole ("Conan," "Black-ish"). The annual program begins with open auditions across four U.S. cities, followed by a semi-finalist showcase, and a finalist showcase in Los Angeles, in which the comics must perform an original set in front of agents, casting directors, and TV executives.
"JR had a lot of energy and was likable in a way that stood out," Grace Wu, NBC Entertainment's executive vice president of casting, told NBC News. "He also has a great musical talent, which was unexpected."
As this year's winner, De Guzman will work closely with NBC executives to identify potential acting roles during TV pilot season as well as on current shows.
"The idea is to nurture him as a talent and put him with an acting coach to give him the tools he needs when he goes into shows," Wu said.
Armed with precise comedic timing and an acoustic guitar, De Guzman has gained recognition in the stand-up community for his jokes, which are often accompanied by casual strumming and told in R&B-song form. A video of De Guzman singing about his disastrous high school prom night, which ended with another guy stealing his date, went viral on Reddit and garnered more than 200,000 views on YouTube.
Born in the Philippines near Manila and raised in Sacramento, California, De Guzman was brought up with his two brothers and music. He joined the church choir in third grade and started an electronic band called "The Sundays" with one brother and a couple friends in high school.
"Karaoke is a staple in every Filipino household, so I grew up with a lot of ballads and pop songs," De Guzman said of his childhood. "My brothers all play music, my mom sings, and my dad kind of tries to sing — he's like the Joey Fatone of our family. He'll whistle along to songs but he only knows one note."
Much of De Guzman's repertoire consists of jokes about his parents who, he said, "tell me all the time that I should give them commission for how often I talk about them," as well as observations about American pop culture and about the Philippines.
For the first few years of his stand-up career after graduating from college, De Guzman traveled on the road, performing up to five sets a night. It was during this time, he said, that most of his jokes were "really dirty."
"If you're a pianist, you start off with the bad songs, because they're easy," De Guzman explained.
But a few years testing new material on diverse audiences and general introspection have allowed him to refine his jokes to be "unassumingly meaningful," he said, citing Dave Chapelle as a major influence.
De Guzman gained momentum in his career in 2015, after sharing the stage with the likes of Margaret Cho and Tim Allen and performing abroad at events like Stand-Up Tokyo in Japan, and he was able to quit his day job as a music teacher.
His infamous prom song was turned into a sketch on MTV's short-lived comedy series "Acting Out," and he appeared on the Sacramento episode of Kevin Hart's Comedy Central project, "Hart of the City."
"Seeing Kevin Hart laugh at my jokes… in my head I was thinking, 'I'm doing it. I made it,'" De Guzman said. "Now when anyone has anything bad to say about me, I can reply with, 'But did Kevin Hart laugh at one of your jokes?'"
Now, De Guzman is running to and from auditions in Hollywood, as well as promoting his debut comedy album, "Dual Citizen," which he released Feb. 24 on iTunes and Google Play. The album culminates the past six years of his stand-up and songwriting.
"It's kind of fitting that the album is out now, because I talk about immigration and growing up with two cultures," De Guzman said. "In this political climate, I'm thankful I can add my humor to the discussion, and people will listen. I never knew I could lead a room of people, but the great thing about stand-up is that you can be 100 percent you, and kill it."