Cristela Alonzo grew up outside McAllen in the sort of poverty that most of us can hardly imagine; for a while, her mother had to cook meals for Alonzo and her three siblings on a portable space heater. Today, the 35-year-old stand-up comic has risen far above her destitute childhood. She’s one of the most popular comedians on the college circuit, has appeared on Conan O’Brien’s late-night talk show, and had her own half-hour special on Comedy Central. This month she’ll take her biggest leap. On October 10 her sitcom, Cristela, which she stars in, co-writes, and co-created, will debut on ABC, as part of the network’s surprisingly diverse fall lineup.
Jeff Salamon: You grew up on the border, in San Juan, in a household where there wasn’t a lot of money.
Cristela Alonzo: The first eight years of my life we lived in an abandoned diner—we were basically squatters. I was one of four kids born to a single mom who came here from Mexico with her husband. And then her husband decided he was having so much fun in the United States that he went off and had fun somewhere else. So she raised four kids by herself.
My mom had this space heater that she used to use to cook food with, an old-school heater, before they had safety settings on them—you know, the heater would stay on if you had it faceup. She would put a pan on top of the heater and cook food. That’s how I grew up.
After the diner we moved into this tiny little house that had two rooms, basically. We shared beds with each other, and I lived in that little house for eighteen years or so. And I loved it.
JS: You still think of the Valley as home?
CA: I love the Rio Grande Valley. I always say it’s home, Texas is home. I’ve been out in L.A. a little over ten years, and I still get so excited when I go back home. It just feels comfortable, it makes me smile. Whenever I’m on my way to Texas, I don’t even think about my family, I think of the list of restaurants I want to eat at or what kind of food I want to eat. And then after that, I’m like, “Oh yeah, and I’ll get to see my family.”
JS: Is your family still in San Juan?
CA: My brothers are still in San Juan, and my sister lives in Dallas. When I go to San Juan, I stay with my brothers, and every time I go I have to do the same things. We grew up devout Catholics, so my trips to San Juan always include going to the churches that we used to go to and lighting candles and everything. Everything I do in San Juan is what I used to do with my mom, kind of as a tribute to her. And I try to eat a lot of the foods that I can’t get out here.
JS: What can’t you get in L.A. that you can get in San Juan?
CA: Oh my god! Carne guisada—I can’t find it here. And our neighbor growing up in San Juan is the best baker ever. He makes a great pan dulce. We used to go to his bakery, San Jan Bakery, every weekend and buy it there, and I can’t find pan dulce like that here in L.A. Also, the Mexican corn in a cup—here, they use chili powder. In Texas, they make a thick chili sauce that isn’t used here. So I eat a huge cup of corn every day that I’m in Texas, because I know that I can’t get it here. It’s like I’m stocking up for winter. I go crazy with that corn.
JS: If you really hit it big with the sitcom, maybe you can pay somebody to fly a cup of corn to your house in L.A. every day.
CA: I would love that so much! I would move the corn guy to L.A. just to give me corn every day.
JS: The cliché is that childhood suffering creates comedy. Is that your story?
CA: Looking back, I remember my family laughing a lot. We were never the kind of people that dwelled on hard times. My family laughs when things are tough. Growing up like that, I got used to making jokes about things that were difficult. So when I started doing stand-up that’s what I went towards.
JS: Were you pegged as a funny kid?
CA: I was a big school nerd. I earned straight A’s. My mom would not allow a B. The only thing I got the occasional B in was conduct, because I loved to talk and I loved making people laugh. I was the class clown. I was also a big theater nerd. I always liked being in front of an audience.
JS: You left San Juan at what age?
CA: Eighteen. I tried going to college out of state for, like, a brief second, and it didn’t work, so I ended up moving to Dallas. The premise of the sitcom comes from a time in my life when I had to move in with my sister in Dallas to help take care of her kids and my mom, who was sick. In our family, my mom chose the kid that she wanted to take care of her when she got older, and I got that job. So when my mom got sick, she became my number one responsibility. She became everything, she became my life. I took care of her until she passed away, in 2003.
And after that I realized that there was nothing holding me back. I thought, my mom came here from Mexico with a second-grade education, she came here for a better life—what better tribute can I give her than trying to achieve this dream that I have? But I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t know how to start performing or anything, I didn’t know what’s step number one. But I knew that I needed a day job, so I answered this help-wanted ad for an office manager, and it turned out to be at this comedy club in Dallas, the Addison Improv. I lied on my résumé to get the job. I super-lied; I had never been an office manager. I do a joke in my set about that.
JS: The astronaut joke?
CA: Yes! The astronaut joke is an exaggerated version of what happened, but it’s basically true. I put down my sister as my reference, and they called her, and she pretended she had been my boss and told them how great I was, what a hard worker I was and stuff, and I got the job. A year later I started doing stand-up there.
JS: So what was your big break?
CA: My big break was weird. It was a long big break, it took longer than a year. This comic named Carlos Mencia, who was selling out every show he did, came to Dallas to perform, and he talked to me in the back office, where I worked, and he asked me if I did stand-up and I said yes—I had just started doing stand-up, I wasn’t even six months in. And he asked me if I wanted to do five minutes onstage before his set. I said no, because I didn’t think I was ready and I didn’t want to make a fool out of myself. Then, a year later, he came back, and he asked me if I was still doing stand-up and I said yes, and he asked me if I wanted to do a set. And I said yes. I thought I was ready because by that point I had been doing it for a year and a half. So I did five minutes, and they went really well, and he asked me to open for him in San Antonio at the River Center the next week. I did that, and then he asked me to open for him in El Paso at the Comic Strip. And then we did the Capitol City in Austin, and that was the end of his Texas run. So I basically said, “Well, it was nice working with you. Next time you come to Texas look me up, whatever.” And he asked me if I wanted to move to Los Angeles and open for him on a regular basis. And I said yes, and I picked up all of my stuff, moved to Los Angeles, ended up getting a job writing on his show, Mind of Mencia, on Comedy Central.
Then I started going on the road with him and did that for almost three years. I eventually left the tour because I was the only girl on the road with him, and it was really hard for me, because everybody else was very aggressive. There were all of these alpha males who were doing this really raunchy stand-up, and I found myself getting a little raunchier, which was not my style at all. It was this kind of assimilation that I thought I needed to do because I was so young that I didn’t trust myself to be my own person.
JS: That’s funny—I was watching that clip of you doing this routine in which you imitate phone sex workers, and I thought, “This doesn’t really seem like her.”
CA:Exactly! I was so young, you know? It’s one of those things where you look back and you’re like,
“Oh my god, what was I thinking?” But once you start gaining confidence, you realize that in stand-up the only way you can be successful is by being honest about who you are. When I realized I wasn’t being true to myself, I left. A lot of people thought I was really dumb for leaving, because it was a lot of work, a lot of stage time, a lot of touring. But I knew that if I wanted to do anything with my stand-up, I had to leave and start over, and that’s exactly what I did. I didn’t do any shows for about two years because I really wanted to get back to who I was. And then I started my set all over again, and I started working squeaky-clean. I did a lot of colleges. I did an hour of G-rated material for college students, which really helped me tighten up my writing. I did that for two years, and then I got the development deal for this TV show.
JS: Cristela had a somewhat circuitous route to getting on the air. Can you walk me through what exactly happened?
CA: It was weird. We had sold the show to ABC and they loved it—they loved the show, they loved me. The president of the network was at my pitch meeting, which never happens. And then I started seeing all of the other projects that ABC was picking up, which were these high-profile projects with people that are established. They had Henry Winkler, they had Kevin Hart, and they had Cristela Alonzo—who, compared to those two, is no one. [And when it came time to decide which shows to actually film pilots for] we didn’t get picked up. They had a lot of other projects with a lot more famous people and they really didn’t know me. I totally got that. But they liked me. Even when they didn’t take the show to pilot, they let me know how much they liked me and how big fans they were of my stand-up.
So the project was dead, and I had nothing to do, so I went back to stand-up, which was always the plan. I love doing stand-up. Then, two weeks later, Valentine’s Day week, I landed in San Antonio to do the LOL Comedy Club, and my executive producer for Cristela, Becky Clemons, has left this voicemail for me. So I call her back, and she tells me, “You have to sit down because we have some news,” and I thought, “The show’s dead. What more can happen?” and Becky starts telling me that she has this idea. When ABC bought Cristela, they had such faith in it that they bought it with a penalty, meaning that they had so much faith in the project that they said, “We’re so sure that we’re going to make a pilot of the show that we will give the studio X amount of money if we don’t make this pilot.” And Becky has this idea: let’s use this pile of money to shoot a pilot presentation, to show them what the script would look like if it was actually filmed. And we were going to have to do it using 30 percent of what a pilot is usually budgeted for. Becky was like, “Do you want to do it?” and I’m like, “Yeah, let’s try it.”
Becky, who is one of the most incredible women I’ve ever met in my life, is the executive producer of Tim Allen’s Last Man Standing, which is also on ABC, and she got the crew of the show to sign on to work on my pilot. We shot the pilot on the Last Man Standing set—we used all of their stuff so we didn’t have to spend any money on a set. We ended up getting the director from Last Man Standing to direct and we had a week to put it all together, pretty much. And we couldn’t use the stage to rehearse because Last Man Standing was still in production. So we found this basement at the studio and rehearsed there. We really didn’t know what we were doing. I thought, “There can’t be a chance that this will work, we’re like the Bad News Bears here.”
And then we shot the pilot, and the audience was incredible—it was perfect, everything went so smoothly, and everybody was just kind of in awe. I flew my family out here for the taping because I thought, “This could be the one time in my life that they could see me onstage in a TV show.”
For the next couple of weeks we worked on editing. We turned it in to the studio, and they liked it. I think they were surprised by what we pulled off with the amount of money we had. And then we sent it in to ABC, and ABC was really happy with it. But, again, they had all of these projects in contention with it, and we thought, “Who’s going to pick this project over the Fonz? It’s the Fonz! I would pick a project with the Fonz over me.”
But we started getting a lot of attention in Los Angeles because no one had ever done a pilot like that before. We started getting written up on Deadline Hollywood [deadline.com]. The first weekend that Deadline wrote about the hot pilots, we weren’t mentioned. But the next week, we got a little mention, and then the next week we got mentioned longer. It started becoming this thing where our pilot was the little train that could. We were called the Cinderella story of the season, because pilots were starting to get dropped—they were getting passed on—but our little show was still in the running. We all thought, “This is so weird. How is this happening?”
Then the last week of ABC’s decisions, when we found out we got picked up, we couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t process it. Two days later we had to fly out to announce the show on the fall lineup, and it was just so insane, it was such a crazy weekend. I remember calling my family in Texas—they couldn’t believe it. My sister was driving, and she pulled over, and she was crying. It was crazy, because things like this don’t happen to people like us. “People like us,” meaning how poor we grew up and how we started at this diner and now the youngest one of the family is going to have her own TV show on ABC, a channel that we grew up watching. And not only that, but the show is named after me and it’s about our family.
JS: There’s a long, unhappy history of ethnic sitcoms. The most infamous modern example is Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl, from 1994, which was supposedly based on her stand-up routine and her life but, because of network pressure, wound up offering offensive stereotypes of Asian Americans. What’s it been like trying to get an honest representation of a Latino family onto network TV?
CA: I feel like TV has learned its lesson. My experience has been that because the show is based on my family, they’ve actually let me do everything I want. Which I wasn’t expecting. When I talk to the studio and network about things I want to do and they want to know why I want to do something, I have an explanation or a story from my life that explains why it is the way it is. And they’ve been very open to that. [Cristela’s co-executive producer] Kevin Hench calls me Air Force One.
As in, “Nothing can happen unless Air Force One signs off on it.”
You know, I remember watching Margaret Cho’s show and I remember the criticism. I remember when Margaret talked about how people had wanted her to lose weight because of the show and blah, blah, blah. That hasn’t been my problem at all.
My whole thing with this project from the get-go was that if I felt like I had to compromise anything in regards to my family or my culture or Texas—the show is set in Dallas—I didn’t want to do it, because this show has my name on it. I get only one chance to have a show with my name on it.
JS: In the pilot, there’s Spanish with no translation—will that actually happen in the show?
CA: Yeah, that’s exactly what we’re doing. I wanted to do it like that because to me, I thought that was very much like what Texas was like for me, that’s what Texas is. Everybody speaks a little bit of Spanish, or they understand it a little bit. In real life, we wouldn’t have to translate anything. You just kind of throw out the Spanish word and if people get it, they get it, and if not, it’s not that big of a deal. I like sprinkling it in, the way my family speaks. I couldn’t do it any other way, because that’s how we talk.
JS: There’s a line in the first episode where your sister wants her daughter to try out for the cheerleading squad and you want her to try out for the soccer team, and you say, “Cheerleading—that great Texas tradition where girls learn they’re not as important as boys.” What kind of portrayal of Texas can we expect from the show?
CA: I hate when shows about Texas always have people with cowboy hats. I get it, Texas has a lot of that. But that’s not what we all are. My family, for instance, are blue-collar people who have to work every day to get that paycheck. We’re big Cowboys fans in the show because I’m a huge Cowboys fan. I’m a huge Mavs fan. We’re not all walking around with guns and lassos.
JS: Probably the worst thing a man can do is ask a woman a question about her weight. But you talk about your weight a lot in your stand-up and in the show, so I guess I’m going to put myself on the firing line here and ask you about it. Has the network ever talked to you about your weight, as Hollywood has with so many actresses over the years?
CA: No, they haven’t. And I think it’s because what they liked about this show is that it’s me. So the moment they start telling me to change who I am, well, then they really didn’t like me in this project to begin with.
I’ll tell you one thing, though: I’ve started exercising regularly, because I was on the road a lot, and I never had a chance to. Growing up, I was always a really big runner, and when I started doing stand-up, I found myself never being able to work out because my schedule was crazy. Not only that but I was playing towns where the only option for food a lot of times, in the middle of the night when I was free to eat, were fast food places. So I found myself eating a lot of bad food.
It’s so funny, this is the first time I’ve been able to live in L.A. for a long amount of time. I lived in L.A. for a decade, meaning that I have an address in L.A. but I’ve been on the road for so long. Honestly, I think if I lost weight, I would lose weight just so I wouldn’t lose my breath when I’m climbing a set of stairs—where, when I’m in the middle of the stairs, I have to stop and pretend that I’m taking a picture with my phone so that people don’t know how out of shape I am. That’s my goal. My goal is to be happy. Everybody has told me, “We don’t want you to change, we want you to stay just the way you are.” And I want to stay the way I am, because I feel like I represent what a lot of people look like in the country. I’m a regular person.
JS: Speaking of bodies, when people think of stand-up comedy, they usually think of the comedian working up material—jokes, comebacks, observations. But watching your clips, one thing I noticed was how much physicality goes into your act. You do voices, facial expressions, and all these poses and impressions of other people—how they walk, how they gesticulate. A lot of other comics don’t have that going on. How did the physical nature of your comedy become a part of your act?
CA: That actually came from my family. We used to visit my grandmother in Mexico every Monday—she was in Reynosa, right across the border from McAllen. My grandmother and my mother, when they talked, always gave voices to everybody that they referred to in their stories. I picked up doing voices in stories from them because that’s how they told stories.
It’s funny, my mom never learned how to speak English. She liked Mexican soap operas, and I used to watch American soap operas—The Bold and the Beautiful and General Hospital. And I would translate the episodes into Spanish for my mom so that she kind of knew what was happening. And I think when I was performing for her, I was always big in my physicality. And that just stayed with me. I’m like that in real life. When I tell a story, I tell it like I’m doing stand-up. So what you see onstage is what I’m like offstage. I didn’t even know I was like that until I started seeing footage of myself.
JS: Can you tell me your favorite joke?
CA: One of my jokes or someone else’s?
JS: Your call.
CA: I’ll tell you my current favorite joke I do: “I’m from South Texas. I grew up in a pretty bad neighborhood. Our high school mascot was the Cartel. Let’s just say we never lost a game.”