A bright new star in stand-up comedy is Cristela Alonzo. Her new sitcom on ABC, self-titled, is just one of the highlights in her short career. She also just released a new stand-up album on Comedy Central Records called, “Some of the Hits.” Cristela recently phoned in to talk about her new sitcom, which also co-stars another comedian, Gabriel Iglesias; as well as her start in stand-up comedy.
Season 1 of "Cristela" is currently on ABC. First of all, how did you get involved with the network and, secondly, where did the idea of your lawyer internship come about?
I was actually changing agencies and my new agent saw my stand-up and they thought my stand-up… I have a lot of material about my family… they thought my material would make a show. They asked me if I wanted to give it a try and develop something. I didn’t know if I had a shot or not but I figured, why not, let’s give it a try.
I got a development deal with 20th and we pitched it to the networks, they went through a little bidding war and ABC… to me it seemed like the perfect network because they had ‘Roseanne,’ and they had the ‘George Lopez’ show, and I thought my show was a blend of both of them so I figured I’d give the network a try.
Where did the idea of your lawyer internship come about?
My mom was really into law and lawyers and it was kind of a tribute to her because the show is based on my life. I didn’t want to make a show where I’m the comic, because it’s a really hard career to describe to people because it doesn’t have any steps to becoming a comic; you can kind of figure it out as you go along. With law, what I liked about it is it’s really pretty clear, and it takes a long time. You have to go through undergrad, you have to go to law school, you have to get the bar; there are so many clear stepping stones that you have to do and I thought, law is something that everybody understands. Not everyone gets that stand-up is a job, so I picked law because I thought it was lengthy enough, and maybe show the struggle of a family that might not get it because it takes so long and they don’t understand what the appeal of it is.
Did you ever want to be a lawyer?
Yeah, I did, for a while. I dropped out of college, and I was a Theatre major, and so many Theatre majors end up going into law, so it was interesting to me. I couldn’t even afford three other jobs so for me to become a lawyer was such an impossibility, so this was a way for me to rewrite my life.
For someone like me who isn’t involved in these network pitch sessions, all I can reference is “Seinfeld” where he and George go into NBC and pitch a show about nothing. Is that the process, where if they’re not biting, other proposed storylines get thrown out? Were there other proposed storylines for the series?
For me, when I was trying to come up with a pitch, I wanted to show more of the feel of the show that I was going for, because what I wanted to do was to do a throwback to older shows. We don’t really see any more of the classic family sitcoms where kids could watch with their parents and I was a big TV nerd growing up, so when I was pitching the story they always said, ‘It’s a show about a family, that’s trying to get by, and I’m the person, who is the first of their kind in the family, to do everything that the family never thought was possible, like going to college.’
When I was pitching, I always used examples of how, you know I did a lot of college shows in the middle of nowhere, and I would always talk about how a lot of these colleges I went to didn’t have any Latinos in the little town sometimes but they all got my stand-up because they all related to my family. My co-creator and I would say, ‘OK, what is it? Is it family? Is she single? Does she want to meet a guy? What’s it about?’ And because it’s based on me, I was so sure what the show was about. It’s a single woman who doesn’t want to be in a relationship because she’s so focused on her career, and she helps the other family.
You co-wrote a couple episodes. What I love about the show is it follows the sitcom formula where one character would set up the joke and another would deliver the punchline. How different is it writing for other people than writing for yourself for a stand-up set?
It’s a lot of fun and what I like about it is there are certain things that I think about but I feel like it isn’t in the voice of my stand-up, and sometimes I don’t have any place to do this, so it’s nice to have these characters that I can give those jokes to. Or I can find a home to instead of not doing anything with them. It kind of indulges me in the fact that I have all these different perspectives, different point of views to write to.
It’s funny because there is a character on the show that’s based on a boss I used to have that used to say kind of stereotypical, racist jokes to me. A lot of the jokes that are said are joke ideas that I thought of based on things he used to say to me. And I would never normally say anything like that in my stand-up, but it’s great that I have a character like that on the show that allows me to say them.
During the taping of the show, how much stand-up did you get a chance to do?
We’re in the middle of shooting the first season right now. I still do stand-up on the weekends. For example, we taped last night – we taped the Christmas episode last night, it’s so crazy that we taped it last night – it’s so weird it’s not even Thanksgiving and here we are on the Christmas episode. I actually wrote that episode. The Christmas show was written solely by me, the first episode I wrote by myself. We taped the show last night, tonight I’m doing stand-up, tomorrow I have two shows, Sunday I have two shows… to me, it’s important to keep the stand-up up because that’s my first love. I love the show, but stand-up is the thing that got me here.
Another comedian, Gabriel Iglesias, is on the show as Alberto. I also noted in the credits that Dana Gould is a producer. How is it like working with these two big names in comedy and how did they get involved?
Yeah, it’s crazy because Dana in the writing room is so hilarious. I like him so much, he’s so funny, that to have him in the room you kind of can’t believe you have him in the room. It’s kind of interesting, he comes from… a lot of the rooms that he plays, he’s like the Godfather of all comedy, he’s one of the pioneers of all comedy, and it’s funny to have him in such a traditional multi-cam world. He kind of shows that whatever is funny, it’s funny anywhere. His jokes work.
He’s in the writing room, and on stage we have Gabriel Iglesias. Gabriel and I have known each other for over 12 years. He’s a really good friend of mine, and when we’re on stage, we really try to improv… we really overdo the script so much, and it’s really to the point where we say to ourselves, ‘Maybe we should go back to what was actually written.’ It’s so fun to lose it. I love having comics involved in the show because they get where I’m coming from.
Is there a lot of leeway for improvisation?
I want the actors to know they’re free to play with the words. If they’re not comfortable saying it in the way they want to say it, we’re not going to get the best performance out of them. Sometimes when we have rehearsal, they will say something, or add something, and the moment that we do that, we would write it down and make it part of the script. You can’t say that the writers are the only ones responsible for writing the show. The actors add so much to the characters that it’s only fair that we listen to them and have them have a say in the character development too.
You have a new comedy album, “Some of the Hits,” out on Comedy Central Records. Correct me if I'm wrong, I got this info from Wikipedia, but I read that you started doing stand-up around 2006? So, in less than ten years you've managed to score a comedy record and a hit sitcom on ABC. Does this all seem sudden to you or do you have a more extensive background that I'm not aware of?
I started doing stand-up in 2003. The premise of my TV show was a time when I moved into my sister’s to take care of my mom and her kids. That was actually 2002. It happened, in real life, my mom ended up passing away and I found myself stuck in Dallas. I couldn’t afford therapy so I started doing stand-up to talk about my mom. I thought of a way to kind of let go of everything that I thought about her and losing her, I started in 2003, in 2004, I think, 2005, I moved to Los Angeles, and I started touring, opening up for a comic, and I wrote on Comedy Central. It took off from there. I was maybe a year and a half in when I moved to LA.
Jason Tanamor is the Editor of Zoiks! Online. He also is the author of the novels, The Extraordinary Life of Shady Gray, Hello Lesbian!, Hello Fabulous!, and Anonymous. Visit him at www.tanamor.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.