Funny and Fearless. Cristela Alonzo is forging new roads in Hollywood.
By Gina Piccalo For Emmy.
April 16, 2015
When ABC launched Cristela Alonzo’s semi-autobiographical comedy last Fall, she became the first Latina to create, produce, write and star in her own network TV show.
But as the comedian sat in her spacious dressing room in the Fox lot in Los Angeles one recent afternoon, recounting the past 18 months, it was clear that hers was anything but an overnight success.
"Growing up as poor as we did made me perfect for this industry," she says, leaning forward, a huge portrait of a Golden Girls-era Betty White behind her.
"It made me fearless 'cause I had nothing to lose. I knew I could always get a job at a Big Lots or something to make sure I survive."
Employment at Big Lots seems unlikely — and unnecessary — now.
When Cristela premiered in October to 6.5 million viewers in the 18- to-49 sweet spot, she also won over critics who agreed — as Mary McNamara of the Los Angeles Times put it — that Alonzo "could and should become a big star." A month later the network gave the show a full-season order.
"She exceeded even our wildest expectations," says ABC's executive vice-president of comedy development, Sarnie Falvey. "She had a really compelling American dream story. A lot of people try to do a modern Mary Tyler Moore, but hers truly felt contemporary."
Alonzo is certainly making the most of her moment. In January, while the show was still in production, she was averaging four hours of sleep each night.
Her long days included writing and rehearsing and jet-setting cross country to cohost ABC's The View — when she wasn't on the road to Fresno or Stockton or Bakersfield, headlining stand-up shows in theaters packed with Cristela devotees of all ages, Tweeting and Instagram-ing to them in realtime,
The weekend stand-up gigs were Alonzo's idea. She loves to meet her fans, many of whom are from middle-class Latino families like the one depicted on the show.
They wait hours to thank her for "showing that we're more than what they've always made us out to be — the gardeners, the gang members....
"As long as you're honest, you'll find the people you're trying to reach," Alonzo says. "Nothing's contrived. Everyone in the show is based on someone in my real life. The episodes are all based on stories from my life."
In her dressing room, under that Betty White portrait, sits a framed photo of David Letterman kissing Alonzo's hand on his show last year, a moment she calls "a dream come true." Leaning against another wall is a framed poster of famed Mexican comic actor Cantinflas, a favorite from her childhood.
She motions around the large room as if she herself can't believe her good fortune. Friendly and personable, Alonzo can't seem to get the words out fast enough, erupting every few minutes into throaty, rich laughter.
"Sometimes I get tired," she allows. "Then I think to myself, 'Your mom worked in a restaurant just so you guys could eat.'"
Alonzo grew up in the border town of San Juan, Texas. Her mother, a Mexican immigrant, had escaped an abusive marriage with her three children while pregnant with Alonzo. The family moved into an abandoned diner with no running water or electricity and spent Alonzo's first eight years there.
The neighborhood was too dangerous for the kids to play outside. So Natalia Alonzo, who worked double shifts as a cook at a local restaurant, paid a neighbor to run an electrical cord to their place so her children would stay inside and watch TV while she was gone.
Some of Alonzo's earliest memories are of watching her favorite 1980s sitcoms: Roseanne, The Cosby Show, The Golden Girls and Family Ties.
Before she started school, she learned to speak English watching those shows, as her mother and siblings spoke only Spanish at home. For Alonzo, sitcoms became her connection to the world outside that diner.
"I took TV so personal that I used to cry when my shows ended," she says.
"Multi-camera [comedies] taught me a lot of lessons that my mom wasn't capable of teaching me. All the lessons she had for her kids were, 'Work hard. Survive.' On TV you would see families that didn't have problems just surviving. I realized there were other lessons — like being a good person, knowing that lying about schoolwork is wrong. TV was like a teacher for me. It was everything for me."
As a young teen, she was shepherded into an advanced theater program. "My junior-high teacher forced me to be in theater class," she says. "I went to the principal and asked to be moved. I was so angry. But the teacher said, 'I think this is your thing.'"
Eventually, she came around. "Those teachers telling me that I could do it was all I needed to hear to keep me going."
Alonzo became president of the drama club, winning national drama competitions.
But she was also an academic overachiever, competing on the Quiz Bowl team and at the Academic Decathlon. She finished high school and earned a scholarship to Webster University in St. Louis, Missouri. She spent summers working in an opera theater and traveling the country, performing in plays.
In Cristela, she portrays a sixth-year law-school student trying to get a foothold as an intern in a law firm while living with her working-class family. It depicts a period in Alonzo's life when she had to leave college to care for her sick mother and help her older sister with childcare.
"It was a really tough time in my life," she reflects, "but I wanted to write about it — about having to move back home and stop your life and help take care of your family because if you didn't, the family wouldn't make it."
After her mother died in 2002, Alonzo went back to performing and landed in Dallas doing stand-up. She initially refused to do any jokes about being Latina or being a woman, preferring more pointed, observational humor.
At a Dallas comedy club, she met Carlos Mencia, who hired her to open for him and write for his Comedy Central show, Mind of Mencia, which debuted in 2005.
But by 2007, when other comics were going public about Mencia stealing jokes, Alonzo found herself guilty by association. She couldn't get work for over a year,
Forced to reinvent herself at open-mic sessions around Los Angeles, in time she graduated to stand-up on the college circuit and in 2010 was a semi-finalist on NBC's Last Comic Standing.
n mid 2012 she performed on Conan, which got the attention of Becky Clements, an executive producer on ABC's Last Man Standing — the Tim Allen comedy — who called her for a meeting.
"In an hour-and-a-half meeting, in a windowless conference room, her personality was so engaging that I just wanted to spend [more] time with her," Clements says. "She has this laugh that seems to erase any distractions and really pulls you into her orbit."
Clements, a non-writing producer, saw Alonzo as a multi-talented entertainer with tremendous mainstream appeal, particularly for the under-served Latino TV audience.
After that first meeting, Clements paired Alonzo with Kevin Hench, then an exec producer on Last Man Standing, so they could write a comedy based on Alonzo's family,
"It was challenging to create all the characters that tell Cristela's story and get it in at a manageable length," says Hench, a co-creator of Cristela with Alonzo and its showrunner.
"The word that Cristela and I kept coming back to was authenticity. This is her story. This is her family. We believed if we told it truthfully, people would like it."
In August 2013, ABC — home to such Latino-themed series as Ugly Betty and The George Lopez Show — bought their script, agreeing to pay a large portion of the pilot's original budget if it wasn't picked up to go to pilot.
But the network was overbooked with high-profile multi-cams, including Henry Winkler's The Winklers and a Kevin Hart project. ABC passed on Cristela.
"It was devastating," Clements says. "I could tell you where I was sitting when I burst into tears."
But Clements had an idea. With the help of Last Man Standing production company 20th Century Fox Television, that show's coexecutive producer John Amodeo and director John Pasquin, plus a rewrite by Hench, she pulled together an 11th-hour, full-length pilot presentation.
She took the $500,000 penalty money and with Pasquin's crew, filmed the pilot on the Twentieth Century Fox TV soundstage of Last Man Standing. To keep costs down, they worked fast and cheap, redressing the set to make it more modest.
"We rehearsed in a windowless basement room on the lot," recalls Clements, now one of Cristela's executive producers.
"It was like church dinner theater. [Two days later], we go on the stage and [Alonzo] is not only a great stand-up, she's an amazing comedic actress. We sort of expected the situation of having a stand-up who's not really an actor. But we never had a doubt after that. She's a life force."
Still, months of speculation passed before the network agreed last May to pick up the show, ordering 13 episodes. ABC's Falvey says the script rewrite and the pilot presentation made clear the show's enormous potential.
"I think we all felt we left something on the table because [Alonzo's] such a huge presence and her perspective is so fresh and unique," Falvey says. "We were just so impressed. You wanted to go everywhere with her."
Cristela was slotted on Fridays after Last Man Standing, joining two other new ABC sitcoms appealing to diverse audiences, black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat. A month after its premiere, ABC ordered nine more episodes, giving Cristela a full season.
"Not only did it get us picked up," Clements says, "we actually aired that pilot!"
It was a Hail Mary pass for a show that Hench called "a massive underdog."
After the pick-up, he recalls, "Cristela asked me, 'Did you ever think we'd get on the air?' I told her that when she walked out on that soundstage, that live audience put their arms around her and wouldn't let go. She was so good — such a good actor, such a center of gravity in every scene — I was certain we were going to go on TV."
Alonzo was involved with every decision from casting and writing to choosing the tiger blanket that rests on the set's living-room sofa because, as she explains, "If [the show] went away, I wanted to have no regrets."
With its lived-in set and the immediacy of a live audience, Cristela has become her tribute to the sitcoms of her childhood — but with a Latino cast to show "kids that look like me that it can be done.
"I tell everyone, our show is edgy by not being edgy," she continues. "People ask me, 'Why a multi-cam? It's so dated.' I grew up loving theater and, when it's done right, a multi-cam can be theater for people who can't afford the theater. I wanted to do a throwback to the shows I grew up with because as a kid, watching TV was the only thing I had that told me I could do it."
She readily takes to Twitter to address doubters and critics, posting recently that "my sister works at a call center and my brother-in-law really does install floors for a living.
"A couple days ago," she adds, "somebody on social media said, 'The mom [on Cristela] is too stereotypical. What's up with the mom?' I wrote back, 'The mom is based on my real mom. If you think she's stereotypical, my mom was stereotypical.' You can't argue with that."