Cristela Alonzo on Her Netflix Special, Donald Trump and Her ABC Sitcom's "New Life" Online

"On the heels of [the Women's March], I think it's even more appropriate than ever," the stand-up comedian tells THR about tackling President Donald Trump in her special.
Rick Kern

Cristela Alonzo's first Netflix original stand-up special, Cristela Alonzo: Lower Classy, drops Tuesday on the streaming giant, but to many fans of the stand-up comedian, it's more of a homecoming than a debut.

That's because Netflix is also home to her short-lived ABC sitcom, Cristela. The series, which made Alonzo the first Latina to create, produce, write and star in her own primetime comedy, made its Netflix debut six months after its May 2015 demise and has continued to draw new viewers.

"It kind of got a new life," Alonzo tells The Hollywood Reporter. So when it came time to do a stand-up special, "Netflix was a no-brainer."

Lower Classy, which is similar to her ABC sitcom, touches on her Mexican-American upbringing in a working-class family and also comes at a particularly political time, given Friday's inauguration of President Donald Trump and his stance on immigration. Fresh from her trip to Washington, D.C., for the Women's March, Alonzo spoke with THR about the Donald Trump joke that almost got cut, how the special "extends" her beloved sitcom and why she's in no rush to do another series.

I saw you were at the Women's March this weekend. How was that? How was it going down to D.C. and seeing the huge turnout?

You know, I'll be honest with you, when I was a kid, I remember seeing footage of the Civil Rights Movement, the marches, and as a kid, I never thought that I would actually have to march myself for something. Being there, it was so energizing to be with the women. I took an Amtrak from New York to D.C. and everyone on my car, they were all women. And we noticed that immediately and asked each other if we were doing the march. We all said yes and we all cheered, we all clapped. We were giddy to go. What was interesting though was that because it was a three-hour train ride, the longer the trip took, we all started telling stories about why we were going to the march and that was actually the first time that I really felt a sense of community, like a sense of community where we're gathering to fight for what's right and I can't tell you, I can't put it into words what I felt. It was kind of like that moment that will go down in history where people will ask you what were you doing that day at the moment and I'm so happy that I was in D.C. It was so important to be there because I wanted to be as close to him as possible.

I would think some had the opposite reaction. What gave you that perspective?

I've been raised to not avoid conflict. I want to go toward the source, I don't run away. I go toward it. It’s like the only way to really, for me, to feel like I'm helping or I'm changing or trying to make a change is to go to the source. What a big statement that the day after he gets inaugurated, we all congregated immediately [after], like 24 hours later we're there saying no. It had to be done.

Going back to your special, you obviously talk about Trump and the wall in that. Being a politically active person, how did you find the balance between discussing him and the other topics you wanted to touch on?

I don't really like name-calling people…which I think is a problem and which is why I think we can't have honest discussions right now because so many people are so aggressive and they're quick to name-call. I've always said, "As long as I'm personal and I'm honest about my life and my truth, then no one can negate that." For me, when I was writing the hour, I started thinking: How is my life affected by what is happening around me? It's like why do I want to march? Why did I call the special "Lower Classy?" It's because I love politics and I feel like in the media we don't have enough representation of the lower class, which is what I came from. I grew up in extreme poverty and for me, it's like unless we give these people a voice, a heart and a soul, we'll never be able to move the needle. I can't assume that anyone else is going to do it. If I want it to be done, the only way I know it's done is to do it myself.

Did you ever consider discussing it more in the special? What was that thought process like?

It was really more about explaining situations. What people don't talk about when it comes to immigration is nobody wants to leave their home, they leave their home because they have to. It's their only chance to survive and we never talk about that. I always think, 'Have I said enough about it? Have I said it in a point of view that maybe hasn't been explored enough?' And the moment that I feel like my point has been given, that's when I know that it's enough.

What was your first reaction when you heard the special would be released right after the inauguration? Were other possible release dates discussed?

Originally, it was supposed to be out a couple weeks ago, and we ended up just deciding on this day because it was so appropriate, and it's so timely. Also, we chose this day before the Women's March actually started developing into something so now, on the heels of that, I think it's even more appropriate than ever because of the turnout globally that happened.

For me, I think we kind of lucked into it in a way, which is funny because the Trump wall stuff that I do in the special, when I shot it, Netflix was nervous that it might be obsolete in case [Hillary] Clinton won. [They said], "If Clinton wins, we have to cut that from the special because it'll be outdated by the time it airs." And oddly enough, he won and it became more important to talk about.

Since you shot this special a few months ago, how concerned were you about some of these jokes no longer being timely?

Not at all. For me, I always feel like a special is a recording of what I thought on that specific day. I think a lot of people could understand that when you tape a special, it's kind of like a snapshot of where you are at that moment.

Going back a little further, how did the special with Netflix first come about?

When my show was canceled, we actually approached Netflix about taking over and doing a second season there. And it didn’t work out, it didn’t pan out. We started talking to each other about a stand-up special.… I've been doing stand-up since 2003, so I've been doing it for awhile. I started thinking, "Well, I don't know if I'm ready." And then I thought, "You know what? I'm so hard on myself. I'm never going to feel like I'm ready. Let's just do it." I started working on it and I started thinking, "I'm going to write an hour stand-up so that people can see what my show was heading toward." So basically my stand-up special is actually me, with my opinions, my thoughts and everything without any network or studio notes. This is completely me. This is what you get without any interference by anybody else. I just felt like it was important for people to see that my life really was accurately represented in my show and not only that, but I get the chance to extend it and elaborate on it in my special.

Why specifically did you want to do this on Netflix?

To me, it's the fact that they’re global. Just the actual chance that you get your voice heard on such a huge platform. I did a half-hour special for Comedy Central years ago and it's fine, but my special aired at midnight, and it's like, if you don't catch it, sometimes you miss it and it's hard. People forget about it. It's like, "Maybe I'll see it, maybe I won't." With Netflix, when you log in, the specials always come up. It's more eyeballs. And also the fact that they have my show, so many people discovered my show after it was canceled.

I see you retweet a lot of viewers who reach out to you about discovering the show on Netflix for the first time and asking about a second season. Have there been any more recent talks about resurrecting the series?

No, it doesn't come up. I've gotten opportunities since the show was canceled to develop another show and I have chosen not to because, for me, I want to wait till I have a story that I want to tell. I don't want to go into another show just because I want to be back on TV. I grew up on TV, I love TV and I actually respect television. It's that thing where I feel like if I were to rush into another show that I'm not completely 100 percent ready for, I almost feel like I'm disrespecting television.… I just want to wait until the time is right and I know that I'm going to tell a story worth telling. But I retweet all the people that love my show and got excited about it because I want people to know that my show was a Latino show and that people want to see Latino programming.

Netflix is also home to the Cuban-American reboot of One Day at a Time. Seeing shows like that that are just coming on the air now, do you think Cristela would have met a different fate had it premiered a season later or two seasons later?

One Day at a Time, I'm friends with the showrunners, Mike Royce and Gloria Calderon Kellett, and I know Norman Lear. I think that with One Day at a Time, it's gotten support that I never got on my show. And I feel like a lot of it has to do with [the fact that] it's a reboot of a classic American sitcom done by the man himself. So that helps a lot.

For me, it was really hard for me to try to explain my life to people and have them understand that my life was my life. It was really weird, which I think is why it's so important to have diversity behind the scenes, in just the executive level, the writing level, the producing level because you need people to be able to validate your reality. So I don't know if it would have been different a year ago or later. I actually always said, "The next sitcom that comes out after me will probably have a better shot," because you keep opening the doors. Every time that a project comes, you open the door more. So it's natural evolution.

It feels like there's been a more concentrated push in the last year to have more diversity behind the camera, particularly when it comes to writers and directors. Have you found that to be true?

It's weird, I feel like I get invited to do a lot of panels about diversity in front of and behind the camera and I think the efforts are good. I personally haven’t seen a lot of change, but also, I'm not currently working on any TV shows so I really don't know.

It's a slow change because it's about getting opportunities that so many people are competing for. Like when I had the show, people would ask me, "Well, why do you think its harder for a Latino to get on TV?" And I always used to say the same thing: "Well, actually it's hard for anybody. It's a hard thing to get a show."

Even though you're not working on a TV show at the moment, how much thought have you given to where you would like your next show to air?

I've thought about it and I feel like if I were ready for another show, I would probably try to take it to Netflix just because they've been really great to work with and it's been kind of amazing to see how liberating it is to just be able to do what you want to do. They really let you have that voice and have the vision that you want. Maybe when the time is ready, I will go to Netflix and see if they're interested.

When Cristela was canceled, you said you "probably" wouldn't work with ABC again after the experience you have. Now that it's been a few years, has that opinion changed?

I don't know. Yes, I mean maybe. It's interesting because there's different people that weren't there when I was there so to me it seems fair to approach them because it's kind of like a changing of the guard. I can't hold them responsible.

You said you're not working on a show at the moment so what are your plans for the next year? More stand-up?

I'm in the new Cars movie that's coming out in the summer from Pixar, I've been working on that for the past year and a half. It's a pretty cool character, it's a pretty sizable role. I'm focusing on that right now.

As for stand-up, there are many comics that, once they tape an hour, they start working immediately on the next hour. For me, I wanted to take some time off to actually live so that I have things to talk about because I feel like I need to actually go through life and experience things that I can make fun of or criticize or observe for stand-up later. I think that the next thing I'll probably do is stay active with trying to work on this movement that we started Saturday with the march and I feel like the story that I want to tell next will probably come soon because of the work that I'm doing now.

Cristela Alonzo: Lower Classy is streaming now on Netflix.

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