How To Become An LA Comedian: Cristela Alonzo Explains
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It lasted one season, but left a big impression -- the Mexican-American star has gone on to have a Netflix standup special, a successful voiceover career including projects like Pixar's Cars 3 and HBO's upcoming His Dark Materials, and she just released a memoir called Music to my Years, which tells her life story through the songs that made an impact on her.
We asked her how she made it to the top of the comedy world, and she told us how she did it -- and how you can (maybe) do it too.
STEP 1: TELL YOUR TRUTH
Cristela said that her book shows "a pretty average girl that got to do something that was pretty un-average."
She grew up in a Texas border town, her family squatting in an abandoned diner. Her family never had money, but cable TV worked as the kids' babysitter -- and she watched a ton of stand-up comedy.
Alonzo advises up-and-comers that, if they love stand-up and really want to try doing it, "Make it your version of your truth. Meaning, it doesn't have to be personal, but it has to be things that are funny to you, not what you think the audience will think is funny."
The audience knows when you really mean what you're saying, Alonzo said. Making it in comedy can take a while, and you'll have downs, Alonzo said -- but it'll also be a lot of fun.
STEP 2: GET A JOB THAT'S COMEDY ADJACENT
She got her foot in the door working as an office manager at a comedy club. Before that gig came along, she didn't know that stand-up was a job someone could have.
She saw a want ad in the newspaper for the position at the Addison Improv in Dallas, Texas. The ad didn't even say that it was for a comedy club -- she found out when she showed up.
"And I was like, 'Uh, f--- everybody else, f--- every other job -- I want this job,'" Alonzo said.
Comics started to tell Alonzo that they thought she was funny -- but she brushed the compliments off and didn't think much of it. She wanted to act. But when she realized that there weren't a lot of opportunities for Latina actresses in a pre-Hamilton world, she decided that maybe she could use her performance skills doing comedy.
STEP 3: WRITE YOUR OWN MATERIAL
Alonzo pulled a Hamilton of her own, picking up a pen and deciding to write her way out.
"I thought, 'You know, I love performing -- if I'm going to make myself a career in this, I think I'm going to have to write my own stuff,'" Alonzo said.
She started doing stand-up to work her writing muscles. She promised herself that she would keep doing it until it stopped being fun -- and 15 years in, she's never ended up feeling like it wasn't.
One day, she left the notebook she wrote in on the bar at the club. When she came back, a headliner working that week was reading her notebook. She declined to name that comic during our conversation, but all indications are that it was Latino megastar Carlos Mencia.
"He asks who that notebook belongs to, and I tell him, 'It's me -- it's mine,' and I grab it from him," Alonzo said.
Mencia asked if Alonzo wanted to do a set for him. She declined, having only been doing stand-up for six months -- she felt it was too soon. When he came back to the club a year later, he remembered her, and asked her to open for him in Dallas. This time, she went for it.
He invited her back to do shows in San Antonio, then El Paso, then Austin.
STEP 4: MOVE TO LOS ANGELES
That's when Mencia asked her if she'd want to move to Los Angeles and keep opening for him.
"And I didn't. Because I didn't like his comedy -- it wasn't my style," Alonzo said.
But her comic friends told her it would be stupid to say no, so she ended up saying yes and making the move.
Alonzo said that being a stand-up in Los Angeles is hard. It's harder to get stage time than in either New York, with clubs everywhere, or in smaller markets with less competition. But you bring your skills with you to your new home.
"People don't understand that, when you move to a bigger city, you have to kind of start all over again," Alonzo said. "So it's like, are you ready to start over again?"
STEP 5: DON'T STEAL JOKES
But she had her gig opening for Mencia and toured the country with him. She opened on big Comedy Central tours, the only female comic with 11 guys in a tour bus. She also wrote for Mind of Mencia.
"It was very hard, because the comic would give me challenges to do on the road," Alonzo said.
There were two openers, but she was the only one he'd give these challenges to.
"Before the show he would say, 'Hey, tonight, go up, do a set with jokes I've never heard before. If I hear you do a joke I've heard before, you're fired,'" Alonzo said.
She described it as a toxic work relationship. Alonzo said he was paying her just enough to get by, and she needed the money.
That's when the allegation that Mencia was stealing jokes from other comics went viral.
"And after that, people started thinking that I stole jokes, because I opened for him," Alonzo said.
That's when she realized that working for him just wasn't worth it.
"Now people think that I steal, and I don't steal -- I'm like, I'm a f---ing comic. So I left him," Alonzo said.
She left after a show in Atlanta, telling everyone off on the way.
"Nobody would hire me for two years, because everybody thought that I was a thief, just like him," Alonzo said.
STEP 6: FIND A HOME CLUB
Alonzo had to work her way back in. One thing that can be helpful for a comic is to have a club where they can always perform. A manager helped Alonzo get booked at the Comedy and Magic Club in Hermosa Beach around 10 years ago, where she did a guest spot.
She had five minutes -- and did really well, impressing the owner of the club, who happened to be there that night. That set ended up being the same one she would later do her first time on Conan.
The owner invited her back to do more, and Alonzo found a home. It helped with the club's crowd that she worked clean -- she said that she doesn't get raunchy in her act, because that's not how she talks in real life.
The Comedy and Magic Club has a reputation for being hard to get into, Alonzo said, but it ended up being the club that supported her more than any other club in Los Angeles.
"I will always be loyal to Comedy and Magic, because they're the ones that saw something in me when no one else would even give me the time of day," Alonzo said.
STEP 7: PLAY THE COLLEGE CIRCUIT
Alonzo was struggling after no longer working with Mencia. A college agent took a shot on her and she started playing college shows, which let her get by.
But by 2012, she said that things were looking dire with her unable to pay her bills, and she was about to move back home to Texas.
That's when she found out that she'd made it to the NACA Nationals. That's the National Association for Campus Activities, a conference where colleges from around the country come together to book the campus entertainment for the years, and even being able to perform there to potentially be booked is a big deal.
Alonzo and her boyfriend at the time had decided that, to survive in Los Angeles, she needed to book gigs with nine colleges. She cashed in her airline miles and her boyfriend asked his parents for money to help fly her out to Charlotte, North Carolina.
"Nine was... maybe doable, but still, you don't know how your set's going to go," Alonzo said.
She booked 130 schools.
"I remember calling my boyfriend when I found out. I was in this hallway, and I broke down and I got on the floor" Alonzo said. "He got quiet, and I realized he was crying. ... I'm like, 'Holy s---, I can pay my bills with stand-up now. I can actually get out of debt now. I can pay people back now.'"
STEP 8: IT'LL TAKE A LONG TIME, AND MIGHT NOT BE FAIR
Her success at NACA changed everything for her. Within that year, she ended up scoring her first late-night TV comedy set on Conan. And that set helped her get her self-titled sitcom.
"When comics ask me about how I did it, what I've been able to do, I tell them, 'You're seeing the most recent thing out of a career that started 15 years ago,'" Alnozo said. "But it's a lot of bulls---. Stand-up is a lot about surviving, and getting by, until you get something."
She was thankful for her network sitcom -- but still feels that, being the first Latina to create, write, and star in a network sitcom, she wasn't treated the same as everyone else.
"When you're one of the first, or the first person to do something, you're building the house while drawing up the blueprint," Alonzo said. "When you're hungry, you're happy for a morsel of food. But then you realize that they get to decide what morsel you get."
STEP 9: FOLLOW YOUR BELIEFS, EVEN WHEN IT MEANS SACRIFICE
The expectation that Alonzo should be grateful to have her show sullied the experience for her, she said. When her show got canceled, she struggled with whether to talk about her experiences, because she didn't want it to affect other Latinos getting opportunities. But ultimately, she decided that it was important for her to share her experiences when it came to diversity in entertainment.
Cristela's also used her platform to also become an activist. One turning point for her was when she was set to moderate a panel on a social justice cruise shortly after the 2016 election.
She received some advice from a woman who's been a mentor to her, labor leader Dolores Huerta.
"Dolores looks at me and says, 'Hey, what's wrong?' ... I'm like, 'Well, you know... the election.'"
"She looks at me and she says, 'Oh... this is the first time your country's broken your heart. It won't be the last,'" Alonzo said.
Huerta and poet Sonia Sanchez encouraged her to go out and work for change. She decided to follow their advice, fighting on behalf of the people from her hometown that she felt would be affected by the election.
"I don't want to do red-carpet activism. That's what I call when people show up to take the picture, but they don't really go to the community. I like grassroots," Alonzo said.
Alonzo had sold a TV show -- and she called her agents, asking them to get the show back and give the company that had bought it their money back. She decided to take a break from stand-up and focus her energy on the issues she cares about, spending the next two years with that as her focus.
She finally decided to get back into the stand-up world, and has managed to balance her activism with comedy -- her new book has blurbs from Huerto and Julián Castro alongside Wanda Sykes.
She also hasn't wanted to go out and sell a show again, because she wants to wait until she knows she'll be able to tell the story she wants to tell.
STEP 10: LISTEN TO WHOOPI GOLDBERG
Alonzo said that some of the best career advice she ever received was from Whoopi Goldberg, after Alonzo had appeared on The View. Goldberg asked her if she liked the show she'd seen the night before, Cabaret -- and Alonzo said she did, but that it bothered her that she'd never be able to play the character of Sally Bowles.
Whoopi asked her if someone had told her she couldn't play that part. Alonzo cautiously responded, saying that the character is white.
"And Whoopi's like, 'No no no. Let me tell you something: Don't you ever tell yourself that you can't be something. Don't you ever tell yourself that you're incapable of doing something. That you don't fit into doing something.' She said, 'Look at me. Do you think that the opportunities that I've had, the things I've done, have been because I fit the thing that I got? No.'"
Goldberg told her that there's always a way to become the thing that you want to become, if you really want to become it.
STEP 11: SHOW THAT YOU'RE MORE THAN WHAT'S ON THE OUTSIDE
Alonzo said she hopes that her new book gets people to look past "that I'm Latina, and that I have brown skin," to see that they have a lot in common with her. That's why she based her book around music.
"This book is my way of saying, 'There's so much more to me than what you might see,'" Alonzo said. "We might look different, we might live in different economic levels, but we all have a lot of common -- and I think we need that message more than ever right now, in the time we're living in."
The book is the greatest hits of her life, but she said there were so many songs she wanted to put in, she could do a whole other book around the B-sides.
Music to My Years is available starting today from booksellers everywhere. She's also doing a show and interview at KPCC on Wednesday, Oct. 30, and playing Largo in West Hollywood on Wednesday, Oct. 23, on the My Affordable Care Act tour.
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