When the ABC show Cristela premiered in 2014, Cristela Alonzo made U.S. history, the first Latina to write, produce, and star in her own prime-time comedy. But this dream didn’t come easy: Cristela had to fight for her vision at every stage of the process. As she takes us on the journey to making the sitcom, you’ll hear how she found her first opportunities by simply doing what she loved — which “accidentally” led to a show based on her life. You’ll hear how she fights for the show she wants, to the very end — and never waits for permission to chase her next dream.
Transcript and images
Chapter 1: The bold and the beautiful.
CRISTELA ALONZO: My family grew up squatting in this abandoned diner. At eight years old, my mom said, “You are the daughter that’s going to take care of me.” When my mom was making lunch, soap opera, CBS Bold and the Beautiful would start playing. There was a character named Ridge. He had sideburns, he had dark hair, he had a cleft in his chin, brooding. I would take my mom’s red Maybelline eyeliner. I would draw the sideburns on the side of my face, and I would draw the little cleft on the chin, and I would reenact soap operas for her in Spanish.
> Necesito hablar contigo
> No se, Ridge
> Podemos hablar, o no?
My entire life, my creative project was always to make sure that my mom was happy.
In high school, I was a big theater nerd. I was president of the drama club, I competed in theater, I went to nationals in theater. It was in a border town. 99% of us were Mexican. My drama teachers taught us that we could do anything and be whatever we wanted to be. We would explore roles that we wanted to play. Just for fun, we would do numbers from Miss Saigon, Les Mis. We did a production of The Diary of Anne Frank. It’s ridiculous, but you know what? I won an award for that. You know what I mean?
I was always my mom’s best friend and I always did everything my mom asked me to, but I wanted to be on Broadway. At 18, I told her I was leaving to go study theater, and she got down on her knees and cried and begged me not to go. And I told her, “This is bigger than me and it’s bigger than you.” I was going to go chase my dream.
JUNE COHEN: That’s comedian Cristela Alonzo. And she’s about to tell us the story of creating the TV show Cristela.
It’s Cristela’s personal story of creating and starring in a sitcom loosely based on her own family. But it applies to any creative: To chase a dream, expect a struggle. You’ll have to be willing to fight for it.
As Cristela takes us on the journey of creating her show, you’ll hear how simply doing what she loves attracts opportunities — and accidentally leads to a show based on her life. You’ll notice how through every stage of the process, Cristela never waits for someone else’s permission to chase her dream — even when it means defying her family … or a TV studio. And you’ll hear how she’s willing to fight for the show she wants — to the very end.
And here’s what you need to know about Cristela Alonzo and the show. Cristela has two Netflix comedy specials, Lower Classy and Middle Classy. When her ABC show, Cristela, premiered in 2014, she made US history: Cristela was the first Latina to write, produce, and star in her own prime-time comedy.
I’m your host June Cohen, and on this episode you’ll hear original music composed for prepared piano. For visuals while you’re listening, go to sparkandfire.com.
Chapter 2: Your dream doesn’t matter.
What if you’re warned to keep your expectations low? Instead, raise them.
ALONZO: I moved to LA, and I couldn’t get auditions. I was plus size. People would say, “Well, you can’t do much because of your crooked tooth.” The voice teacher told me, “Well, as a Latina you can do West Side Story and Chorus Line, and then you’re done.” It made me feel like talent didn’t matter, and the love didn’t matter. I was being told that my dream didn’t mean anything.
I had to help take care of my mom, and we ended up having to move in with my sister and her family in Dallas. My family couldn’t understand this thing I was trying to do: “You gave the entertainment industry a try. Now, you can be real.” My mom’s default job for everybody was always, “You can always cut hair, because people’s hair grows even in a recession.” That was always her thinking.
My mother passed away on April 6th, 2003. When my mom passed away, I found myself stuck. I responded to an ad to work at an office. I showed up at the place and it was the Comedy Club. I lied and said that I could do all this stuff that I couldn’t. I ended up getting the job. I was feeling so good about myself because I thought, standup, I can write anything I want and do it. I can actually make my own West Side Story. I can make my own Chorus Line. I can write my own Miss Saigon. I fell in love with it.
COHEN: Did you hear the switch flip in Cristela’s voice when she talked about the Comedy Club? After years of struggling to chase her dream, she finally sees a path. And she’s willing to fight for it.
Chapter 3: In which Legos help me write standup comedy.
ALONZO: I can spend so much time writing these jokes, and then when I go up on stage, I forget them. And it’s just so weird. It doesn’t happen in real life. Rarely do I have a conversation with someone and think, “Man, what was I going to say?” And then change the subject completely, but that’s what happens in standup.
In stand up, all we have are our words, and I’m pretty meticulous with my writing. So you have to learn how to pick the best word to describe that picture. If I’m writing a joke about, let’s say like a bird. Bird isn’t a funny word, but parakeet is. When you say bird, they might think of their default bird, but if I say parakeet, they’re going to think of a parakeet. And for that, you need your brain to be at its best.
I love to do puzzles. I describe my apartment as a mid-century PeeWee’s Playhouse. It’s got really great stuff, but I also have toys everywhere. I love to do puzzles that involve numbers, finding patterns, or building a Lego set. It actually allows me to be creative and helps my brain stay in shape in a way. I do that every day.
Chapter 4: An accidental dream come true.
How do you convince others to bet on you? Start by telling your story.
ALONZO: I have to be honest and say that I never wanted a TV show. I never thought I was going to get one. I had been doing standup 10 years or so. I was doing all these college gigs, Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska, and my agent at the time said, “Hey, the people from Conan want to have you submit a tape, five minutes.” I thought, “Five minutes, I’ve got that. I’m doing an hour every night. So let’s pick the greatest hits of the hour. Okay, let’s do this.” I submitted it and the booker at the time said, “This set’s great. I think you’re ready to go on.” That night, I was so nervous that I forgot my name was Cristela. I had been living in this body for decades and apparently at that moment my body’s like, “I don’t know who you are.” So … that led to a half-hour Comedy Central special.
The half-hour Comedy Central special led to signing up with an agency. At the signing meeting, they asked me to tell them a little bit about myself. One of the agents in the room said, “Would you mind telling this story to someone else?” Next day, I’m in this room with this woman, Becky. I just told my story and I was like, “Well, I’m a first-generation Mexican-American. I grew up in a border town. My family grew up squatting in this abandoned diner. My sister, who’s older than me, loves wearing dresses, loves wearing makeup, got married, has kids. My mom hated that I didn’t like dresses, hated that I didn’t like high heels, hated that I didn’t wear makeup. She hated it. “What is wrong with you? Why do you like Legos? That’s for children. Why do you like Star Wars?” Becky looked at me and she was like, “That sounds like such a fun life. I love that story.” It wasn’t until after the meeting that I found out that I was pitching a TV show.
Chapter 5: Nothing to lose.
How do you chase a dream when you don’t know how anything works? Be fearless.
ALONZO: I didn’t know anything about TV. All I knew from friends or standup comics were that they sold shows and they never got made.
But here’s the thing: Not knowing how it worked made me fearless, and also growing up in poverty made me fearless. I’d had nothing to lose. I had nothing. What’s the worst that can happen? Nothing goes and then I go back to having nothing. I grew up in nothing. I’m used to it.
My goal was to just keep doing what I really loved to do, find some happiness in what the journey was, because for so long I had been told that I wasn’t good enough to do what I wanted to do.
We developed with 20th Century, then we sold the show to ABC. When the contracts came, they give you all these details like, “Hey, I know the show is about your life, but you might not get cast as you in your life.” And I thought, “Of course I’m not.” I’m a plus-size Latina woman with a crooked tooth. I couldn’t get an audition to play anyone. So I started wondering who they were going to cast as me. I was so surprised because they actually let me play me. We turned in the script, excited. They started announcing all the scripts were getting picked up to pilot and my show doesn’t get picked up. I’m thinking, “Well, all right. Going back to standup.”
Chapter 6: In which Becky has an idea.
How do you respond to a “no”? Stick by the person who will fight for a yes.
ALONZO: That night, I was flying to San Antonio to do some standup shows. Becky called me and says, “I think they don’t get what the show is. I have this idea. Go with me. If I can get the money, would you be willing to shoot a presentation reel of the show? Now, you’re not getting paid for it.” And I was like, “I don’t care. I would love to do that. Let’s do it.” She said, “But it’s a long shot.” So I’m like, “Okay, well, that’s fine because I was already told no. So I’m already living in No-Ville.” You know what I mean? I’m a citizen of No Land. Population of one, no.
She convinces 20th Century to give her $350,000 when the average budget is like $1.2 million at the time or something for a pilot. Becky was producing Last Man Standing, so she said, “We don’t have to spend money on a set. We can use the Last Man Standing set. We can’t touch the set because they’re still shooting.” So we just have tape on the floor; we’re like, “This is where the couch will be. This is where this will be.” We only have a couple weeks to rehearse and put it all together. We don’t get notes from Studio Network, they don’t show up because this is just a side project. And I’m like, “Okay, well, whatever. I don’t know if it’s good or bad, so just send me an emoji, smiley face or frowny face. What are we doing?” The studio tests this presentation reel, and it tests very high. They send it to the network. So then the network says, “Well, we don’t have money to test it.” And I’m thinking, “Man, everybody’s broke. Let me Venmo you something, like, what do you need?”
It’s ABC, Mickey Mouse is broke, Disneyland has fallen on hard times. They end up finding money, probably from the pass that I have for Disneyland, and it tests ridiculously high. And now suddenly we are in the running for a series pickup. That was the year that Kevin Hart was in development, Henry Winkler was in development. We were the last show to get picked up.
The name of the show was Cristela. This could be the only time I ever have this opportunity. It has to be done well. It has to be something that I can be proud of.
COHEN: You’ve probably noticed at this point: A lot of people are telling Cristela she doesn’t stand a chance. But not Becky. Becky is willing to fight for Cristela’s dream. And Cristela knows to stand by her.
Chapter 7: My vision for the show.
ALONZO: A story has to have humor and heart. I had a rule where on camera if somebody said a joke, other people were free to laugh at it. That was one thing I couldn’t understand about sitcoms. You say a brilliant thing and nobody laughs at it. It’s like, that’s not life.
I grew up a fan of Norman Lear shows. The seventies was to me the height of sitcoms, because you could have a storyline that’s so sad and still have jokes along with it, but to me, it just represented what life was. Life is made up of good and bad, and you have to show the bad so that the good feels even better. I told them that I wanted to write the Christmas episode because I wanted to show people what the show could be.
Chapter 8: The Christmas episode.
ALONZO: My sister loves Christmas. If she could make her house look like the National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation house, she would do it in a heartbeat. Loves it. And my mother was always very basic, like nativity scenes. This is Jesus Christ. My mother was always telling my sister, “You’re making Christmas look like Las Vegas.” In my family, Christmas was wake up at 3 or 4 in the morning and start making the tamales. They’re ready by noon so that everybody can have them for lunch.
Everybody’s got a job and one person has the masa, one cleans the leaf, the other one puts the little masa with a spoon, spreads it all over. The other one fills it up, then we wrap it. We put it in a pot. The flavors lock into the pot, so you had to use the same pot. My mom had a pot that didn’t have handles, and it made it very hard to carry them, but that was the pot.
I started thinking of the story when we moved my mom into my sister’s house. When that happens to somebody, you have to get rid of all your things. You have to prioritize what’s important to you, and you basically condense your entire lifetime into a couple of boxes.
My sister decided to buy a new pot with new handles, and my mom felt so offended. “How dare you bring handles into this house?” She gets emotional and she tells her, “I gave up my life and everything, and this pot represents so much of my life and how my entire life is now condensed into a box, and you’re getting rid of that box.” And I thought, “That’s the Christmas episode.” The name of the episode is called “It’s Not About the Tamales.” And that episode resonates with so many people as their favorite episode because it came from truth, it was specific. You had laughs throughout the show, but you have that moment of love, and that to me was what Christmas was about. It wasn’t about the gifts. The Christmas gift was that this mother character, who rarely showed her emotions, got to share her emotions and be honest. This is the show I wanted.
Chapter 9: Underestimated.
What do you do when someone makes you feel small? Be honest. Be vulnerable. And know: it’s never about you.
ALONZO: There was this weird misconception of my role on the show. Some people thought I was just an actor. They didn’t know that I wrote on the show. There were certain pitches that didn’t seem authentic to me. I felt like a lot of times, pitches came from what people assumed a Latino family would be like. A lot of people were trying to write episodes without asking me about my life. It was a lot of fighting with network executives and studio executives. I had to explain the culture and then pitch the story, and if I didn’t do a good enough job, they would say no.
It was almost as if they looked down on me as if I was incapable of writing because I hadn’t graduated from this fancy college. It almost seemed like I was in the way of the show. When someone makes you feel underestimated, know that it’s never about you. It’s always about the other person’s perceptions. You have to be honest with people. I didn’t want to pretend that this experience was great, because honesty is what helps the most. And it’s okay for you to look vulnerable. And it’s okay to say that you struggled. I don’t think people were used to someone speaking up.
Chapter 10: I become the villain.
ALONZO: I was in New York doing The View because it was hiatus week, and I ask to have the script because the next day we’re going to do the table read. The showrunner refused to send it to me, and I couldn’t understand why. And then I’m getting on a plane back to LA. They finally send me the script, and I read it and I hate it.
In the show, there’s this character who seems narcissistic, but she’s smart. I said from the beginning: She’s not dumb. She’s smart in different ways. I kept saying, “That relationship is Wicked. It’s Elphaba and Glinda. They are complete opposites, but they find a way to get along, and they both learn from each other.” The script I get is that she suddenly has a photographic memory and that explains, now she’s suddenly smart. No reason, no rhyme, no anything. It’s just now, it’s Brady Bunch and we’ve invited Cousin Oliver to come in. You know what I mean? Now I have no idea what we’re doing. To me, it just felt like very lazy writing.
I realize my plane has no wifi. So it’s New York to LA, no wifi. And I just send this email really quick while we’re in the plane and I’m like, “This is insane. No.” And I get an email back saying, “Why don’t you just read it like that for tomorrow and we’ll fix it later?” Which — that had been used for a couple weeks now and nobody was listening to me. No, I got tired of it.
So the next day, I throw the table read, which you don’t do. I read it poorly. You can see I don’t like the script. After the table read, everyone is furious.
The network’s furious. The studio’s furious. The writers are furious. How dare I? How dare I do this? And I told them, “You didn’t send me the script. You haven’t been listening to me. No one has been listening to me, but you’re listening to me now.”
That week, I was the villain. And I tell that story because I want people to know that it’s not okay to do that.
We ended up getting a new showrunner in the back nine, the last nine episodes of the season. This man respected me as a person and listened to me, and I didn’t realize, until he did that, how much I needed that. I would do anything for this man.
Chapter 11: I need a beer.
ALONZO: I’m in West Palm Beach, I’m doing a show at the Improv. I do my set and then I’m like, “I want to thank everyone for coming. Some of you have seen me for years. Others just discovered me for the show I have called Cristela.” People would lose it. You could tell that, to those people, my show had hit in such a different way.
I was doing a meet-and-greet. I would take pictures and I met everybody to thank them for watching the show. It meant so much to me that they watched that show. I get a phone call and it’s Becky, and she tells me that we’ve been canceled.
I announce it to everybody. People get emotional because they just found out right with me. And I have to say that that was probably the best way I could have found out. The support I got from them really helped me at that moment.
My friends Nick and Steve were there, and I wanted to have a beer. The Improv was at a casino and we found this bar and we sit down, and the server said, “Oh, we just closed the bar.” And my friend Nick says, “Well, I guess the bar’s canceled too.” And we started laughing, because that’s what we do. We just started making fun of the fact that I had been canceled.
There was a moment where the president of the network said, “Well, let’s get you back on TV then. What can we do?” And I said, “You can’t. That show that you had, that was me, and I’m not going to do another one.” My agents were like, “Okay, well, what are you going to do now?” And I remember saying, “I don’t know, but something will appear and we’ll go from there.” A week later, I got Cars 3. I got the Pixar movie. And I remember telling my agents, “See, there you go.”
Chapter 12: What the TV show means to me now.
ALONZO: I was told that this would never happen to me, get the chance to have a TV show, because of the way I looked. And it kind of feels amazing to think that I proved those people wrong.
I always think, “This could be the last thing that I do.” Because you never know. And that’s how I treat everything I do. If you succumb to certain things that you don’t want to do, you will end up with the end result that you didn’t want. You will have to say no or yes to certain things, and you have to be okay with those things. But if it changes the story and it changes the meaning and it changes the point, then you have to ask yourself if it’s worth it.
If you have to step away from your dreams, just always remember that dreams don’t have expiration dates. Sometimes life gets in the way, but lifelong dreams take a lifetime. When you’re doing it because you really feel a connection to that story, know that you’re going to have to fight for it sometimes.
COHEN: I want to thank Cristela for sharing the story of this creative journey with us. And I want to thank you for listening. I hope you found things in it you can bring into your own creative work.
Maybe it’s Cristela’s fearlessness — how she was willing to fight for her dream, over and over — as if she had nothing to lose. Or maybe it’s how she insisted on writing the Christmas episode — It’s Not About the Tamales — as proof of what the show could be. Or maybe, it’s how she thinks about the TV show, now that it’s ended — always remembering that lifelong dreams often take a lifetime.
Whatever you took from the story, we’d love to hear it. Share it with us on social @sparkandfirepod. Or email us at [email protected]. Leave us a review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen, it helps people find the show. And sign up for our weekly newsletter!
About Cristela Alonzo
Cristela Alonzo has two Netflix comedy specials, Lower Classy and Middle Classy, and is the author of the memoir Music to My Years: A Mixtape-Memoir of Growing Up and Standing Up. When her ABC show Cristela premiered in 2014, she made US history: Cristela was the first Latina to write, produce, and star in her own prime-time comedy.