Got to be Real
Cristela Alonzo, who launched her comedy career in Dallas, is about to take off. But not before she hilariously tells it like it is at the Arlington Improv.
published Friday, September 20, 2013
It’s not so much what happens to you in life, it’s how you respond to it. That’s mental health in a nutshell. The Cristela Alonzo modus operandi is to laugh at it while cutting it down to size: drop the attitude and let’s get real. Much of that comes from being raised by a single Mexican mom with four children and scant time for nonsense and games. Especially when that feat’s being done on sometimes as little as $100 a week. So you just get right to the point and cuff it around a bit if necessary.
Alonzo’s groundedness comes both on and off stage with the near constant chuckles of someone who just rolls with it, whatever it is. The audience who braved a downpour on Thursday to reach the Improv in Arlington, where she’ll be through Sunday, was triple F: fans, friends and family. There was a pregnant, calm-before-the-storm, I-knew-you-when, sense to it. Alonzo may soon launch into the network sitcom stratosphere now that her sitcom pilot Cristela has been purchased by ABC.
To climb out from a pit of life’s circumstance takes a plan and Alonzo is a gal with a plan. She moved with her mother and siblings from the border town of San Juan, leaving behind a father she never met. In her early 20s she launched out of Backdoor Comedy Club and into a college circuit of over 300 appearances. It’s a rowdy crowd to win over—college kids can be mobs—but smartly creates a fan base that ages with you. That led to appearances at college rock fests like Bonnaroo that increasingly include comedy, and even the Holy Grail for comics: Just For Laughs, a.k.a. Montreal Comedy Fest, the largest international comedy festival in the world. She co-starred on FX’s Sons of Anarchy and headlined her own Half Hour special forComedy Central this June.
The potential series Cristela will star Alonzo, and is co-created with writer-producer Kevin Hench. The show explores a young woman who straddles Latino and white cultures—much like her. Alonzo’s humor is born of interaction, making it a natural for dialogue-based sit-com. She excels in a nearly confessional connection with the audience that’s perfect for TV. Let’s hope network executives don’t tamp down her endless riffing and turn her into a line-dispensing machine. There is something inherently improvisational about Alonzo.
On Thursday, Alonzo turned in a solid casual and genuine set. In the technical aspects, she’s a pro, working the entire stage and making frequent eye contact, with very few pauses, space fillers or vague segues. She’s got voices, facial expressions, enactments, gestures, postures and arcing flights of expression that put her leagues beyond most comedians of her brief experience. A self-described tomboy, the loose jeans and knot shirt are understandable, but could use a more of the humorous snazziness that her foil polka dot tennis shoes hint at.
Her perspective as someone who rose from childhood poverty provides a perfect platform to poke entitled twits and their white-people problems. Alonzo on food allergies: “I notice the more money you make, the fewer foods you’re allowed to eat. You never hear that in the hood. ‘Oh man, Lamar’s dead.’ ‘What! Drive by?’ “No, man, peanuts.’” As the youngest of four kids Alonzo’s job was milk taster—if it made her gag, it was good enough for one more day. She muses at length on tanning beds and the folly of whites trying to attain the warm skin tones of ethnics while reveling in their Caucasian glory.
You get the feeling that Alonzo spent thousands of hours listening to her mother and friends at the lavandería, church suppers or wherever, as they hashed over the foibles of their lives and laughed about it, because that’s what women do. The working mother, the single working mother, the immigrant single working mother are all the literal backbone of this country and a significant part of Alonzo’s act. Even if their daughters sometimes grow up to wear slutty kitty costumes for Halloween, which earns them a long comical skewering from Alonzo over their desperate fantasy lives.
Alonzo doesn’t view the world from a loft like so many standups do. She’s right there on street level, chasing the rent along with everyone else. The pretense and excess of rap stars is ripe for her puncturing. If you want to seduce me, she says, don’t promise me Chanel and jewelry—pay my electric bill: “Will have sex for utilities.” Then there are youthful idiots with barely a living brain, like the participants in MTV’s reality show 16 and Pregnant: “I love it when bad things happen to bad people. These girls are so bitchy you just want to hate them.” That led to an insightful bit on how when we hate someone, everything little thing they do bugs us interminably.
Alonzo’s got that Bill Cosbyish “don’t be so full of yourself” self-depreciating type of funny that’s the bedrock of mid-America humor. As youngest of four kids, she’s seen plenty of internecine blaming, rationalizing and conning. After observing human behavior for a long time, her B.S. meter is fine-tuned indeed, especially the ways we try to fool ourselves.