Comedian Cristela Alonzo talks upgrading her life in new Netflix special
After two decades of stand-up comedy, Cristela Alonzo said she’s finally joined the ranks of the middle class.
The 43-year-old Texas native, who currently lives in Los Angeles, shared the hardships she and her family faced growing up in poverty in her first Netflix special, “Lower Classy,” in 2016. And now, Alonzo said she’s upgraded to “Middle Classy,” her new Netflix comedy special.
“It was all starting during writing ‘Lower Classy,’ where I was barely breaking into this level of life that I wasn’t used to,” Alonzo said during a recent phone interview. “Being able to take care of yourself is a whole different level than just getting by, and that’s a lesson I had to learn. That’s the difference between lower and middle classy.”
Alonzo made history for being the first Latina to create, produce and star in her own prime-time ABC sitcom, “Cristela,” which aired during the 2014-2015 season. Two years later, she was the first Latina to voice a lead character in a Disney/Pixar film when she starred as Cruz Ramirez in the “Cars 3” animated feature. Throughout her career, she’s broken several barriers and said she hopes she’s inspiring others to do the same within their own lives.
“It’s incredible, and also hard to believe, that you’re the first at something,” she said. “I haven’t been the first one in this career, but it’s weird to think about how many firsts we still have to make across the board. Look, we haven’t had a female president. There’s so many of those things that you’d think would’ve happened by now. The thing about being the first is that you hope that the first shows people that it shouldn’t be the last. It means we are now here; We now have a seat at the table.”
She’s come a long way since she started doing stand-up 20 years ago while working an office job at the Addison Improv in Dallas. Early in life, she learned to deal with difficult situations using humor. She turned to comedy following the death of her mother in 2002. She had served as her primary caretaker for several years, and once she passed, Alonzo said she was stuck in Dallas without work. She fudged her resume a bit to land the job at the Improv but soon found herself telling jokes on the stage.
“The more I saw the comics, I realized so many of them were really talking about their own experiences and being very personal and talking about difficult things,” she recalled. “I realized, Wait, I can’t afford to talk to (a therapist) about the struggle of losing my mother, so I started writing jokes about my mom. That’s how I got started doing stand-up. From there, it just evolved, and I always told myself that I would stop doing it when it stopped being fun. It just hasn’t stopped being fun.”
In the new special, which was filmed at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills back in January, Alonzo talks about the new “luxuries” she’s finally able to afford including health insurance, dental visits and therapy to actively work on her mental health.
“I really thought that I was just poor and that’s why I was sad,” she said. Hesitant at first, she went to a therapist and psychiatrist and quickly saw the benefits of taking care of her mental health, discovering that there was no shame in openly talking about it.
“The psychiatrist said to me, ‘If you have a physical ailment, like high blood pressure, you take medicine for it, so why wouldn’t you do that for your mental health? Your mental health is health as well,’” she said. “When he said that, that simplification made me realize how I had avoided it for so long because my family avoided it. I got medication, and my life completely changed to where I can understand and value happiness in a different way. I wanted to let everybody know about it because there are so many people out there who can’t afford it, but there are these programs that can get people help. If you can afford it, I want to tell people that it’s okay to get help and to try it because it works.”
When she’s not writing new material for her stand-up or other projects, Alonzo advocates for universal health care and immigration rights; she comes from a mixed-status family and works with a number of nonprofit organizations. The new comedy special features appearances by labor leader and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta and U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas.
“The reason I wanted them both there is because they are a reflection of who I am as a person,” she said. “When I was putting together this special, I started thinking about how different I am than who I was in the first special. I’ve devoted so much more time to the community, and I wanted to show people where I am currently in my life and show that the advocacy is very important to me. It’s not just something I picked up a few years ago, it’s part of who I am.”
Another perk of finally making it to middle-class status, Alonzo said, is that she can now afford to buy some of the toys she couldn’t have as a child. She’s been obsessed with Lego sets for years and is currently building the DeLorean from “Back to the Future” while out on the road. She also just ordered Vincent Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” and “Transformers” Optimus Prime Lego sets, which will be waiting at her L.A. apartment when she returns home.
“I buy at least two sets every month,” she said. “I describe my apartment as mid-century ‘Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.’ You walk in the door and you don’t know if a woman in her 40s lives there or a 14-year-old boy. But I love Legos. I think they’re gorgeous and I think they’re fun. And, again, I didn’t have them growing up, so I guess I’m just making up for lost time.”