Cristela Alonzo’s mother never learned English.
Otherwise, she may never have stepped up to an open mic and launched a successful career onstage and in television.
“The standup that I would see had a lot of bad words in it – I would watch Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor, I would watch all of it, and she didn’t know I was watching all this stuff,” said Alonzo with a laugh.
The 36-year-old comedian is currently on the 2015 Just For Laughs comedy tour with Mr. D star Gerry Dee, Boston actor and comic Robert Kelly, and JFL regular Graham Chittenden, heading to UVic’s Farquhar Auditorium this Saturday. While some comedians try to stay away from the university circuit, Alonzo said her standup routine goes over well with students.
“People at the universities laugh about the way I talk about my family, my upbringing, when I make fun of being Catholic,” she said. “There’s a lot of comics that don’t like performing for universities, but I don’t mind them. If you be yourself and you’re always honest with what you say, people will laugh regardless.”
Alonzo has a tremendous story about her childhood on a Texas bordertown, the youngest of four raised by a single mother, who was an illegal immigrant. They squatted in an abandoned diner for the first seven years of her life, but despite living in poverty, Alonzo’s mother always saw the bright side and made light of their situation with humour.
“It’s funny, my mom didn’t know she was funny,” she said, crediting her mom as her first comedic influence. “She was a very conservative, very strict Catholic woman, and when she would say something that would make you laugh, it was just genuinely very funny.
“We didn’t have electricity, but in the dark, I remember my family would just tell each other stories and we’d make each other laugh for hours, and it was amazing.”
In 2003, Alonzo got a job as an office manager for Addison Improv in Dallas, where she watched standup sets every night. Soon, she got onstage and started honing her craft, filling her set with observational jokes about growing up.
She parlayed those jokes into a script and her life became the basis of Cristela, a sitcom by Alonzo that got picked up by ABC last year. As a result, Alonzo became the first Latina to create, produce, write and star in her own U.S. network show – a sharp contrast from the predictions of her theatre teachers who said her stage career would be short-lived because there weren’t many roles written for Latin women.
“I told myself, if you’re ever going to get a chance to do something, you’re going to have to write it yourself because nobody’s going to write it for you,” said Alonzo. “I made that opportunity happen for myself because I knew nobody else would.
“If you tell me that I can’t do something, it makes me want to do it even more. I want to prove people wrong.”
When asked what it’s like working a standup crowd versus a studio audience, Alonzo said standup feels more like a human conversation, compared to the canned laughter of TV.
“In standup, you are your own writer, you do everything yourself, and you don’t get any networks or studios giving you notes on what they think is funny,” she said. “In TV, you’re in front of the audience and you make them laugh, but sometimes you’ll redo a joke four times to get the best reaction. There’s something unnatural about that.
“Can you imagine if you could do that in real life? ‘Hey, how are you doing today? I didn’t like that take, let’s do that again.’”
Alonzo will have only one take to make her jokes land at UVic on Saturday, when the JFL tour closes at Farquhar Auditorium. The show is almost sold out, but tickets may still be available for $51 each through the UVic Ticket Centre, online at tickets.uvic.ca or by phone at 250-721-8480.