Cristela Alonzo talks Netflix, stand-up special 'Lower Classy' and her canceled ABC sitcom

Source: Getty Images
Source: Getty Images

Before there was One Day at a Time, there was Cristela. Both feature Latina protagonists who dedicate their lives to their families, full of heart but cracking jokes along the way.

Cristela, unfortunately, was canceled after one season on ABC. But its star and creator, Cristela Alonzo, is finding a home on One Day at a Time's network with her new Netflix stand-up special Lower Classy, now available on the streaming service.

In a phone chat, Alonzo talked about the special, Cristela and One Day at a Time as "sister shows" and the value of seeing different kinds of "aspirational" stories on TV.

Mic: The special is called Lower Classy, which struck me as a potentially great alternate title for your sitcom. Is that a phrase you feel sums up your work nicely?

Cristela Alonzo: Absolutely. I felt like "Lower Classy" works on so many levels; I picked it as a title because a lot of the special is about the way that I grew up really poor. With my sitcom [Cristela], I wanted to tell a story that is never told, of a family that works paycheck-to-paycheck. We've had them in the past, but I feel like lately on TV, a lot of the families are very wealthy. That wasn't my reality. Lower Classy, in the same way, is lower-class, but also my mom was a devout Catholic who tried to instill morals in us. That's where the classy part comes up. It works in two ways.

It's interesting you bring up that shows are largely about wealthy families now, because I remember shows like like Roseanne, which were in no way about high-class families. What do you think caused the change?

CA: When I had the show, I heard a lot of people say the viewer wants to see stories that are "aspirational." What they mean by that is "wealthy." I strongly disagree with that. For me, I agree with the aspiration, but don't you want to follow the journey of a family that ascends in front of your eyes? Don't you want to cheer them on? Aspiration is the story of seeing a family that's poor that, at the end of the series, maybe ends up not being poor. Then it makes you feel like, "I can do that." That's my story.

I grew up a squatter. We were practically homeless; I grew up in a diner, and I had a show on TV. If I can do it, you can do it. That was the entire message of Cristela.

Source: IGN/YouTube

What did you make of ABC's decision to cancel it?

CA: When the show was canceled, the first thing I thought was that I felt bad people were losing their jobs. It was my first show, it was the first show I ever pitched. I didn't understand how the business of television worked. I thought that everyone who had a show on TV got a billboard. Going through that process, I learned that not everyone gets a billboard. And then you start thinking, "Well, why didn't I? Am I getting treated the same as others?"

I did get a billboard for my Netflix special, though. When I saw it, I was so overcome with emotion. I was waiting for that moment two years ago, and I didn't get it.

Is it fair to say if you did a sitcom again, you'd lean toward Netflix or another streaming service?

CA: Absolutely. Probably. I like keeping my options open, but the experience I've had with Netflix has been really wonderful. The fact that the stand-up special is me, unfiltered, no studio — they let me have my voice.

Netflix is making a big push with stand-up comedy this year, in a way that feels reminiscent of HBO in the late '90s. What do you appreciate about stand-up comedy?

CA: One of the highlights of my year in the '90s was Comic Relief. Every year, you got to see the greats — Billy Crystal, Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg — for a whole night. I grew up on stand-up. I love stand-up. I didn't know it was a job, because the way my family grew up, you had to hate your jobs. It was labor. The thought that you could have a job that you like was so foreign to me.

When my mom passed away, I couldn't afford therapy. I started doing stand-up, telling stories about my mom, and it was important to me. Years before, I had tried to do theater, and I was told as a Latina, I could only do West Side Story and A Chorus Line. That was so heartbreaking, to be told your dream is not the right one. I thought to myself, "I'm gonna do it my way, and in order to do that, I'll have to write my own thing." That's when I started doing stand-up.

What do you offer in your special that differs from someone like Jen Kirkman, Neal Brennan or Amy Schumer, who are all doing specials for Netflix as well?

CA: I'm very honest about where I come from. Not that the others don't, but mine is a unique perspective. I'm a Latina who's a daughter of immigrants. I want to educate people through laughter about a demographic that you rarely see or hear from. When I do stand-up, when I do the show, when I do anything, I tell a story that's different from everybody.

Netflix just launched One Day at a Time, which I've loved and feels almost like a counterpart to Cristela. What do you think of it?

CA: They're like sister shows. They're very complementary to each other. I would've loved to have both shows running at the same time. That show features a Cuban family, because [creator Gloria Calderón Kellett] is Cuban. My show was about a Mexican family because I'm Mexican. It would've been great to have both shows on the air at the same time to show how similar Latinos are, but how different we are as well. So many people assume that Latinos are the same, but when you have different families represented, you see what's not in common, and why I couldn't speak for the Cuban experience.

That's a point I've seen quite a bit, that it's sad we couldn't have both Cristela and One Day at a Time at once. Do you think we're approaching a time where there can be multiple Latino sitcoms on TV at once?

CA: Maybe. Honestly, that's a big maybe. I know that when I had the show, there were people who were critical of the show, saying, "That's not my experience, therefore that's not accurate." There were people asking why we were being "so stereotypical" — which, I wasn't being stereotypical. It's an insult to assume that I'm being stereotypical. I never watched Roseanne and assumed that all white moms were like Roseanne. So why can't my show be seen like that?

The reason I'm glad One Day at a Time came out was that, I was afraid when Cristela was canceled, networks were gonna wait for another five years to get another Latino show on the air. That I think like that shows we still have a lot of work to do.

What is the one thing you hope people will take from your body of work, both from this special and your sitcom?

CA: I want to be honest about my life. It hasn't been easy, and I meet people all the time who have had similar lives. I want them to know that there's a chance. There's always hope. I feel like I'm very fearless, because I grew up so poor that I've got nothing to lose. At the end of the day, what's the worst that can happen? That I go back to being poor? I'm used to it. 

My life was such a long shot. All I had to do was really try, and work hard. If you're willing to do that, something amazing can happen.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Kevin O'Keeffe

Kevin is the arts editor at Mic, writing about inclusion and representation in pop culture. He is based in New York and can be reached at kevin@mic.com.

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