When Cristela Alonzo started out as a stand-up comedian, she had two rules: "No jokes about being Latino, and no jokes about being female."
She says she wanted to emulate the comedy of Wanda Sykes, someone Alonzo believed was universally funny from the time Sykes first started on the comedy circuits.
Long before Alonzo began her career in stand-up, she knew she was funny.
"I did the Wizard of Oz in third grade, and I was a witch," Alonzo tells NPR's Michel Martin.
"I said my lines the way I thought a witch would do it, and the kids kept laughing." It was the moment, Alonzo adds, where she realized that she had a comedian's way of seeing the world.
Alonzo grew up in South Texas, but she began her formal comedy career in Dallas. She got her first big break in 2006 when she was hired to write for a Comedy Central show after moving to Los Angeles.
In 2010, a national audience got a taste of Alonzo's comedy when she became a semifinalist on the popular NBC program Last Comic Standing. That kind of exposure opened up many doors for Alonzo.
She was part of Showtime's comedy special Legally Brown, a showcase featuring a diverse collection of comedians that premiered in May 2011. From there, Alonzo has continued to improve her standing in the comedy world, including her late-night debut on Conan in July.
Though she at first shied away from telling jokes about being a woman and Latino, Alonzo is drawing on those personal experiences in her comedy now. She admits that any member of her family is fair game, and potential comedy fodder for her stand-up.
Whether she's cracking a joke about her mother's lack of tact, or a date's lack of cultural understanding, Alonzo's comedy is drawing on her own experiences and asking her audience to laugh along with her.
"My goal has always been to just kind of show how my family, we might be a different culture, but we're completely like everybody else," Alonzo says.
Still, she says that comedy can have its dark moments, too. Alonzo faces the occasional heckler who will boo her or throw racist slurs her way. Alonzo says that while it hurts when it happens, something bigger keeps her onstage.
"It's that thing in me, that I've always wanted to do it," she says. "This has always been bigger than me, and I just have to keep going."
When asked if she had any advice for young comedians who are trying to find their way in the sometimes brutal world of comedy, Alonzo says: "Whatever you want to do with your life, you really got to want it. And if you want it and you work hard, it will happen."
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, my thoughts about hair and voting. That's my essay and it's coming up later in the program.
But first, we're going to continue our series called Make Me Laugh. All summer long we're talking with entertainers who've brought their unique styles to film, television and standup.
Today we have a woman who's beginning to get a lot of attention in the comedy world. Cristela Alonzo first caught people's attention as a finalist on the popular NBC series "Last Comic Standing." That was in 2010. Since then she's had stints on the Showtime special "Legally Brown." She also appeared on Gabriel Iglesias' "Stand Up Revolution." Cristela Alonzo recently made her late night standup debut on "Conan," where she talked about everything from dating to her family to the mysteries of reality TV. Here's a clip.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CONAN")
CRISTELA ALONZO: I can't believe that "Jersey Shore" is as big as it is. Like, my niece tans all the time because of the show. Let me say that again. My Mexican niece tans all the time because of this show.
MARTIN: And Cristela Alonzo joins us now. Thank you so much for joining us.
ALONZO: Oh, thanks for having me.
MARTIN: How did you first get started in standup? Were you one of those kids who spent more than a little time in the principal's office because you were cutting up in class?
ALONZO: You know, I was always a straight A student. I loved school. I loved learning. I was straight A, except for conduct. The teacher would send home, like, notes that said, Cristela's a very bright student, but she disrupts class way too much. And I just always had a comment for everything, which I think I get from my mom. My mom was exactly like that and I didn't know that it wasn't right to do at school, so I was always that person.
MARTIN: I was going to ask you about that. We're going to hear a little bit more about Mom later. I'll just...
ALONZO: Oh, yes.
MARTIN: ...sort of let people know about that. But I was wondering when you first realized that you were funny.
ALONZO: You know, I want to say - I did the "Wizard of Oz" in third grade and I was a witch and I said my lines the way I thought a witch would do it and the kids kept laughing; then I thought, I'm not trying to be funny. Why are they laughing? And it was that thing where I realized that the way that I interpreted lines was a little different than I think most people, and after that I kind of started playing it up and I started getting really popular because of that.
MARTIN: That's as good an explanation as any, isn't it, that you kind of look at things everybody's looking at, but you're looking at things a little differently. Right?
ALONZO: Definitely. I think a lot of - you know, that's why there are so many similar topics that comics cover, but there are certain angles that you see and you're like, oh, I never thought about it that way. That's so crazy. But I think part of it has to do with the way you grew up and your experiences. And, you know, sometimes you see things that other people don't because of something related to your past.
MARTIN: Well, that's as good a time as any for me to play another clip from your appearance on "Conan." Here you are talking about a perennial topic of interest, dating, but once again kind of a slightly different angle. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CONAN")
ALONZO: I dated this white guy. On our fourth date, he's like, hey, this weekend, let's drive upstate. We'll pick some apples. It'll be romantic. No. Two white people picking apples. That's a romantic date. Me, I'm a migrant farm worker. Do you understand that? Like, I would be afraid that they would let him go, but I'd have to stay to meet my quota for the day.
MARTIN: OK. So how did you come up with that one? Is that what - did he really ask you out to pick apples? You were like, oh, hell, no. No, no, no.
ALONZO: Yeah, that really happened. Like, that really happened. It was so funny to me that he didn't notice there was anything wrong with that. You know, and to me that's the first thing I thought. I grew up in South Texas and a lot of the kids that I went to school with - over half of them were from migrant farm working families, so the moment that somebody asks me to pick apples for fun and I'm not getting paid, I'm thinking...
MARTIN: You're like, oh, no.
ALONZO: ...no, no, no.
MARTIN: No, no, no, no, no.
ALONZO: Been there, done that, not doing it again, you know.
MARTIN: It's good that you can - you know, you can laugh about it, but tell me a little bit, though. Do you feel that - I'm interested in how you kind of find your way on what's funny, particularly from a perspective speaking as a Latina.
ALONZO: Well, you know, I think, honestly, I've always dated white guys and it's that thing where I love Jewish guys. My boyfriend's Jewish. You know, we've been together for eight years and I think that because we've been together for eight years, we both have learned that there are lessons that we have to learn from each other. I think that we're both kids to each other, in a way, where you have to treat each other like a kid and say this is what my culture does, and you kind of have to teach them like you would a little kid.
So it kind of becomes second nature where, you know, I tell him - you know, recently I bought this bracelet at a store and then I went back to the store a couple days later. I'm in the car and I'm taking off the bracelet. He's like, well, why are you taking off the bracelet? And I'm like, because I don't want them thinking that I stole it because in the past that's my experience, where I've actually had to deal with that. So it's that kind of experience that he has never dealt with.
You know, and it's - again, it's like with me, I came from a very poor family. He does things like he gave me my first milkshake. I had never had any milkshake because as a kid my mom told me they were disgusting. But she told me that because she couldn't afford to buy me the milkshake. So it wasn't until a couple of years ago that my boyfriend asked me, hey, you want a milkshake? And I'm like oh, they're gross. He's like they're the most delicious thing ever. I tasted it and I thought, wow, I'm 29 years old at that time and I've never had a milkshake, like this is not part of my experience.
MARTIN: Doesn't that make you want to cry, though?
ALONZO: You know it's funny. I think that when you're a kid you're not aware of what's happening and you just accept it as fact; that when you're older you realize I'm where I am and I'm who I am because she did that and I'm very grateful for it because I really like who I am.
MARTIN: We are continuing our Make Me Laugh summer series. We're talking with comedians who are making their mark across genres - film, television and standup. Today we're talking with Cristela Alonzo.
Speaking of your mom...
MARTIN: ...she makes appearances quite often in your routines. I'll just play a short clip. This is where she, you're talking about how if you're fishing for compliments, don't do that around your mom.
(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SKETCH)
ALONZO: My mom could never do that. When one of her friends would fish for a compliment she would just agree with whatever they said.
ALONZO: You know, I am so fat. Ay, yes, you are freaking fat. Yes.
I was telling (Foreign language spoken).
ALONZO: You remind me of Jurassic Park with the water like shaking like that when you walk.
ALONZO: You're fat. Ay, that's why we're friends, we think alike.
MARTIN: That's kind of brutal.
ALONZO: Exactly what she was like.
MARTIN: Gosh, it must be rough being around your house for Thanksgiving because everybody is going to wind up as material.
ALONZO: Kind of. Yes. I mean, you know, I have a joke about my nephew. I have a joke about my sister. They like it, though. I mean I would never do anything that they wouldn't like. My goal has always been to just kind of show how my family, we might be a different culture but we're completely like everybody else.
MARTIN: Why do you think though, is that they're still aren't as many women - I mean they're a lot of famous female comedians, right?
MARTIN: I mean like I'm thinking about Roseanne Barr. I'm thinking about, certainly, Joan Rivers.
MARTIN: But why do you think that it's, comedy is still seen as a man's world. Why is that?
ALONZO: You know, I think a lot of times I've dealt with it, you know, with my family, you know, we're very kind of old world, where we are still connected to the culture a lot. And it's that sexist thinking where it's like, you know, women shouldn't be funny and they shouldn't have a place where they have any kind of power over anything. And that's what standup is. When you're doing standup, you're standing up by yourself in front of the whole crowd, trying to convey your thoughts to this crowd. And, you know I've gone up to shows where men boo me immediately when they say my name, they will say racist slurs at me because they think that they - that it's fine, you know. They want to demean me right away. Especially like, you know, because I'm Latina.
ALONZO: If I do shows, Latino guys hate me.
ALONZO: Because they already think the idea is women are submissive to men. Just the culture dictates it. So, you know, right away when I go up there they'll boo me, they'll go to the bathroom during that time. That's why I think my standup, I try not to write the typical like female humor.
ALONZO: And when I started doing standup I had two rules: no jokes about being Latino and no jokes about being female. And it was that thing where I wanted people to kind of see me as a Wanda Sykes. Wanda Sykes is a great example of someone who is just hilarious. Anyone can get Wanda, you know...
MARTIN: Except that she does talk about her family. She talks about her wife. She talks about being gay. I mean she talks about being a mom.
ALONZO: Now she does. You know...
MARTIN: But you're saying you're right, earlier in her career.
ALONZO: Yeah. You kind of have to, you kind of solidify yourself as the comic that can talk about anything, and then you can talk about what you want to talk about in your life. You know, now people know what to expect. They know that when they go see Wanda now they're not going to get what they think is like typically bad female humor. I don't understand...
MARTIN: Did people ever, is it mainly because of your gender that people demean you or is it also your ethnicity? Does anybody ever go there?
ALONZO: Yes. I mean definitely. I think I actually get more flak for being Latino than I do for being a woman, which is very funny.
MARTIN: Do you mind if I ask, what do you mean? I don't want to go into like the W word and like that.
MARTIN: But like trying to imply that you're illegal, that type of thing?
ALONZO: Oh, yeah. Especially when I play certain markets around the country, I'll go up and they immediately say anywhere that they can come up with - even words I've never heard before - and, you know, they try to get me off stage right away. It's kind of funny. It almost seems like they want to make you cry, to see if they can do it.
MARTIN: How do you deal with that?
ALONZO: Actually, I talk to them and I tell them to shut up. And then if that doesn't happen, I just say something about them, I insult them.
ALONZO: And I tell somebody from the club to remove them.
ALONZO: It's happened a couple of times, you know, it's that thing where you're like, wow, not only do I have to worry about my jokes working, I have to worry about possibly that happening in the audience.
MARTIN: Have you ever wanted to cry?
ALONZO: Oh, yeah. You know, I mean honestly, I think...
ALONZO: ...you know, a friend of mine, a comic, and I always talk about how stand-up to such a funny career in theory, but a lot of your time is actually spent being very depressed and very sad. You kind of wonder why you're doing it at times because people can be very cruel. But for me it's that thing in me that I've always wanted to do it, this has always been bigger than me and I just have to keep going. And it's like the Richard Gere thing, you know, like "An Officer and a Gentleman," I have nowhere else to go, you know, like I have nothing else to do, like this is my thing. So endure crying at times, you know, and feeling miserable about myself because in the end, when I'm on stage, that's like my favorite time of the day.
MARTIN: Wow. It's brutal.
ALONZO: It can be. I mean, really, you know, it can be. But, you know, it's like when you think about it, the job, stand up, you're writing your own material and you're basically really begging the audience to like you. If they don't laugh, it hurts. It's a very kind of vulnerable thing. Even people that don't seem like they're vulnerable, I mean, at some point when they started out I would bet that they really kind of felt crappy about themselves, you know, at some point.
ALONZO: It really, it's very vulnerable.
MARTIN: I can - wow. Well, you schooled me. I appreciate it.
MARTIN: And, no, we won't be going apple picking.
MARTIN: Don't worry about that.
ALONZO: I hope not...
MARTIN: No. No. No. No.
ALONZO: ...because I would kick your butt at it.
MARTIN: No. No. No. No double date there. No. No. No.
Well, before we let you go, thank you for taking the time. Do you have any advice do you want to pass on to people who are trying to make their way in this world?
ALONZO: You know, I guess the best thing I can say is that when I figured out what I wanted to do very young, everybody laughed at me because of the area I grew up in. Everybody thought it wasn't possible for me to even try to do it and I did it. And it was that thing where whatever you want to do with your life, you really got to want it and if you want it. And you work hard it will happen. I mean, if you guys knew the kind of childhood I had and everything, I mean, you would be amazed at I'm where I'm at right now. And that came because I just never gave up. And all you have to do is just never give up and you can do whatever you want.
MARTIN: Cristela Alonzo is a comedian, an actress and a writer. And she was kind enough to join us from our studios at NPR West, which is in Culver City, California.
Cristela, thank you so much for speaking with us.
ALONZO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.