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How Gabriel Iglesias Went From Recurring Character to TV Star

Gabriel Iglesias. Photo: Jason Mendez/Getty Images

Comedian Gabriel Iglesias never thought of himself as an actor. Even when he agreed to appear in the ABC pilot of Cristela Alonzo’s self-titled sitcom, he thought of it as just hanging out with his good friend. Then Cristela got picked up to series, his role became recurring, and people on set started to view the stand-up comic that goes by “Fluffy” a little differently. One of them was the show’s co-creator Kevin Hench, the creator of Mr. Iglesias, which debuts on Netflix today.

“It was just one of those things where he saw a little bit more in me than I saw in myself,” Iglesias told Vulture in a telephone interview this week. “I’m a comedian, but being in front of the camera, reading scripts, performing lines, and interacting with other actors, that’s something I wasn’t used to. But Kevin felt I was a natural at it. I’d walk out on set and people were already cheering, and I was just a recurring character. People there were like, Something’s going on here. It took a lot of convincing — ‘Your parents know what’s good for you’ type of thing. You fight it, and then it turns out they were right.”

Mr. Iglesias is loosely based on the comic’s life, or rather, what his life might have been had he not chosen to pursue his dream of making people laugh for a living. In the ten-episode series, Iglesias plays a history teacher with a gift for connecting with talented, at-risk students. The cast includes Sherri Shepherd as the principal, Oscar Nuñez as a villain administrator, and Maggie Geha and Jacob Vargas as teachers. As the good-hearted Mr. Iglesias tries to save the world, tackling topics like bullying and teacher strikes, he entertains his students with the real-life comic’s signature impersonations and voices.

Iglesias, who is scheduled to release another Netflix comedy special next year, spoke to Vulture about developing his first TV show, his No. 1 rule for casting, and why he’d prefer never to be called a Latino comic again.

How did the idea for the show develop?
Kevin and I sat down and, originally, he wanted me to play a mechanic. It was gonna be the same idea, but just me as a mechanic as opposed to a teacher. I didn’t want to be a mechanic. I thought that we could do something better. I told them that back in the day there was a really good chance I could have been a schoolteacher. It was the right fit. It made all the sense in the world, plus the fact that if I’m a history teacher, we can touch on a lot of great topics and stay relevant.

Tell me more about that. When you were growing up, you pictured yourself as a teacher?
No, I pictured myself as a pro wrestler. Or a comedian. That was one of the two things I had in my mind.

So where did this idea of becoming a teacher come about?
I took a course in high school called “Exploratory Teaching,” and we would prepare a lesson plan and then go to elementary schools and teach second- and third-graders. The teacher told me that I had the gift of getting attention. I told her, “But my lesson plans were really bad.” And she goes, “They were bad, but you were able to get the kids’ attention. Other students weren’t able to do that. If you can get their attention, you can teach them.” And she wound up writing a really nice letter to the principal, and before I knew it, I had a full scholarship offered to me.

Did you seriously consider that?
It happened so fast. They would pay for everything. All I had to do was come back and teach in the Long Beach Unified School District for a couple of years, and it was free and clear. It was tempting, and my mom was very upset when I didn’t take it. So was my teacher, so was my principal, ‘cause I told them what I wanted to do and even my principal said it doesn’t pay to be a big mouth. All he saw was that comedy was just someone running his mouth.

When did you start thinking about being a comedian?
Oh, when I was 10 years old. I was already hooked on the idea of comedy and was a big fan of Eddie Murphy and Robin Williams. I was always watching their comedy specials. I knew that I loved it and I wanted to do that. I just didn’t know how I was gonna do it.

You grew up in a home with many siblings and a single mother — not exactly the kind of home where people dream of Hollywood jobs or have any idea how to approach that type of career.
Exactly. But I was the last one, so it was pretty much like I was an only child because everyone was up and gone by the time I showed up. I’m not gonna say that my mom wasn’t supportive of the idea of me being a comic, but she wasn’t discouraging either. She was like right in the middle. She was like, “Well, whatever makes you happy.” So at least it wasn’t like, “Don’t be stupid.” When I quit my job, she did say, “Don’t be stupid,” but up until then she was just like, “Do what makes you happy.” She’s no longer with us, but she lived long enough to see me become a successful stand-up comic.

What was your role as executive producer on the show? Did you remain involved in the development of it? Were you in the writers room?
The development part, yes. I paid one visit in the beginning to the writers room. I firmly believe in taking a step back and letting people do what they do, and I did not want to be a meddler. So the only time I would creatively adjust things would be on show days, if we were out on the floor, and I had a big audience, and I could try out material. I wouldn’t change story lines, but I would add punch lines or change a word here or there. For the most part, I let the writers write.

Were you involved in the casting?
That definitely I was. That was my cup of tea all day. I wanted to make sure that I was surrounded by people that, first of all, I got along with, you know? Forget that if they’re good at what they do. I was more so like, “Can I get along with people?” ‘Cause if I can’t get along with people, it’s not gonna go over well. I have to be in a really positive, just chill environment. I’m not a fan of drama, and I work way too hard to be dealing with drama.

In the beginning, you weren’t sure if acting was your thing. How did you feel at the end of the ten episodes?
I think it’s gonna sink in once the show is officially out because it’s still very surreal to me. The fact that there’s a giant billboard rolling the trailer for the show at Times Square, it’s like, Wow.

What did you find to be the most challenging part of doing the show? Waking up. I’m a night creature. I thrive when the sun goes down — that’s when I go up. Waking up at five o’clock in the morning to drive to Hollywood [from Long Beach] was a trek.

As a performer, I would imagine your favorite part of the week was tape night in front of the audience.
Yes, Thursday nights, that was the best. Plus, we had food trucks. I firmly believe that if you feed people, they’re more likely to be happy. So I’d always make sure that we’d have food trucks there on the night before the shoot and the night of the shoot.

Did you end up having a favorite episode?
I think for me the first one was the favorite, just because it’s like, “All right, here we go.” It was uncharted waters, and it was just like, “Let’s see how it goes!” And that first episode was so much fun, and we just kept it going.

As I’m sure you’ve seen, after Netflix canceled One Day at a Time, there’s been a rallying cry from the Latinx community and some important conversations are taking place about the need for more representation in front of and behind the camera. What does it mean to you at this time to be able to offer up this other slice of American life on such a big platform?
Well, the level of diversity on this show, there are very few people that were left out of this show. [Laughs.] I think you need three seasons to cover everyone, but they definitely tried to make sure that everyone was represented.

But, what about you as the lead? You’re the face of it.
I am the face of it, but more than anything, it’s a positive show; it’s a comedy show. I’ve always had an issue with calling any project that I do, having it labeled a certain way because I feel that a lot of times, when you label it a certain way, you keep yourself from being part of the bigger picture.

I understand what you mean.
For example, people call Jerry Seinfeld “Jerry Seinfeld” no matter where he goes. He’s Jerry Seinfeld. But for me being a comic, I’m always “Latino comedian Gabriel Iglesias” or “Hispanic comedian Gabriel Iglesias” or “Mexican-American comedian Gabriel Iglesias.” and I’m like, Why can’t I just be a comedian? Because my material, my content, it goes to everyone. So I always felt by branding it a certain way, I was holding myself back. I’m not avoiding who I am. I acknowledge who I am. Believe me, you’ll hear it in the show. I know exactly who I am, but I feel that labeling it sometimes hurts you.

I get it. It’s the double-edged sword all minorities face. You want to wave the flag of representation, but at the same time, it can put you in a box. Still, I can’t help but feel that something positive is happening. We are being represented more than ever. We do have a long way to go, but it’s more than I’ve seen in my lifetime.
Uh-huh. And, for example, creatively, we could have pushed this as hard as we wanted to because it is Netflix. But we wanted to make sure that it stayed within a certain brand so more people can enjoy it. This is why it’s basically PG-rated. We kept the language cool. We could have taken it as far as, like, The Ranch on Netflix. The Ranch really pushes the envelope, but at the same time, by pushing the envelope, you restrict the number of viewers as well.

I don’t make any hard political statements in the show because I don’t do that in my comedy routine. So I needed to make sure that I kept it that way. We can hint, we can do some suggesting. I come really close but I don’t cross it. And as long as you keep it fun and make sure that there’s laughter — because if you say something and there’s no laughter, that’s when it gets serious. Any time you try to convey a message, sometimes people don’t want to hear that message. And that’s a problem that you’re gonna run into, and that’s when sometimes it just rubs people the wrong way. You can never please everyone, so the goal is to try to make sure that you make as many people happy as possible. But, as in life, you can’t make everyone happy.

Gabriel Iglesias on His New Netflix Series Mr. Iglesias