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Cristela Alonzo Needed a Decade to Process Greg Giraldo’s Advice

Cristela Alonzo. Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo by Beth Dubber/Netflix

Stand-up is usually a solo sport. As a result, a comedian can stay in their head for too long performing an act that works okay, but not as well as it could. Sometimes it takes a veteran comedian to observe something in your act that you can’t see yourself; a single note can put a comedian in a new direction. That is exactly what happened for Cristela Alonzo when she was competing on Last Comic Standing in 2010 and Greg Giraldo was a judge. Giraldo asked her a question that helped refine her stand-up voice and put her on a path to her own sitcom (2015’s Cristela) and, as of this week, two Netflix specials: Lower Classy (2017) and Middle Classy (2022).

On Vulture’s Good One podcast, Alonzo talks about how she approaches impersonating her family, discussing class in her act, and if she’ll run for office one day. You can read excerpts from the transcript or listen to the full episode below. Tune in to Good One every Thursday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Overcast, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Ignoring the Haters As Praxis

I used to do a meet and greet after every show, and they would last longer than the show. I’d take a picture with everybody because I was so grateful that people came to see me. They would tell me what they liked about my set, and I realized that what Hollywood thought was special about my life wasn’t special to me at all, because so many people grew up like I did. But the ability, the decision to talk about how I grew up, that made so many people react to it, like, “Oh my God, you grew up just like I did.” So I started thinking that we need to talk about this more. The class talk is so important to have, because class surpasses any kind of ethnicity, minority, anything. It’s a universal struggle.

A lot of people who aren’t familiar with certain minorities can easily vilify them for certain shortcomings, but we can’t deny that the ultimate problem is the struggle. For a long time, my mom was undocumented, and people would treat her so bad. Her retort every time was “I’ve been hated by better people than you.” I lived by that mantra. That’s one of the reasons I like to be so vocal, too, because I’m like, We’re not all like the way that you assume. It always goes back to money and to struggle and to class.

I do a lot of advocacy work, and it actually came from my stand-up. It wasn’t until I started getting asked by people to talk, to do speeches and stuff at different organizations, that I thought, Well, I’m just saying stuff about my life. I had no qualms talking about it. I don’t say things that I’m going to regret or wonder, How are people going to take this? because I’m at the point now where I just don’t care. I’m being honest, and it is what it is.

Cristela for President

I know this might sound grandiose, and I don’t mean it to be, but I don’t know how else to say it: I really believe in serving the people. If you can do something, why not do it? Because of the circumstances that my family grew up on, because they were so extreme, I have sympathy for everybody that has had a similar struggle. Like with DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals]: For those of you that don’t know, DACA is a program for undocumented people — undocumented Americans, as I call them — who were born within a certain number of years. They can apply to basically have a permit to be able to work and go to school in the United States. I became a very big supporter of it because after my shows, people would tell me that they were undocumented and that they were in DACA. Now, to apply for DACA, whether you get approved or not, it’s a $495 application. That’s a lot of money for people that don’t have the money. I decided to do free shows where I raised money and gave it all to DACA recipients, because the money for these shows didn’t mean anything to me; I could survive without it. But it could change people’s trajectory for a while, so why not do that? This is just so much bigger than me.

I have really bad social anxiety. I’m on my meds. Crowds freak me out. When I started doing stand-up, I never thought I was going to get to this point where I actually had to perform in front of so many people. When I realized that I had to perform in front of so many people, it scared the hell out of me. But despite that, I love it so much. I love the people that come and see me, and I like trying to do my best for them. I always told myself that running for office, if it was something that I felt I could help with, if it was something that the community thought that I could do that I could help, then why not do it? That’s my thinking with stand-up.

A Little Advice From Greg Giraldo

I always say, “What’s the truth?” Because you can always defend the truth. When I did Last Comic Standing, I did it the year that Greg Giraldo was judging. I did the résumé joke, and he gave me a note: “You don’t speak with an accent. Why does your sister speak with an accent?” I was like, “Oh, because my siblings all grew up in Mexico.” They all lived in Mexico for a decade before they moved to the United States. I was born here, and I learned English off of TV; this is back in, like, 2000-something. And he said, “Well, then write a joke about that.”

It took me so long to write about it in a way that I felt really conveyed what he was saying. I loved Greg Giraldo. He was so gifted, and when he said that to me about the résumé joke, I started thinking, Oh, but that’s my truth. Then I thought, Wait, but they don’t know that that’s my truth. They don’t understand my family. They don’t understand the family dynamic. Maybe it does seem like I’m being exploitive.

That’s one thing that I think is so important in stand-up: You don’t have to listen to everybody’s notes, but if you respect them and they’re telling you something that they don’t have to tell you, maybe listen and see if it works with what you’re doing. It’s evolution. That’s the thing about a career that I love: The voice remains the same, but it’s the thought process, the approach that changes — and that’s fun to see.

These interview excerpts have been condensed and edited.

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