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Cristela Alonzo on Returning to TV With Legends, Lifetime, and a Different Sense of Purpose

Photo: Amy Sussman/Getty Images

Born in 1979, Cristela Alonzo is a card-carrying Gen-Xer who is just young enough to be fully fluent in millennial culture as well. That applies to her taste in classic Nickelodeon shows; the comic-actress-activist has no problem name-checking the kids from You Can’t Do That on Television, and yet she was also among the millions who made Nick’s competition game show Legends of the Hidden Temple a massive hit. All those afternoons she spent parked in front of the TV are now paying off with her latest gig: hosting the CW’s recently launched prime-time reboot of Legends.

Airing Sunday nights at eight and streaming free  on the CW website and app, the updated edition of the series will be instantly familiar to anyone who tuned in back in the day. Jungle-themed teams of competitors — such as the Green Monkeys and the Purple Parrots — square off in a series of physical and mental challenges, guided by the massive talking statue, Olmec (still voiced by actor Dee Bradley Baker). The twist for the 2021 vintage of Legends is that the players are now all grown-ups, including some old enough to have been contestants on the original version. “That means that now the sets are bigger, and the physical challenges are bigger and more challenging,” says Alonzo, a stand-up veteran who broke out back in 2014, when she starred in the groundbreaking ABC sitcom Cristela.

The show marked the first time a Latina had ever created and produced a network sitcom in which she also starred and garnered very good reviews and strong social-media buzz, so of course ABC canceled it after a single season. Alonzo headlined her own Netflix special (Lower Classy) in 2017 and published a memoir (Music to My Years), and she took an extended break from Hollywood a few years ago to focus on community activism and fighting against the Trump administration. She’s now back full time, with a busy few months ahead, including the premiere of a Lifetime holiday movie she wrote and the taping of her second Netflix special. Vulture caught up with Alonzo by phone to talk about the Legends revival (and her other new gigs), how she spent years working through the premature end of Cristela, and why her deep love for classic TV sitcoms comes with an asterisk attached.

I know you grew up watching Legends on Nick. I’d imagine getting to host the reboot must be a bit surreal.  
It’s kind of like — imagine if they did a Golden Girls reboot, and they said, “Hey, do you want to be on The Golden Girls?” And I’m like, “Ah, yes. Do I pay you?” It’s kind of like going back to your childhood and being able to live out your dreams that you wanted to have as a kid.

What was it about the original that appealed to you as a kid?
It really kind of gave me vibes of, like, a PBS show — a [Where in the World Is] Carmen Sandiego? or a Square One — where it was fun but you also learn stuff. And for me, that was always cool.

You’ve been in front of audiences for years as a stand-up, and you guest-co-hosted The View, but this is your first time hosting a game show. How does one prepare for that? Do you call up Meredith Vieira or Steve Harvey and say, “Give me pointers”? 
I didn’t even think about asking anybody because it’s such a weird job to have. All I kept thinking was my job as a host is to make sure that everybody looks good. I realized that when I host something, I want to get to know everybody. So I got to know the contestants by name. And they become real people with real personalities and real lives, and you root for them … I even talked to Scott Stone, the executive producer, and I asked him, “Is it okay if I cheer for everybody? Can I cheer for people?” Because especially when we come down to the last team, and they get to run Olmec’s Temple, I want them to win. And Scott said “absolutely.” So I just made it my thing.

You weren’t just the detached game-show host.
There’s an investment there. We still keep in touch online! Like, people are planning viewing parties, and we’re all trying to get together in L.A. to have one, just because we all realize that we went through something special shooting this.

Did you have to do anything to refamiliarize yourself with Legends and its format?
I found some fan sites that are still active right now. That really kind of surprised me, considering the show hasn’t been around for decades. I also caught some of the episodes on YouTube to kind of remind myself of why I liked the show, but also I wanted to see what elements would change [in the reboot]. But once I started talking to Scott, I realized that he wanted to stay with the format of the show but just change it so that it’s for adults. So that means that now the sets are bigger, and the physical challenges are bigger and more challenging.

I just saw that you’ve written a Lifetime Christmas movie starring Mario Lopez (Holiday in Santa Fe) that’s coming out in December. How did that come together? 
Mario’s a friend of mine. He actually had a sitcom on Netflix that ran for a season, and I played a mom in the first episode. And when we met, we realized that we really kind of dug each other personality-wise, and we kind of have similar backgrounds where we grew up Mexican Catholic by the border. We kept thinking we should do something together and then when the [COVID] lockdown happened, we both realized, “Hey, we actually have time right now to do something.” He had a Lifetime Christmas movie last year that did well, and he asked me if I had any interest in writing another one.

The deciding factor for me was that I wrote the Christmas episode for my sitcom, Cristela. And people still talk to me about that episode. It spoke to so many people because it wasn’t something that people really got to see, that side of Christmas — a very culturally specific episode. And when I thought about writing the Lifetime movie, I told myself, This is your chance to write a movie that really tells a story of a Latino family having the holidays and experiencing some of the dynamics in different ways.

You’ve talked a lot in the past about how much you love old sitcoms, which is a passion you and I share. But when I watch now, I’m so aware of just how blindingly white they were. I wonder if that means your nostalgia comes with mixed emotions? 
It was more of a slow realization that I came to when I got older. I grew up in a border town where we didn’t have diversity in my neighborhood at all. We really didn’t have white people or Black people or Asian — like, nothing. We were all Latino because we were right next to Mexico. So growing up, what I gravitated toward were always sitcoms like The Jeffersons and Good Times, and shows like Fame, and I later realized that it was because they weren’t white. Now I didn’t understand that they weren’t Latino or anything, but I knew that they weren’t white. And that felt comforting to me, and I didn’t know why until I got older.

Did any shows in particular resonate with you then? 
Good Times was very special to me because they were growing up in the projects. It was a struggle, but they still had each other. And I connected with that because that was like my family. We couldn’t qualify to get into the projects. That’s how poor we were! But we had each other. So when I saw those episodes, they really hit close to home.

And they were also teaching you how to be a comedian and sitcom creator!
I learned what a good joke was, right? If it’s funny, it’s funny. When I watched sitcoms growing up, they were like theater to me. That’s what it was supposed to be like. The pilot episode of Chico and the Man, you actually see, at the beginning, lights come up like it’s on a stage. And there’s something so great about that. That’s what’s missing about so much of TV nowadays. I constantly hear from the industry that they want multi-cams … But they don’t always respect the multi-cam as they should. You have to let them breathe. You’ve got to honor whatever story is being presented.

It blows my mind that it’s been this long, but Cristela debuted on ABC seven years ago. Has enough time passed for you to get back into trying another one if the opportunity presented itself? You took a break from acting to focus on social activism. 
Yes, but I did need the distance. I needed the time away. I made a choice to step away and really kind of assess what I wanted to do because I love it so much that I wanted to make sure that I could still love it. In this business, the only power we have is to say no. And being away from it for a while, I’ve got to be honest: There were moments in the past seven years where I wondered, Should I go back to it?

My show ran 22 episodes, and there are people that miss it and love it. But there are a lot of people that have forgotten that it ever existed. When you see people celebrating Latino content, Latino shows that made some kind of impact, my show is constantly forgotten. So you start thinking, Well, maybe Cristela was a fluke. Or, Maybe I did it wrong. You start wondering. And then after a while, I realized, It wasn’t all you. It’s just circumstances. It’s timing. It’s wherever we were in the industry. It’s all these factors.

How did you ultimately get to a place of wanting to return?
I was still kind of [working in] the community, trying to help remove Trump and everything. And I remember just waking up one day and thinking, I want to come back. I want to do things differently. And I want to be unapologetically — and I hate that term in some ways, but unapologetically myself. So that day, I remember I emailed my management and my agents and basically said, “Hello, do you remember me?” [Laughs.] I just wrote that I was ready to come back and see if I could make something happen. I wasn’t even sure how long it would take to hear back from them. And within five minutes, they were like, “We’ve been waiting. What do you want to do?”

So I started writing the Lifetime Christmas movie. Then I ended up doing Legends of the Hidden Temple. And now I’m about to shoot my second Netflix stand-up special in the next couple of months. So it’s great to be back with a different sense of self and purpose, and now I want to do things the way that I wanted to do them the first time. I’m not sure if I was ready to do it that way the first time.

What about another TV show? Would you want to go back to a sitcom?
Yes, I want to develop. I want to tell stories. I think that there’s room for a story that’s good, a story that resonates with people, and, more important, that’s funny. [Cristela] was really — it was a lot for me. I didn’t realize the bigness of how much it affected my life. The thing about the industry is that, for someone like me growing up in a little town, having this dream of wanting to do this, and then getting to do it, is incredible. But when people tell you to go after your dreams, they don’t tell you, “Go chase after your dreams — and learn about the business side, too,” you know? [Laughs.] So you’re learning all this stuff. You’re figuring it out as you go along. I didn’t understand that there was a business side to Hollywood. I thought that if you created something good, that was the hardest thing.

I was very proud of my sitcom, especially after it was canceled [and] I realized how much of an effect it had on so many people. But I realized there were a lot of factors I didn’t even know about, like awards season. I didn’t understand that people campaign. I came into this whole thing thinking, If you’re good, people will pay attention. And it was kind of heartbreaking to realize that there’s so much more to it — that sometimes you can do your best, and it’s just not the right moment.

How’d you get to that place of understanding what happened?
I went to therapy, and I really worked on myself. I realized, like, it wasn’t just me. It wasn’t my doing. It was so much of everything. And now I’m in a place where I realize, looking back, how there were people that really hindered my opportunity — and you could even say almost sabotaged my opportunity. And what I learned from that situation is that you’re not going to love everybody, and that’s okay. Not everybody’s going to like you, and that’s okay. But you’ve got to find people that get you.

This business, while it feels small, is gigantic. And in this business, you keep roaming around until you find the people you click with. It’s been seven years, and in those seven years, I keep picking up people that I click with. And now I realize, Oh yeah, I’m ready. I’m ready now.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Cristela Alonzo Returns to TV With Legends, a Lifetime Movie