Talking to Cristela Alonzo About ‘The Half Hour’, Her Development Deal, and Working Herself to Death
For the past 15 years, Comedy Central’s half hour specials have showcased the future stars of standup. Looking back, the early years of Comedy Central Presents included memorable sets from the likes of Mitch Hedberg, Patton Oswalt, Maria Bamford, Dane Cook and dozens more. Re-branded The Half Hour in 2012, the series continues to feature the best up-and-coming comics in the country.
For many comedians, it’s that history that makes doing a half hour special so significant. While a half hour may once have been a comic’s first major exposure, comedians now have many ways to build an audience. Almost everyone who taped a special this year does non-standup comedy as well, branching out into the worlds of podcasting, sketch and improv, web series, acting, and more. In this new series, I sat down with each of this year’s 16 Half Hour comedians to talk about their specials, their careers, and their generation of comedians. Each interview will also feature an exclusive clip from the special. All the interviews can be found here.
Cristela Alonzo made her late-night debut on Conan last year; not long after, she signed a deal to develop a sitcom about her life. I got the chance to talk to the Texas native over the phone about coming up in Dallas and her kitschy idea for a podcast.
So how did the taping go? What was it like?
You know, the taping was good. People keep asking me how I feel, and I think everybody expects me to say, “Oh I’m so happy, and it went great!” But really, I had been stressing over that set for so long that I was just happy it was done. Afterwards I’m like, “Yeah, that happened.” Even now, I still can’t believe I did it. When I started doing standup, I never—you never think you’re gonna do it. You never think you’re gonna get a half hour, you just start doing it because you really like it. It was one of those things where I’m doing it and then afterwards, I’m like, “Wow. That, wow. That was a thing. That was crazy.” So I feel like I gave birth. Just tired, but I was very happy with it.
Doing a half hour seems like such a defining moment in someone’s career. How did you prepare for it? And what did it mean to you?
Well I’m kind of a perfectionist, which is very hard to do in standup because you can’t plan anything. So I always want to prepare for any worst-case scenario, which is hard because you can’t. But I was really lucky. I was very lucky to have my home club, the Comedy and Magic Club, they gave me a bunch stage time whenever I wanted it to run my set. Which is very rare in LA, to get that much stage time. Me prepping for it was kind of like the Rocky IV montage when Rocky has to train in the mountains to go fight Drago. It was very tiring, it was kind of like going to the gym. And I’m that kind of person that thinks that everything’s gonna go bad, so if it doesn’t, I feel relieved. The 30 [minute-special] was such a big deal for me. I watched 30s all the time. One of my really good friends is Kathleen Madigan, and I remember watching her [special] years ago. I can’t believe that I’m actually doing the same thing she got to do years ago. It’s kind of weird to think about it like that. You just can’t even believe you’re there.
What’s your normal gig like?
I’m on the road a lot. This past year, I ended up booking over a hundred colleges, so from September to now I’ve been doing colleges. So that’s a lot of traveling this year. I’m finally winding down on it and I’m finishing my college run in April. I’ve been doing clubs within that. I like staying busy, because I always say that when you start out doing standup, you work for free. You get paid in gas money, you get paid in food, you just want to go up. You spend so much time not being busy that when you can be busy, I just want to work myself to death, because that’s what I’ve been waiting for. So I like being on the road. I go to the middle of nowhere. I’ve played Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska, little towns everywhere and I love doing that because I love being able to go out to towns that you would never go out to or even think existed unless you were doing standup. I love that.
I saw that you started out in Dallas. I lived there as a teenager, but I don’t ever think of Dallas having much a scene.
Well we were a very small group, I love the scene there though. I always say the Dallas scene is small but we’re pretty consistent. I love everybody there. When I started doing standup, I was really one of the only women and I think I was the only Latino, so I was always just considered part of the whole scene. I was never pigeonholed as a female comic; I was never pigeonholed as a Latino comic. I was just a comic. There’s these two women, Linda and Jan, they do this makeshift Backdoor Comedy Club that has moved locations so many times. They’re the ones that give space, they give spots for young comics and local comics to do sets. The Backdoor’s been in a bowling alley, at a feed store, at a diner, right now they’re at a Doubletree Hotel, and people come out. What I like about that club is that you have to be clean. You can’t cuss. It’s because they want to help people learn how to work clean. It can be dirty everywhere else, but the thinking is that if you want to do standup at some point you might have to do a TV set, so they get you in the thinking of like being able to do five to seven minutes without cussing, without doing anything. They’re very cool, and every time I go back to Dallas, I work the Backdoor Comedy Club. Because it’s in a hotel on the weekends—it’s only like Thursday, Friday and Saturday—the comics, after they do their set, they have to help strike the set. So they have to carry lights, they carry the pieces of stage out in chunks. And every time you see that, I always tell everybody, that’s what standup is. The fact that comics will strike a set just to have a space to go up at, that’s standup.
And you’re working on a podcast?
Yes, I am. I just bought everything and I’m setting it up right now. I want it to be a half-hour sketch show. And basically, it’s kind of like an Armando, like an improv show where you talk about what happened in the week, and you get sketches that are kind of inspired by what happened in the week, and you do these sketches to improve the point of whatever story you’re telling. I was feel like a lot of podcasts—I like them, but a lot of them are just interviewing the same comics. So you hear one comic on one podcast, you hear them on another podcast, but I figured the sketch comedy show is kind of different, a little old-timey. Maybe with sound effects, like old time radio. It’s just something different that shows I can be silly. Sometimes I have these joke ideas that would work better as sketches than jokes, so I have an outlet to do them now. I want to call it something like the Old-Timey Radio Half-Hour. Something very kitschy.
I feel like this is the first generation of comics where everyone also does something else, like sketch or podcasts, and I’m interested in how that informs standup.
You kind of have to do more than one thing nowadays. Kathleen and I talk about this all the time. Years ago, you didn’t have Facebook, you didn’t have MySpace or anything, you had to really bank on word of mouth. You had to be so good that people would go tell their friends to come and see you. And that’s hard. Nowadays we’ve got Facebook, Instagram, Vine. We’ve got all these things that we’ve gotta do. I like that though, because it makes you good. It makes you hone your skills in so many different things. If you do a podcast, you improve your interviewing skills right away. Which, a lot of standups, we can be funny, but then when they get interviewed, they completely shut down, because their thing is standup. Videos, sketches, what I like about honing the skill is that, the better we get at something, the more power we give ourselves. Because if I can shoot a great sketch, I can do it without the help of a production company. I don’t have to pitch it to anyone. That’s what Patton Oswalt said at the Just for Laughs. Our phone is the most powerful tool we have, we can make videos off of this, we don’t need the companies anymore. All you need is that idea. That’s why we need to be good at so many things, because the more we know it, the more we can do with it, and the more powerful we are.
And I also saw that you’re planning on recording an album soon?
Yes! I’ve had people that come to my shows that want—I don’t sell any merch. I’m not that person, I don’t like doing the t-shirts or anything. I feel uncomfortable doing it. A lot of people have asked me to come out with something, and then I figured the CD’s a really perfect way to do it. With The Half Hour done, I would just record whatever I did on The Half Hour and the other half hour of older stuff I’ve got. Because I keep telling everybody, after the 30, the first thing I did the next day was go buy a new notebook. I bought a new notebook to write my new hour. That’s what I’m doing. The old stuff is done, and I’ve got to rebuild it.
Anything else that people should be looking for you in, or on?
There’s a development deal that I’m gonna start working on it in the next month or so, and we’ll see. It’s to create a sitcom built around my life. Basically, I’m originally from this little border town in south Texas where the drug cartel’s really popular. And it’s kind of like, I got out of there. And I’m very close with my family, so we’re trying to come up with like a blue collar Latino family comedy that hopefully will be picked up in the next couple months or so.
Cristela Alonzo’s Half Hour airs Friday, June 7 at 12:30 am (technically Saturday morning). She’s on Twitter at @cristela9.
Elise Czajkowski is a contributing editor at Splitsider and comedy journalist in New York City. She occasionally tweets at @EliseCz.