Roe v. Wade has been overturned, children and teachers are dying in classrooms and healthcare is not yet a fundamental right for every citizen in the United States. But Cristela Alonzo is still smiling like she does during all of her stand-up specials, including her newest Netflix venture, “Middle Classy.”
“I have always smiled in my stand-up because I’m so excited to be there,” Alonzo tells Variety. “I always tell people that the audience wants to be on your team in stand-up. You got to show them that you’re there for them, and you’re happy. So why do we not have those moments of joy more often?”
Even through a Zoom video interview, Alonzo radiates positivity and delight in a time when it’s easy to give in to despair and anger. In 2014, Alonzo made history as the first Latina woman to create, produce, write and star in her own U.S. primetime comedy series, “Cristela” at ABC. It was executive produced by Kevin Hench, Becky Clements, Marty Adelstein and Shawn Levy (yes, that Shawn Levy of “Stranger Things” fame). After its 22-episode inaugural season, the show was canceled.
But Alonzo, now 43, hasn’t stopped pounding the Hollywood pavement, traveling the country to various stand-up clubs and doing guest spots on shows like Netflix’s “The Upshaws” and Nickelodeon’s “The Casagrandes.” The Mexican performer has been chasing this dream since she was 8 years old. “I tell people that if you have a lifelong dream, it takes a lifetime,” she says. “People used to ask me, ‘When did you know you made it?’ I always said when I could put ‘autopay’ on my bills. That was the dream, so everything after that has been a bonus.”
Five years after her first Netflix special, “Lower Classy,” she returns to the platform to discuss the condition of our times, something she’s always embraced in her material. “The more specific you are, the more you can connect with people,” she says.
In her new special, she reveals she has diabetes and discusses her navigation through the diagnosis. She was surprised when she told family members and friends how many of them knew they were diabetic but didn’t do anything about it. After learning her diagnosis, she started on medication that needed some getting used to because it would make her feel like she was having “a panic attack” and cause low blood sugar. It was essential to Alonzo to showcase her diagnosis in “Middle Classy” because she has access to doctors and wants to use that privilege to bring awareness about diabetes to others in her community. “You know how sometimes people with money love to do home remedies?” Alonzo says. “When you grow up poor, that’s your only option.”
She also wanted to show that she got her diabetes under control without a physical trainer, a private cook or anything else that people may perceive as “required” when you receive such a diagnosis. Even though she’s become accustomed to being able to support herself, she lives with the question in the back of her mind, “what if all of this goes away?”
The U.S. is currently feeling the ramifications of having a right taken away, with the Supreme Court overturning the federal law allowing abortions. As a result, Alonzo has become very politically active, standing alongside U.S. Representative Joaquin Castro and others in the fight for progressive rights and speaking out against human atrocities. “People will say we have to vote in November — and that’s true — but we also need movements now,” she says.
Growing up in Texas, Alonzo says it’s been disheartening to see her home become a right-wing haven for ideas the majority of Americans are vehemently against. “The fact that this country has a favorite religion is problematic. When you have a favorite religion, you’re saying that the others don’t matter, which means people don’t matter. I grew up a devout Catholic, and I was taught that you don’t have the right to judge anyone because you’re not God. But the ideology shows different,” she says. “I always say ‘pro-life’ is ‘pro-choice’ because you decided to be ‘pro-life,’ and that’s a choice. We can’t pick and choose not to wear a mask during COVID and then say that we’re pro-life. Why is it that pro-lifers are the ones that want to kill you the most?”
Alonzo is also speaking out within the stand-up community, where there has been much debate about artistic freedom and free speech when it comes to jokes. She maintains that evolution, and accountability, are both necessary to art. “The idea of cancel culture, I don’t believe in it. I believe in accountability. I believe that we evolve in language. We evolve in ideas,” she says. “We realize that things that were okay to say years ago are no longer okay. How you respond to it — that’s what makes you different. So I only expect that if I unknowingly offend someone by some chance, I hope that I’m given a chance to apologize and show that I’ve learned.”
That response differs from some of her comedic counterparts like Dave Chappelle and Ricky Gervais, who have chosen to double down on criticism for past material or created new specials that go even further with their offensive takes. Her message to them: “Why do you have to win? It shouldn’t be hard.”
“Middle Classy” is now streaming on Netflix.