Q&A: Cristela Alonzo on the magic and diversity of TV

Cristela Alonzo on her cancelled show, the importance of a diverse writers’ room, and the pressures of being the first to do something

Comedian Cristela Alonzo attends the Latino In America held at Occidental College on October 15, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Tommaso Boddi/Getty Images)

Comedian Cristela Alonzo attends the “I Am Latino in America” panel discussion at Occidental College on Oct. 15, 2015 in Los Angeles (Tommaso Boddi/Getty Images)

Cristela Alonzo was the first Latina to create, produce, write and star in her own U.S. network show—in the past tense, because the show, Cristela, was cancelled by ABC in May, after just one season. She meditated on the cancellation later and what it meant for her as a person of colour, a surprisingly public confessional for any first-time showrunner, much less a pioneer. While in Alberta with the Just for Laughs stand-up comedy tour, crossing the country from Nov. 5 to 21, Maclean’s spoke to Alonzo about the normalizing power of TV, the rise of diversity on the small screen on shows such as Fresh Off the Boat, Black-ish and Master of None, and how hard it is to see one’s own show cancelled.

Q: I don’t know what it is, but so often when first-time showrunners have their shows cancelled, there’s rarely a public debrief, rarely an exit interview. I find that odd, considering a first show is often such a big deal. Why do you think that is?

A: I think a lot of people want to not ruffle feathers. I don’t think they want to say anything negative, per se, but there’s always a fear of what they say and how it might be perceived by others. For me, it was very important to talk about the cancellation of my show, which is why I blogged about it. I actually blogged about it the day ABC was announcing their new shows, because I wanted people to pay attention to the show that existed.

Y’know, I love TV, and what really bothers me about TV is that, when a show is cancelled, it’s like it never existed. Nobody talks about it. It’s like we committed a murder and we hid the body. We’re never going to talk about that body. But there were people who watched that show. Why can’t we just at least acknowledge it existed and talk about how you feel? To me, that’s what fans of a show would like to do. It gives the fans closure. There are so many shows that go away, and you think, “Oh, we’re just left with a big question mark,” and you never know what happens.

Q: Do you talk to other first-time showrunners within the industry?

A: Oh yeah, absolutely. I found myself talking to other people all the time about it, and it’s actually comforting to know that some of the problems are problems that exist in a lot of projects, so you feel like it’s not just your project singled out; it’s just how it works with certain people, with certain approaches. It’s weird, because you’re so busy doing the show that you don’t really have any time to talk to other people while it’s happening, so you find yourself commiserating only afterward, in the aftermath, about what the situation was like.

Q: You’ve spoken before about your fervent love for TV as a medium. Does it still burn brightly?

A: I grew up very poor, and for us, TV was our babysitter. My mom, she grew up in Mexico. She was an immigrant in the United States; she was very strict, very protective, very religious. I grew up in a very conservative household; I was never allowed to go out and play with friends. So TV was my best friend, growing up, and there’s something incredible about a good TV show that’s very comforting. When a show talks about a problem that can relate to other people, those people watching the show—it makes it normal for them. It makes them feel like, “Oh, I’m not the only one dealing with this.”

For me, the shows I loved were the ones that made you laugh at really terrible problems. One of my favourite episodes of all time was Roseanne—the episode where it deals with domestic abuse. We find out that Jackie’s boyfriend Fisher has been abusing her. It’s such a serious topic, and there are so many funny moments in that episode, those two episodes, and it was insane that we were dealing with this important topic, yet still laughing at it and learning from it. Those episodes don’t happen very often. But when they do, it’s kind of magical. You’re asking if it still burns brightly, and I’m thinking, I’m still talking about this Roseanne show and getting excited about it. I’m excited about what TV can do. The problem is that we’re oversaturated with the access we have. We don’t know how to get to the audience. How do you market to people, with Netflix, with Hulu? Networks are trying to appeal to the masses. It’s a diversity of choice, but sometimes you don’t know where to look.

Related: How a made-in-Canada approach could help save digital media

Q: You talk about the magic of TV, but now you’ve actually made it; you know how the rabbit comes out of the hat. Does that ruin it in some way?

A: No, no: It’s kind of like The Wizard of Oz, seeing behind the curtain, but in the same sense, you also get to learn what works and doesn’t work. You only learn by doing, and applying what you like and what you know.

Q: You’ve had a few months to digest it, so: What do you think went wrong for Cristela?

A: I think lack of advertising. People didn’t know it existed. I can tell you, after the show was cancelled, I was doing stand-up like I always did, and people who watched the show were fanatics; they loved everything about it, they were obsessed with it. It was a different kind of show. I was a single girl who really wasn’t trying to find Mr. Right. I was a family-oriented person, showing other options for what it meant to be a single girl on TV. But no one will watch it if no one knows it exists. We were Friday night at 8:30 p.m. No one watches then, though we were still getting five to six million people a week. But I never got a billboard, I never really got a lot of commercials; I started co-hosting on The View to help advertise for my show, because I wouldn’t get any otherwise. I was trying to save it the best I could, and I couldn’t do it. Compared to the launches of other shows, you could see a really big difference in the amount of marketing we got, and in how we were marketed, too: Because I’m Latina and spoke Spanish, I did a lot of promoting in Spanish. And my show isn’t in Spanish, so why are we focusing so much on the Spanish-language promotion for an English-speaking show? Like, in Canada, could you imagine promoting a French show in English or vice versa? You’re not hitting it right.

ABC's 'Cristela.'

A screenshot from ABC’s Cristela

Q: Earlier, you touched on a problem facing TV: that the marketplace is very big and diffuse. One argument for diversity is that it can help with that—that telling many people’s stories will at least make fragmented communities slightly bigger, more coherent. And with shows such as Fresh Off the Boat, or Master of Nonewe’re seeing more people of diversity, while writers’ rooms are remaining not particularly diverse. Do you think we still have a long way to go?

A: It’s absolutely important to get more diversity in the writers’ room. That’s the ground floor of any show, any project: It’s all about the writing. It’s great to get visibility of diversity with the actors, but if you’re going to tell the story of, take Fresh Off the Boat, of an Asian family and their struggles, isn’t it important to have people who understand the culture? I’ve been around people who want to write from a Latino perspective, because they have Latino friends, or they’re sympathetic with the struggle. But that doesn’t mean you understand the culture. My family, for example, is very traditional. My mother grew up in a village that had no running water, no electricity; they ate what they killed. In our family, women were raised to become good mothers and good wives. That’s not a Latino thing, but that’s a thing that happened in my Latino family.

So, in order to tell a story that’s actually accurate, you have to find writers who come from that experience. You have to be able to give them a chance. Our show had diversity from every angle, because, to us, it was important to give everyone an opportunity. When I see someone who’s of colour, I want to treat them like everybody else. That’s the thing: In order to get diversity on the air, we have to assume that everybody is like everybody else. We start at the same level, and we have to see the work and the merit of the work and judge it on a fair scale. You can’t just hire someone because they’re of colour. They have to be good at what they’re doing.

Related: Aziz Ansari’s Master of None is a quantum leap for representation

Q: The onus isn’t just on showrunners of TV series explicitly about people of colour and their stories, but TV series at large, too.

A: Absolutely. I don’t have children, but if I did and they wanted to write, how powerful is it to show my children another Latino writer who’s doing something, so I can say, “If they’re doing it, you can too”? That was one of the biggest appeals of my show. When I got it, I wanted to show a Latina character who didn’t want to get married right away, was really career-oriented. And mostly, I was just excited about having a brown family on TV. I grew up on a border town close to Mexico, so I grew up thinking that, to have a brown family on TV, you have to speak Spanish. So yes, you have to tell those immigrant stories and have the culture behind them, but you also have to show that diverse writers can write their own version of Die Hard. I always say Die Hard is one of my favourite movies, but I don’t watch it because it’s Mexican. It’s just a good story. There are a lot of diverse writers with great stories in them. Let’s find those writers and see what everybody is capable of.

Maybe we do need to put more attention on the writers’ room. The house is only as good as the foundation.

Q: What struck me in your blog post is the responsibility you felt. That’s a feeling that so often comes with being among the first of a particular group to do something—and the pressure that comes with it, from that group. Did you feel that?

A: With my ethnicity, we’re called Latinos—but “Latino” doesn’t specify one country. We never talk about it; we never have that moment to specify. So “Latino” encompasses a bunch of countries, and it’s impossible for me to represent every Latino country. During the show, there were a lot of Latinos who were very critical of the show, because they said, “We don’t do that.” Well, who’s “we”? The show isn’t called Every Latino in the World; it was called Cristela. I’m a Mexican girl from a Mexican family from south Texas. That’s a very specific thing. Can you not let me have the chance to tell at least my story? No, I really couldn’t, to some people, because everyone’s starving for the content. And when you’re one of the first ones to do it, everything falls on you. You have to make sure you represent everything to a T, so you appease everybody. And when you try to appeal to everybody, you fail miserably.

Q: How long does the pain of a cancelled show last? I imagine it’s tough, especially because this was your name in the title, and a story that was very personal, and a long-time dream for you.

A: I do stand-up, and I’m on the road a lot, and I will tell you that, after every show, every city I go to, people come up that start crying—and it’s November, the show was cancelled in May—because they loved it so much and they can’t believe it was cancelled. I have to relive that every weekend of my life. Every weekend, I have to be told how much they loved the show, how much the show was important to them, so how hard is it to get over it and move on when they’re saying that? You really don’t have the chacne to overcome it. The best thing you can do, though, is that, with time, you have to change your perspective. It’s sad it was cancelled; I thought we had more to say; but, at the same time, I was really happy with the fact that we created a story that resonated with people enough that they’re willing to follow me in the next venture that I have. It could’ve been worse; they could’ve hated it, they could’ve thought I sold out my culture and they could’ve been done with me. The fact that they loved it so much makes me feel like I have a lot more to say, and that I’ll be given a chance to say it.

Q: Are you optimistic about the future of diversity on TV?

A: Absolutely. I have a lot of friends who have projects that have been bought—Latino projects. In my year, it was me and my year; this year, I think I have nine friends who have shows bought by networks, and that’s just Latino, not counting other ethnicities. Someone had to take the bullet, so someone could get the shot. I was very lucky to be the first Latina to have that shot, to create and do everything I did. But I opened the door, and now it’s my turn to hold that door open and let people come in. By being inclusive, we’ll have a lot more fresh new stories to tell.

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

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