Cristela on Cristela

Stephen Halasz

Cristela Alonzo grew up in a Texas border town surrounded by poverty and drug cartels. Ten years after moving to Los Angeles, the Conan, Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson and Comedy Central vet debuts her eponymous ABC sitcom this Friday. At Montreal's Just for Laughs comedy festival, she recalled the process of taking Cristela from concept to ground-breaking sitcom.

We premiere October 10, 8:30, right after Shark Tank on Friday nights. I love that show. My show's about a blue-collar, working-class family, so of course it's going to follow a show that's hosted by millionaires. Like, sure, why not?

I still can't believe it's happening. It feels like I'm playing the part of somebody who got a show. It hasn't sunk in yet. It's super-meta. It's like I'm an actor, pretending to be an actor, in an acting world.

I had been working the road a lot, and I had switched representation. I was looking for a new agent, and my new agency, I had a meeting with them and told them my life story. They thought it was really interesting. They asked me if I had ever thought about developing a show about my life, and I had. When I was a kid, that's all I wanted to do. I had given up on it because I was doing stand-up and I was on the road so much, I thought, "When am I going to have the time to develop a show?"

I think what's really helped me with the whole process is I never expected anything, so every step that came, I just thought that, "Well, this'll probably be the end!" My mom always told me, "If you always expect the worst, you'll never be disappointed." I grew up thinking that. So every step I just figured it was the last step. I think I ended up just having fun with it, and with every step it kind of got closer and closer, and I always thought it would end. I always prepared for the worst, and it hasn't happened yet.

The network had initially passed on the pilot, and the pilot had a penalty attached to it, so it if wasn't made, the studio got a penalty for not having the pilot made. It's a very standard thing in the business. Basically the network believed in the show so much that they said, "We will pay you money if we don't make this pilot; that's how much we believe in this pilot." When they ended up having all these pilots with big names--Kevin Hart, Henry Winkler and Anthony Anderson--they passed on mine, and I totally understood, because they're names that are known for what they do.

The producer, Becky Clements, convinced the network and the studio to give us the penalty, to use that money to shoot the pilot. So we shot it for a small fraction of what regular pilots get. It was actually taped on the set of her other show, Last Man Standing with Tim Allen, so the pilot episode is actually our family in that house. The crew from the show helped out on our pilot. We did everything bare bones, bare minimum. It was supposed to be a presentation; we just wanted to show them the script in an actual form, because we thought if they could see it, they would totally get what we were trying to do. The idea was if by some chance they picked up the show, we would reshoot the pilot. So when we turned it in and the network and studio loved it, they said, "We love it so much we don't want to mess with what we've got, so we're not going to reshoot the pilot. We're going to air it like that." So it's funny, our pilot episode is a completely different house from the rest of the show. It's that thing where we'll never address it, like, "You guys are weird for thinking it's a weird house! We've always been in this house!"

It really hasn't hit me. We got the show picked up, and then I ended up going straight to work. Someone told me I'm the first Latina to create and produce and star in a network show, and it didn't really hit me until this past week. We screened the pilot for an [advocacy] organization called the NCLR, the National Coalition of La Raza. I came out to do a Q&A, everyone stood up, and it was this ridiculous feeling where I started crying. It was such a big deal, and everyone in that room knew it was a big deal, they were just so happy. It was the first time that I realized that for some people it was a little more special that I got it, and it made it feel so much more special for me that day. It makes me want to work hard, you know what I mean? So yeah, it just kind of gave me more purpose to make a great show that people can be proud of.