Outside of Conan O’Brien’s late night talk show, no one is doing more to foment a revolution in stand-up than Netflix. And it’s not just because they’ve doled out some resources from their vast coffers to fund an array of hour-long specials. It’s who they’re supporting along the way, which has included an impressive batch of female stand-ups and people of color (they are lagging behind in the LGBTQ department, however).
One of the best recent examples of this is the recently released special by Cristela Alonzo called Lower Classy. The 38-year-old Texan has, of late, found herself in that sweet spot that most comics hope to reach: well-known enough to fill medium-sized theaters around the U.S., but not so famous that she’s expected to headline stadium gigs or risk oversaturation by showing up in a half-dozen movies. She did get to the point of landing a self-titled sitcom, but that was quietly canceled by ABC in 2015.
Her comfort surrounding her level of success is clearly evident in this new special. There are no fancy stage backdrops nor any need to move beyond her regular wardrobe of a comfortable shirt, jeans, and sneakers (though the pin featuring the Mexican and U.S. flags on her sweater was a nice, pointed touch). All she has is her abundant charm, energy, and toned comedic muscles. Which is more than enough.
The overall tone of Lower Classy is one of gentle self-mockery but peppered with some subtle political commentary. Like her bit about how her wild schoolgirl fantasy scenario featuring New Kids on the Block involved her cleaning the group’s tour bus so well that they’d all fall in love with her—because, as she points out, the only Hispanic women that she seemed to see growing up were maids and housekeepers. Or how she went to great pains to shame a Bloomingdale’s employee who assumed Alonzo couldn’t afford a pricey bag by having it elaborately gift-wrapped…before quickly returning it because she needed the money (“I couldn’t afford it, but I taught that bitch a lesson”).
For the most part, Alonzo paces her special beautifully, though she does linger on some of the more clownish aspects of her set. She landed a great joke about not wanting to spend $200 on a new sports bra when she could spent a fraction of that to hire a day laborer to hold her breasts up as she ran. But when she mimed that job around the stage, it dragged on far longer than it needed to.
She found the right places to let things linger and let her stage presence become more reserved though. As she headed toward the end of her hour, she was fighting back some tears as she recounted her first years in L.A. when she was living out of her car and having to hurry back home to say goodbye to her ailing mother. And the pivot she takes from that emotional moment back into the comedy is sheer perfection.
Though this is a bell I’ve been ringing a lot in my reviews these past weeks, it’s worth repeating the point that we’re going to need comedy like this to help get us through what is shaping up to be a dark period. And we need those voices in stand-up to fully reflect the vast multicultural society that we live in. Whether she intended to or not, Cristela Alonzo rose to this occasion and didn’t disappoint.
Robert Ham is an arts and culture journalist based in Portland, OR. Read more of his work here and follow him on Twitter.