Episode 509: Cristela Alonzo, Sloane Crosley, Caryn Rose on Patti Smith

Air Date:
Heard On BETA
Comedian Cristela Alonzo in her Netflix stand-up special, 'Middle Classy'
(C) Beth Dubber/Netflix (C)2022

Comedian Cristela Alonzo stays true to herself in her Netflix special, “Middle Classy.” Also, Sloane Crosley on her latest novel, “Cult Classic.” And Caryn Rose tells us about the life and legacy of the punk poet, Patti Smith.

Featured in this Show

  • Comedian Cristela Alonzo stays true to herself in 'Middle Classy'

    In 2010, comedian Cristela Alonzo was a contestant on NBC’s reality series “Last Comic Standing” where she had a career-changing back and forth with the show’s host and judge, the late comic, Greg Giraldo.

    Giraldo gently pushed her on a joke she was doing on her sister’s accent. He thought it felt a bit like a trope. When Alonzo explained that it was her true experience, he told her to lean into that.

    “I really started thinking more specifically about how I am, why I am the way I am, and what made me,” Alonzo tells Wisconsin Public Radio’s “BETA.”

    What Alonzo found was that there’s a universal relatability in her specific life story as a first generation Mexican American, and she’s used her experiences as a guiding light through her trailblazing career.

    That same accent joke appears in Alonzo’s latest Netflix special, “Middle Classy,” although this time she reworks it a bit to mention her brother. The special continues to find Alonzo at her best when she’s her most personal.

    It can’t get more personal than your birthday. Alonzo was born on Jan. 6 and joked that as a Latina Catholic, she already spent her life sharing that date with the Three King’s Day holiday. Now, her special day has been co-opted by an infamously historic coup.

    “Every time somebody talks about Jan. 6, they connect it to what happened in D.C.,” she says. “I was also born that day. Let’s give credit where credit is due, everybody! I’m still one year older.”

    Even more frustrating, Alonzo was diagnosed with COVID-19 on her birthday.

    Alonzo, a longtime fan of zombie films, compares the COVID-19 pandemic to a zombie apocalypse in the special. She’s baffled why no zombie film has a patient zero.

    “When I tied the pandemic to the zombie movies, the whole idea thinking was, no one wants to be a zombie. That’s not the scene in the movie that you see. Like, ‘it’s my right as an American to be a zombie.’ Nobody says that,” says Alonzo. “So, I thought it was a realistic way of saying it where you don’t sound condescending, but the analogy makes sense because I think all of us have seen zombie movies.”

    “I was a big supporter, and still am, of medicine and science, and it was this thing where I couldn’t understand that there were people that had gotten to this point where they decided that science and medicine was just a suggestion,” she continues.

    Alonzo riffs off the culture clashes as well. Her bit on being trilingual dovetails beautifully into the bursting of social and cultural bubbles during college.

    “I speak Spanish, English and Caucasian. It’s like English, but you use words that you’re not used to,” Alonzo quips. “Like with my friends, the ones I grew up with, I can say ‘Hey, shut up. That was stupid.’ In Caucasian, it’s like, ‘Wow, we’re a little off track with that, aren’t we?’ It’s same goal, different intonation. A lot of people call it code switching.”

    Alonzo, who learned English from television growing up in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, first engaged with “Caucasian” when she traveled to an affluent St. Louis community for college. She has a bit on meeting her freshman roommate and her family for the first time.

    “I realized I had no idea that even though we technically spoke the same language, we didn’t,” she says.

    “It’s kind of weird how for the longest time a lot of people think that if you’re brown, you’re Mexican, Latino. And that just actually shows you what kind of exposure some people have,” Alonzo continues. “Some people might not know about Puerto Rico, Cuban, Dominican Republic and everything, which is why when I talk about standup, I try to make it very specific about my life because I don’t like trying to make assumptions.”

    Alonzo’s specificity on aging leads to a surprising universality. She says she loves it and says that being in your 40s is the equivalent to being an iPhone 6. You may not have all the battery life and latest apps, but you’re still effective.

    “When I was in my teens and then 20s, especially, I wanted everybody to like me. And then if they didn’t, I always thought it was my problem. I’m like, ‘What did I do wrong?’ And then in my 30s, I started thinking, ‘You know what? I don’t need to be liked by everybody,’” she says.

    “Now, in my 40s, I’m like, ‘You know what? I don’t need anybody. I got plants to water.’”

    Set against the backdrop of Alonzo’s life story of overcoming poverty and finally having access to health care, housing and even expensive toys from her youth, her observations on aging become even more potent.

    I also just think that with age, it’s just such a sign of where you’ve come from and where you are. Like, what a great journey it is. There’s something so great about that,” Alonzo says.

    Alonzo is also a fierce advocate for her community and is troubled by the recent return of hate groups. She closes her special with a pitch for a hate “hate” group, with an emphasis on Latino membership. She wants to call it the “Que! Que! Que!”

    She jokes that it’s because every day that she watches the news, her reaction is “Que!” “Que, Que!”

    “In Caucasian, that’s, ‘What! What, What!’”

    Alonzo’s special Middle Classy is streaming on Netflix.

  • Writer Sloane Crosley explores this strange case of 'deja vu all over again' in 'Cult Classic'

    Sloane Crosley is the author of three essay collections and two novels. She has an uncanny gift for writing funny dialogue — very funny dialogue. But you don’t have to take our word for it.

    The great comedian Steve Martin said this about Crosley’s essay collection, “Look Alive Out There“: “Sloane Crosley does the impossible. She stays consistently funny and delivers a book that is alive and jumping.”

    Crosley’s latest novel is called “Cult Classic.” It focuses on a 37-year-old woman named Lola who keeps bumping into her ex-boyfriends in a five-block radius in downtown New York City. And as it turns out, Lola’s former boss Clive Glenn has something to do with these supposedly random encounters.

    Crosley told Wisconsin Public Radio’s “BETA” she initially avoided writing about romance, dating and dating in New York.

    “They’re just sort of well-trodden,” she said. “And I finally thought, you know, this is insane. I’m avoiding writing about something I really care about that takes up most of my brain, the brains of everyone I’ve ever met because I’m worried about response, or I’m worried about being pigeonholed as a certain kind of writer.”

    So, Crosley said she just waited “like a tiny, tiny little baby cobra snake until I could sink my teeth into a hopefully creative way to tell a romantic New York story.”

    In “Cult Classic,” Lola’s encounters with her former lovers occur whenever and only when she’s within a five-block radius of what Crosley describes as a “cult-like institution” called Golconda. It’s named after the 1953 painting by the Belgian surrealist artist René Magritte.

    These encounters with previous boyfriends aren’t random, and in fact, are set up as sort of a social experiment that’s supposed to encourage Lola to put the past to bed and look ahead to marrying her fiancé, Boots, whom she loves.

    “So, if you imagine picking up your phone right now and scrolling through and looking at text messages — be they with friends or former lovers or even current people you once fought with — from 2013, you would be sort of sucked back into that moment and to those emotions or those memories would become emotions again. And so that’s sort of what happens to her (in real life) as it were. She gets very confused,” Crosley says.

    The puppet master behind these seemingly chance encounters is Clive, who used to run a magazine called Modern Psychology, for which Lola worked as deputy editor.

    “Clive is this larger-than-life figure, a cult of personality, if you will, who, when he was running this magazine before it folded, became this sort of cult pop psych guru kind of person,” Crosley explains.

    Clive had his own podcast. He created a drinking game based off of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. And, he started an experiment in mind control and ropes Lola along for the ride.

    He becomes convinced, Crosley explains, that he can control the movement of Lola’s exes and directs them into her path.

    He literally is just sort of harnessing the wellness movement and technology and creating these packages for people with the intent of getting them over their romantic past in various different ways,” Crosley said.

    It’s “grand speculative fiction,” Crosley said of the way it comes across in the book. But she said real life isn’t too far from that fiction, “through social media, through the power of suggestion, through manipulating Google search results — just sort of basic techniques combined with a little bit of old-fashioned group meditation.”

    In the book, Crosley said this experience costs $250,000. In real life, with the help of the internet and maybe your Instagram password, she thinks she could pull off something similar for $50.

    “I think I could put you and someone you don’t necessarily want to see in a restaurant tonight,” she said.

    So, has writing “Cult Classic” changed the way Crosley thinks about her own ex-boyfriends?

    “I do think that even with the ones that I found, who behaved in a way that I found to be unconscionable, the ones that I hurt, the ones that hurt me — there’s sort of a beauty in the fact that we all landed here in the same city at the same time. It’s kind of unbelievable. And you can’t help but love them a little bit, even the terrible ones,” she said.

    Crosley said she and Lola aren’t the same, but there are some exaggerated similarities.

    “Hopefully I took every sort of bad quality I have and just sort of cranked it up as high as the dial would go. But inadvertently, it’s made me feel a lot warmer towards everyone I’ve ever known,” she said.

    Crosley is currently working on a screenplay. At least when she’s not chatting with “BETA”: “I’m so excited to talk to you guys. And you’re also just holding it up. You know, I could be working on it right now,” she said, a little tongue-in-cheek.

    She’s hopeful the care she’s put into the screenplay dialogue will come across the same way it has for the novel.

    “It’s great because it’s a whole different way to tell a story that I still care about,” she said.

    “Cult Classic” will stream on Apple TV+. The air date has yet to be decided.

  • 'Not precious about it at all': Patti Smith's legacy of work

    Patti Smith is a poet, writer, musician and visual artist. But, if you ask her, she will say she’s a worker.

    Wisconsin Public Radio’s “BETA” talked with Caryn Rose, author of “Why Patti Smith Matters,” and she puts it this way:

    “Patti is not precious about it at all. She views it as work. Just like going to a factory is work, she shows up every day, does it, doesn’t pretend that it’s magic, and doesn’t try to glamorize it or be cute about it. She’s just there doing the work.”

    Smith enjoys her work and has quite a lot to show for it, including memoirs, books of poetry and several music albums with her band, the Patti Smith Group. But what was it that set her on an artistic course?

    “Her family was working class, but they were very interested in art, whether opera or classical music,” Rose says. “She tells the story of her parents taking she and her siblings to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and her first encounters with art in person. She grew up with it being an important thing, and she just kept going.”

    In 1967, Smith left her family in New Jersey and found her way to the Chelsea Hotel, where she lived amid a vibrant artistic community, meeting and making friends with William Burroughs, playwright Sam Shepard, Janis Joplin, Allen Ginsberg and others. At the Chelsea, she met Robert Mapplethorpe, who profoundly influenced Smith’s development as an artist. Their story as friends is chronicled in her book “Just Kids,” for which she won a National Book Award in 2010.

    Rose says Mapplethorpe was important in Smith’s development as an artist “because of his unconditional support. He would say, ‘You got to keep working. You got to keep writing whatever it is.’ And he did in that loving way, pushing her forward. ‘You need to read your poetry in public. You should think about putting music behind your poetry. Maybe you should think about singing.’ He financed the recording of her first single. I don’t think it gets stronger than that.”

    In 1975, Smith recorded her first album, “Horses,” which was a modest success at the time. However, since then, the album has received much critical acclaim for being an essential recording in the history of punk and rock music.

    “I think it’s just a perfectly formed piece of art that represents Patti as a writer, as a performer, as a woman leading a band,” Rose says. “And it also pulls in the strengths of the members of her band.”

    After the release of her fourth album, “Waves,” in 1979, Smith quit the music business, left New York for Detroit, married Fred “Sonic” Smith of MC5 fame, and settled down to raise a family.

    But “she was still working. She was still writing. She was still studying,” Rose says. “But she and Fred’s primary focus was raising their kids.”

    In 1988, after nine years away from music, Smith recorded “Dream of Life” and included the popular anthem, “People have the Power,” which Rose says Fred Smith challenged her to write.

    “I love Patti’s story about this. While she was cooking in the kitchen, Fred walked in and said, ‘people have the power; write it.’ And she sat to this task. She started studying speeches of the great orator. And she talked with her trusted friends and colleagues and put this beautiful anthem together that has become something that is being sung in protest marches, and slogans from it appear on protest signs.”

    After he died in 1994, Smith started her journey back into music and began recording and touring in 1996. She recorded five albums of music until 2007. At 75, Patti Smith is still working, writing and performing.

    Rose says of Smith’s legacy: “She is the natural successor to Dylan. She is the one who continued carrying the torch of poetry and the Beats and a little bit of psychedelia and moved it forward. She was the first artist out of CBGBs to get signed to a record contract, which means something. And then she returned, being more prolific in the second act of her public artistic life than she was at the beginning.”

Episode Credits

  • Doug Gordon Host
  • Adam Friedrich Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Technical Director
  • Tyler Ditter Technical Director
  • Steve Gotcher Interviewer
  • Cristela Alonzo Guest
  • Sloane Crosley Guest
  • Caryn Rose Guest

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