-By Ken Plume
With the 4th season of Reno 911 premiering on Comedy Central, the 3rd season hitting your local DVD emporium, and a major motion picture on the way in the form of Reno 911: Miami, we got a chance to have a nice long chat with the man behind one of Reno’s finest, Carlos Alazraqui, who plays Deputy James Garcia.
Alazraqui is also a standup comedian and an established voiceover artist, starting with Rocko in Rocko’s Modern Life and including the legendary Taco Bell Chihuahua.
Be sure to also swing by his official website at www.CarlosAlazraqui.com
KEN PLUME: I interviewed Tom Lennon last year… a big, massive, career-comprehensive, all his secrets revealed kind of thing…
CARLOS ALAZRAQUI: I don’t have many secrets…
PLUME: In which he revealed that really, you’re his favorite.
ALAZRAQUI: Oh yeah?
ALAZRAQUI: Why not?
PLUME: Of course he would say that, right?
PLUME: How could he not say that? ‘Cause clearly you’re the audience’s favorite.
ALAZRAQUI: That’s right. It’s unchallenged. That fact is unchallenged.
PLUME: Until it is, it is completely unchallenged.
ALAZRAQUI: Exactly. The Earth is round, and I’m everybody’s favorite.
PLUME: You know what? I would put money on it right now.
PLUME: Maybe not once challenged, but right now.
ALAZRAQUI: Exactly, right now before it’s challenged.
PLUME: Looking over your career, it’s interesting that primarily you’ve done standup and voice work…
PLUME: I’m assuming standup came first…
ALAZRAQUI: Standup comedy, yeah. And then in ‘92, I was living in San Francisco from ‘87 to ‘94. In ‘92, there was a local audition for a little project called Rocko’s Modern Life. Joe Murray and Nick Jennings, now both working solid in the cartoon industry. I auditioned for Rocko’s Modern Life and got it.
PLUME: And became Rocko…
ALAZRAQUI: And became Rocko.
PLUME: What was it initially about standup comedy that drew you in?
ALAZRAQUI: Um, I think just the attention, you know, and thinking I could be famous and big and attract women and all those kinda things. It wasn’t necessarily that I would transition to anything worthwhile per se, but then, there was a possibility of sitcoms and all those sort of things, and making money while not having a real job….
PLUME: This is during the late 80s comedy boom…
ALAZRAQUI: Yeah. It was pretty fascinating in San Francisco - just a wealth of talent, you know? You had Tom Kenny and Warren Thomas and Rob Schneider and Chris Titus and Michael Prichard. and Robin Williams would drop in every once in a while, and you had Paula Poundstone, Marsha Warfield and… all these people. It was amazing.
PLUME: At that point in time in San Francisco, what was the club scene like?
ALAZRAQUI: It was amazing. It was at its pinnacle in 1989. We had five clubs going. We had the Holy City Zoo, the Other Café, the Punch Line, the Improv, and Cobbs.
PLUME: I’m assuming that it was practically straight out of school that you started.
ALAZRAQUI: In college, actually. I started in Sacramento State. I was doing a little standup there. I did some mime with the teacher, and I got in a comedy duo at a place called the Metro Bar and Grill. Worked on that for about a year. Then I did some hosting at Laughs Unlimited. And then in ‘87 I decided to move to San Francisco.
PLUME: So what was the duo act like?
ALAZRAQUI: It was fun. It was a lot of stupid sketches. We did William F. Buckley interviewing Floyd the Barber from the Andy Griffith Show on Central American policy.
PLUME: And which one did you play?
ALAZRAQUI: I played Floyd the Barber. We did Nixon talking to a gorilla at the zoo. We did Ronald Reagan getting pulled over for a speeding ticket by Jimmy Carter. You know, at that time it was the mid 80s… you know, ‘85. It was very SNL-like. One of our favorite bits was singing “White Christmas” by Devo. Put bowls on our heads and fake glasses and did this little “White Christmas” parody. And so we just did a bunch of little, quick little sketches.
PLUME: I have to know - was your Floyd the Barber based on the original Floyd, or Eugene Levy doing Floyd the Barber?
ALAZRAQUI: It was based on the original. Even though I was a huge SCTV fan, it was still based on the original from the show.
PLUME: So does any footage exist of any of these shows?
ALAZRAQUI: I might have a video or two somewhere. It does still exist.
PLUME: When was the last time you actually looked at them?
ALAZRAQUI: Oh, probably six, eight years ago or something.
PLUME: So looking back at those videos and those performances, how would you view the performer you were then?
ALAZRAQUI: Amateurish. But fun. Lotta energy. “This kid’s got a lot of energy.” Very green. But good energy.
PLUME: What was your confidence level like at that time?
ALAZRAQUI: Pretty good, because I’m fairly athletic. I played soccer and I ran track and, you know, I had a cute girlfriend… so I was pretty confident. Although not confident to be on my own, so I liked being in a duo.
PLUME: At what point did you realize the duo was something you’d moved beyond?
ALAZRAQUI: I think around ‘86, when I got a chance to be in this comedy competition by myself, because my partner didn’t like the owner of the club and I was doing pretty well. And that’s the point I realized, like, “Yeah, I could probably go farther on my own.” ‘Cause my work ethic was a little stronger at that time.
PLUME: Did you get the feeling that it was more of a hobby to him?
ALAZRAQUI: Yeah. At the time. Didn’t have the drive, I thought.
PLUME: And where is he now?
ALAZRAQUI: I don’t know. Mark Frazee. Very talented guy. Played music and really just a cool guy and, I don’t know. I think he’s travelin’ elsewhere to maybe be creative in different ways and maybe be a parent, at that time, and pursue that kind of… life.
PLUME: So this is like the third partner that Penn & Teller had in the early 80s.
PLUME: How big a decision was it for you to actually make the move up to San Francisco?
ALAZRAQUI: It was big. It was my friend and I, John Boyle. We were the first pioneers from Sacramento to move to San Francisco. I think we led a wave after that. People knew that you could do it, you know? And it was big. It was February of ‘87, and I had gone into the city to visit a friend, and fell in love with it. Even though I used to go as a kid all the time. And having him go with me was great. We lived in this little converted garage apartment, and it was just dark and dank and moldy all the time, and it was probably 700 square feet. Two people in one separate room with a small moldy bathroom and about two cabinets and a kitchenette.
PLUME: So you really felt like a performer at that point.
ALAZRAQUI: Oh yeah. We had a Russian landlord named Boris. It was awesome, man.
PLUME: See, that’s the kind of things that inform and forge a performer.
ALAZRAQUI: Yeah, and I was working at two different health clubs at the time, ’cause my major was in recreation administration. I had worked in a health club and done my internships there. So I was working behind the sports desk and teaching Nautilus, so I’d ride by bike across Golden Gate Park and teach there on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and Monday/Wednesday/Fridays I’d work the sports desk at Telegraph Hill Club. Which is a really nice health club.
PLUME: How much actual performance time would you be able to fit into that schedule?
ALAZRAQUI: Five days a week. ‘Cause I’d do that in the morning, take naps in the afternoon, and go out at night.
PLUME: How would you describe your act at that point?
ALAZRAQUI: Getting better, you know? ‘Cause I was emulating all the San Francisco acts that I was watching at the time, so it was getting better and more clever, because the San Francisco scene demanded it.
PLUME: What would the act actually consist of? Was it more observational, was it character-based, or…
ALAZRAQUI: Character-based. I remember doing Larry Bud Melman singing “I’m So Excited” by the Pointer Sisters, when Larry Bud Melman was big.
PLUME: Oh come on, when did he ever stop being big?
PLUME: What were the audiences like at that point? Because obviously the comedy boom was going strong at that time, and a lot of people really hadn’t been exposed to standup, and particularly that sort of unique brand of standup that wasn’t just joke telling.
ALAZRAQUI: The audience was collected, very discerning. They could be tough if you were at the Holy City Zoo. Unforgiving. If you weren’t clever enough, you know? So they were good, but hard sometimes.
PLUME: Were there any times that they actually rocked your confidence?
ALAZRAQUI: Yeah… yeah. The thing to do in San Francisco was to perform at the Other Café or out of town in Napa, or in Walnut Creek and feel good, and then go to the Holy City Zoo and do your second set that night and get shot down to earth again. ‘Cause it’s this teeny little pub with just wine and beer, it’s where Robin Williams was the legend, and it sat about 80 people, and it’s mostly comics and people off the street, and so it was a hard, hard room to do. You couldn’t be bigger than the room. So you’re stuff some times would not fly at the Zoo.
PLUME: Is there anything that you still regret didn’t fly, or did you eventually get everything to work out in some way?
ALAZRAQUI: Nah, but the things that didn’t fly I don’t regret ’cause it made me stronger. A better comedian, I think.
PLUME: How caustic would the audience get? Were they a rowdy audience, or sort of apathetic…
ALAZRAQUI: The silence was bad. It’s like “mmmmmm”… or comics talking. You know? So it was not the rowdiness, it was the lack of noise from the audience that frightened me more.
PLUME: So, really, an apathetic response was more terrifying and demoralizing.
PLUME: Every comedy scene seems to have one - who was the comic that everyone looked up to as the one that was gonna rocket out of the scene?
ALAZRAQUI: Gosh, you know, we all thought Tom Kenny at the time… Warren Thomas was brilliant. Jeremy Kramer. Rob Schneider a little bit…
PLUME: That was a year or two before he was snatched for SNL, wasn’t it?
ALAZRAQUI: Yes. Dana Gould, we thought was brilliant. Dana writes for The Simpsons now.
PLUME: Was there any point where you actually considered a different path? Or was it once you had actually gotten into that world, that was the only thing you were gonna continue to pursue?
ALAZRAQUI: That was something I was gonna continue to pursue.
PLUME: Was there any point that you felt like walking away?
ALAZRAQUI: I think doing some of those first road gigs. When you’re an emcee on the road and making no money, and people love the other acts more and you’re lonely. There were times like that, like in Albuquerque, when I was sleeping on a couch and spending more than I was making.
PLUME: And who’s couch was it, the manager’s? Is that one of those comedy flop houses that Bill Maher described?
ALAZRAQUI: As it were, yeah. All the other acts would come over and smoke pot or get high, and I was totally clean, maybe a drink or two, and I’d have bronchitis with no health plan so I’d have to wait ’til I worked in San Diego and go across the border to get arithromiacin I knew what I needed - I just couldn’t afford a doctor.
PLUME: How wonderful.
PLUME: And I know the feeling. As a freelance writer, I know the feeling.
ALAZRAQUI: Oh yeah.
PLUME: There must have also been that kind of feeling towards the early 90s, when the scene started drying up.
ALAZRAQUI: Yeah. Yeah, because there were fewer clubs, the competition was greater. So you really had to do well and there was a lot more pressure.
PLUME: How much of a break, then, was Rocko?
ALAZRAQUI: Incredible. You know? Just that I could somehow break into this world and make money doing this. It was fantastic.
PLUME: Now was that the first time you had actually done voice work?
ALAZRAQUI: Yeah, pretty much.
PLUME: So it was really just hitting the ball out of the park on the first up to bat.
ALAZRAQUI: Yeah. Luck.
PLUME: What was the learning curve for you going into a studio for the first time?
ALAZRAQUI: Um, pretty severe. I was working with - you know, it was Tom Kenny’s first cartoon, but we were working with Charlie Adler, who’s now a really big director, and he was an amazing voiceover guy at the time, and he was just awesome. So I learned from him really quickly, and watching Tom and the other actors that we had. So that was a real fun, organic experience, Rocko’s Modern Life, and actually Joe Murray and Mark O’Hare and Tom Kenny and I and Doug Lawrence, from Rocko, are now working on Camp Lazlo on Cartoon Network.
PLUME: And you can definitely feel the same vibe to that.
ALAZRAQUI: Yeah, we know each other so well. Rocko’s very special. I learned a lot very quickly.
PLUME: And you also have a writing credit on Rocko, right?
ALAZRAQUI: Uh, I may have a small writing credit for a bowling episode we did.
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