Arturo Castro's “Alternatino": Comedy that's "leaving a little blood in the water"

Salon talks Comedy Central's newest star about good intentions and sketch comedy from a Latinx perspective

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published June 19, 2019 6:59PM (EDT)

"Alternatino with Arturo Castro" (Cara Howe)
"Alternatino with Arturo Castro" (Cara Howe)

Arturo Castro is accustomed to wearing different faces. Before he created his sketch series “Alternatino with Arturo Castro,” currently airing Tuesday nights at 10:30 p.m. on Comedy Central, Castro hosted a series on Guatemalan television. “Broad City” viewers know him as Jaime, Ilana’s long-suffering roommate and friend. If you watch “Narcos” you likely recognize him as David Rodriguez, the son of a Cali cartel kingpin.

But in “Alternatino,” Castro’s hilarious new sketch series, the audience has a chance to get to know him better while perhaps becoming more informed about the Latinx experience. Each episode is built around interstitial skits fictionalizing scenes from his real life, playing upon how awkward it can be to exist as a person of color in white dominated spaces.

We watch “Alternatino” Arturo deal with girls whose concept of his identity is rooted in stereotypes surrounding Latinx men and expectations of testosterone fueled aggressiveness.

We see Arturo at parties contending with fellow guests probing him with questions about Latin America, presuming that he’s Mexican and therefore he’ll have more knowledge about his birth country’s oil industry than they will. Castro is Guatemalan, and his fictionalized persona is about as familiar with geopolitics as they are. In reality, all he wants to do is discuss his needlepointing hobby.

“At these parties people just try to relate to you in the most basic ways that they can,” he explained to Salon in a recent phone interview. “Sometimes I feel like people want to feel really good about themselves, so they find the one person who looks different and start by showing them how woke they are, you know? But I'm just trying to get to the Camembert cheese, you know?”

With “Alternatino” Castro isn’t merely introducing himself to American audiences. He’s also placing Americans, white Americans specifically, inside the viewpoint of Latinx men and women living in a world that both appropriates and vilifies bilingual cultures while treating the Latin diaspora as a monolith. His character frequently says “honest hour” in conversations when he’s about to make a truthful confession, but that term also describes the series overall ethos. (That is, save for the fact that episodes clock in at 30 minutes.)

All of the comedy in “Alternatino” comes from a place of good intention, and the series is at its funniest when those great intentions go awry. In Tuesday’s premiere, for example, a musical dancing gang styled to spoof the Sharks from “West Side Story” shows up for a dance rumble only to realize their adversaries are a bunch of torch-wielding white supremacists armed with automatic weapons.

In another scene he’s a father who attempts to have “the talk” with his son only to discover the boy is frighteningly more versed in the complexities of modern sexuality and gender identity than he is. Castro might play a Danny Trejo-style criminal type in one moment and a drunk destructive party girl in the next. Every scene has something to say about human foibles and politics.

And if its style feels similar to “Key & Peele,” that is not a matter of coincidence; that show’s executive producer Jay Martel serves as showrunner for "Alternatino."

Like the widely-beloved "Key & Peele," Castro’s comedy is never accusatory or bitter.  Instead he plays with common assumptions and misperceptions that arise in exchanges in which strangers, attempting to build bridges and connections, discover they’re starting with the wrong materials.

Our incorrect assumptions about one another go both ways in Castro’s sketches and those interstitials drawn from his real life. Castro is as likely to find humor in dark political situations as he is to pull it from the types of botched interactions everyone experiences. In every episode, though, he makes himself the butt of the joke.  “I'm an equal opportunity ridiculer. Everybody gets a little bit, you know?”

To that end, when I opened our recent phone conversation by asking, as a joke, whether real Arturo shares “Alternatino” Arturo’s affinity for the thread and yarn arts, he quickly corrects me.

“Candlestick making is my ridiculous hobby,” he revealed.  “Listen, my mom is a perfumist and my sister used to work at this sort of like high-end candle selling spot, so all my gifts to my dates from the ages of like 12 to 18 were candles. Now as a grown man I dabble in making candles.”

“So that's sort of why I get made fun of now,” he continued. “But get to know me guys, you know what I'm saying? So what if I dabble in candle making and a little ceramics? Do I enjoy a pumpkin spice latte? Yes I do! Do I not bleed red?”

Castro is a very much a performer worth knowing, particularly right now before he experiences what would seem to be an inevitable glow-up. And in our wide-ranging conversation, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity, we discussed the ways that “Alternatino” explores numerous versions of Latinx identity, challenged him to write his vulnerabilities into his show, and how he feels about being from a place described to viewers by Fox as a “Mexican country.”

You're kind of a man of mystery at this point.

The truth is — hot take for you — I'm actually Wilmer Valderrama under a new identity, so I'm just trying to revamp you know, my career, post "That '70s Show." So that's our secret, OK?

Do people really confuse you for Wilmer Valderrama?

When “Broad City” first came out people in the subway would be like, "I love you in ‘That '70s Show!’" And I'd be like, "Wrong Latino, but thank you for the sentiment!"

I did appreciate the sentiment. He's lovely and not a bad looking dude.

Let’s talk about your show. I really love the way that each episode is built around a loose plotline that includes scenes from what seems to be a fictionalized version of your life. I've got to imagine that some of those scenarios came out of real situations.

Oh, most of them did. Like all of them. When I was writing the show I had just gone through a breakup and I had just gone to a party where everybody kept confusing Guatemala for Peru, and you start seeing that in the scripts that we started developing, how much they imitate real life. And literally I was dating a girl for two weeks and suddenly it was her birthday. I had just come to the writers’ room freaking out about getting her something — this is in a later episode called 'Too Soon Birthday.' And it was like, do you get her a gift? I don't know, it's two weeks in, you know? Seeing a version of your real life out there, it's sort of nerve-racking and fun.

Just a few years ago, attempting to find success with a sketch show on television kind of seemed like a dangerous proposition. Not many sketch shows have gone the distance, certainly not on Comedy Central. Then “Key & Peele” came on and did quite well, followed by “Inside Amy Schumer.” So what is it like to debut your show in the wake of those two successful but very different sketch series?

Well, our head writer was the head writer for “Key & Peele” . . . . Obviously those two shows are huge influences on me, and Dave Chappelle's show was, like, huge for me. But I can only make a sketch show from my point of view, and the version that I respond to. So they’re massive shoes to fill, but I just sort of tried to make my own shoe.

More than anything I don't think I've seen a perspective of somebody from my culture represented this way before. I've been watching television since I was a kid and I've never seen somebody that I can really relate to. So I was just trying to create something that's an alternative version of what the narrative is out there about what it means to be Latinx.

That's a crucial addition to the field. And one thing that's been wonderful to witness in the first three episodes is that you cover topics concerning racial and cultural stereotyping that everybody kind of is talking about now or is at least familiar with, but I've never seen the expressed in the way that you do here.

I figured the best thing I could do for representation is normalize it, you know? We tried to find central things in the interstitials that people can relate to no matter what you look like. But they obviously come from the perspective of having grown up in Guatemala and then moving to New York when I was 19 or 20.

I didn't know I was different until I moved to the States. It seemed like everybody had categories where they placed you. So I was just a dude that liked brunch and was terrible at dancing, but looking around I was like, ‘Oh, I need to dress better and pretend I care about salsa.’ Through the show I was just trying to show this new version of what I believe life is. I hadn't seen that perspective before.

There are things you can do to dispel ignorance through comedy that I think “Key & Peele,” Amy Schumer and Dave Chappelle did so well. Hopefully can achieve that for my community as well.

I want to drill down on something that you just said: ‘your community.’  I don’t know if you saw the Fox News where there was a graphic referencing ‘the Mexican countries.’ I think they were referring to Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

‘The Mexican countries’! I found that super funny. You know, there is so much, I guess a year ago or so … when Trump was like, ‘oh you know one of those sh*t countries,’ I found that fascinating. On the other side of it, when I moved to New York, I remember having such a strong sense of national pride of like, ‘you're Mexican, I'm Guatemalan! You're Costa Rican.' You know what I mean? There was such a distinct difference.

What I'm trying to play with now is we have more commonality among smaller countries than we have differences. I think a big reason why the community is not as united as it could be is that we get so caught up in this minutia. And I don't fear or think that the community is aware of how much political power they have. Like, 24% of movie tickets are bought by the Latinx community.

If even 10% of that population went, ‘Listen, I'm not gonna buy another movie ticket until I see myself represented well,’ Hollywood would listen. I'm trying to get a platform in which to talk about these issues and inspire more unity within it.

When I saw the three "Mexican countries" I laughed and cried inside, because that's what people think. That's the problem, that there was some dude in a graphic that was like oh yeah, Mexican countries, whatever. It was sort of like a Freudian slip.

In shows like yours there always seem to be a couple of characters that, because of audience response or because the creator loved doing them, they end up recurring. Is there a character we’ll meet in this season that you can foresee becoming a regular and getting a few sequels?

Oh, Jecca for sure. I wanna play her for the rest of my life, she's so fun. Jecca is based on a few people I know.

First of all I had to shave my legs for the first time in my life, and I gotta give people that shave their legs credit because it takes a long time and it's so hard to do. How do you get the back of the knee? It's like acrobatics! But to me it was just to fun to play a character who's only job is to like wreck an event. Everything you can do for shock value, I did. I'd love to see her again for sure.

Let’s return to the topic of representation and what you were saying about how the Latinx point of view has not been represented very much or well in popular culture, in general but certainly not in sketch comedy a whole lot. It sounds like it could be kind of a double-edged sword, in the sense that you have endless opportunity to do any number of sketches that lampoon politics and stereotypes. But the other side of that endless opportunity is the tyranny of choice. There are too many topics to cover in just one season. So what were the ones that you determined you had to touch upon?

I've never been a very political person, to be honest, until they started caging kids. Once I saw that, it would have been really irresponsible for me not to speak on it. But as far as there were Latinx issues that I thought we needed to cover, it all happened very organically. We were responding to the sudden wave of hostility in politics that came towards the community.

And we were like, ‘all right, so how can we put this on its head?’ Like the immigration plot, we said, ‘All right, let’s talk about every fear that people have about immigrants.’ And so we tried to put it on its head to show how ridiculous it is.

But we also tried to balance it a bunch because it would be super easy to make the whole show just completely, specifically Latinx, but we wanted to create sketches that you could laugh at, that were just funny for funny’s sake. We have one coming up about Macklemore that I find hilarious.

We wanted to strike a balance: I wanted to deal with family, I wanted to deal with misconceptions, and I wanted to deal with what is it like to be an actor, or what auditions are out there for people that look like me. So those are three central themes that we wanted to touch upon and I'm glad that we did.

The series says a lot about expectations and assumptions foisted on people of color in social situations, like with dating and the party scenes. That's one of its great strengths.

Yeah, I believe that comedy is such an empathy building tool. I think anything with a message is so much easier when it comes with comedy. You’ll notice all the sketches on the show are well-intentioned. It's not coming from a mean place or a berating place. Thankfully we have a diverse room of writers so we all put our stories together like, ‘all right, so what's the first annoying thing people do to you at a party, or to try to relate to you at a party?’

I believe philosophically that a media truth has a sound to it. Like an artist’s truth has a sound to it — it sounds different, right? I think leaving a little blood in the water is what you owe your audience.

So we had sort of uncomfortable . . . well, not uncomfortable conversations, but we went to our place of comfort and pushed beyond that. Kind of asking, all right, do I want to expose this part of myself? Do I want the audience to see me as a heartbroken dude or do I want to show how uncomfortable I really feel at some of these parties? And the answer always wound up being yes. So we just tried to treat it with humor and good intention but also to be informative.

I love that we have allies and that people that mean well. But let me teach you what the language is for that.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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