Q&A: “Alternatino with Arturo Castro”

Arturo Castro is bringing a neurotic, Latinx millennial spin to comedy, one sketch at a time
Arturo Castro’s new sketch show about Latinx millennial life, Alternatino with Arturo Castro, premiered on June 18 on Comedy Central. Photo Credit: Cara Howe

Arturo Hilario
El Observador

Arturo Castro has drawn attention in his acting career with two of his most high-profile and very distinct roles: as a wide-eyed and flamboyant roommate named Jaimé in “Broad City” to Daniel, a brooding drug kingpin’s son in “Narcos” season 3. Since then, he has very much so broadened his roles, with his future projects including Walt Disney’s live-action adaptation of “Lady and the Tramp” and a police drama called “Edge of Dawn”.

Currently though, he’s reveling in the premiere this week of his new Comedy Central sketch show, “Alternatino with Arturo Castro”. Born from webisodes on Comedy Central, the Tuesday night primetime show follows Castro’s interpretations of the world around him, particularly the viewpoint of a millennial Guatemalan immigrant in New York City who isn’t particularly good at dancing salsa music and would rather discuss types of yarns and brunch rather than Latin American policy.

Some of the sketches in the show deal with broad strokes of experiences, such as awkward first dates, and sketches that are just plain peculiar and hilarious like that of a depressed sentient robot assistant that doesn’t feel confident enough to start a takeover of humanity.

Then there are more specific experiences that deal with the current political climate, from a very darkly comedic view of ICE and children in cages as an organic food advertisement, to Latinx experiences like a lovesick Arturo having his tias come to his apartment on an unannounced emergency mission and make him tamales and getting him to go out dancing with the threat of the chancla.

Some of it makes you think, some of it just makes you laugh, but it’s neither too on the nose, or makes you feel like you’re being scolded with political views, which was important for Castro to get across.

The premise of the show came straight from Castro’s mind, and his actual experience being born and raised in Guatemala and then spending most of his adult life in the big apple.

Recently he talked with me his thoughts on the responsibilities and opportunities he gets having a show and finding the right mix of social commentary and straightforward comedy. (Side note: We do share the same first name so that was a funny introduction over the phone)

Hey Arturo thanks for the time. To start off, where did the show’s premise or its inspiration come from?

I just really didn’t see anybody out there on television that I could identify with really. Every time I saw something about a Latino it was something broad. I just really never saw anything about a neurotic dude that’s a little metro and can’t really dance salsa [like] some of these stereotypes on tv.

I think that comedy can be a really instructional tool and a real empathy building tool you know, so I was just inspired to create something around that.

Although it is a collection of sketches there is the overarching character arch of Arturo throughout the show and his dealing with the duality of identity and misconceptions of being Latinx. How much of his experiences is something that comes from personal experiences?

Most of them. Obviously, they’re exaggerated versions but for example when you’re from Guatemala or you’re from Latin American countries [people] really try to push this “poverty porn” sort of angle on you. “Was it really hard on the streets of Guatemala?” I [say], “Sure, I fell off my bike a couple times.”

It’s either something that happened to me or my writers. A lot of the show is a reflection of things that I was thinking about or mulling over while we were writing it. I gotta give my writers credit too for starting to think in my voice and just dealing with situations like that as well.

I had been dating a girl for two weeks and then it was her birthday, and in the writer’s room I was like, “What the fuck am I gonna do?! Do I buy her a gift?” They were like, “No! It’s too soon.” And then we were like, “Oh my god, we should write it!”

Could you talk about how your writer’s room is? What’s the makeup of the group?

It’s not very big, it’s eight people: Three Latinos; among them one is a woman, one is a LGBTQ+ woman, and another woman, and then the rest are white dudes. And so, that’s just the majority of the package that you get. Because the room was so small, I felt like we were representative – [but] there’s always room to go further.

But the tricky part is in order for somebody to get their writing packet to me, they have to have an agent first. And if they haven’t had the opportunity to write before for a show, they might not get an agent. Sometimes it’s tricky looking for Latino talent in comedy writing. There’s a lot of talent out there but in order to get to our table we definitely need to search. Hopefully we get to do more seasons and go even further with the writer’s room.

How did you and your crew figure out how to tackle such a large diaspora of Latinx culture in 20-minute segments?

We pick the sketches that we love the most, and then it’s like a chess game. We have an idea of what sketches we have in each episode and we try to balance it. Not too much political stuff, and things that are relatable even if you’re not Latino, [mixed] with “being Latin” specific stuff. Then when we get into the editing room…you’re sort of playing around with it.

In the initial process it’s just picking the things that call to us the most. We weren’t really trying to pander, we weren’t really trying [to do things] that were super specific, it’s just the things that I find funny. When I realized that also, having growing up in Guatemala, and spending most of my adult life in New York, there’s some specific perspectives that I have, the more specific I make it sometimes I feel the more relatable it is as opposed to trying to be relatable to everybody. So that’s how we map it out.

It does come off as a show that isn’t pushing certain perspectives in your face, but more like taking you on comedic journey through these different points of view.

We focus on funny first. It’s gotta make us laugh. And then, if we can also put a perspective into it, that’s a double whammy. We’re just trying to make the funniest thing possible. Also, I was never a very political person up until they started caging kids, and those images sort of changed me. I realized that having a platform like this and not speaking on behalf of those that don’t have a voice or are not being heard would have been irresponsible.

And so that’s where a lot of that comes from. But it also comes with a spoonful of sugar, it comes from comedy. Which I think can really be disarming in its message. When somebody talks with something “soapboxy” you’re immediately shut off. When someone makes you laugh while making you think, that’s the best way to receive the message.

And you are tackling things like gun violence and xenophobia creatively in this which is a fine line to manage.

We’re just seeing it from the point of view of this Latino immigrant, my point is that some of these things are completely absurd when you are talking to someone that hasn’t grown up with it. It’s less of angry fist-shaking and more of, “God, this is ridiculous, can we not agree that this is ridiculous?”

Can you talk about the guests that you have in your show? After watching this season, I noticed a few familiar faces that you’ve acted alongside, as well as upcoming talent in comedy.

Listen, I’ve been blessed to have worked in shows in different genres, and I’ve become fans of people I’ve worked with. I’m so happy that they want to work with me as well so whenever an opportunity came up to hire somebody for a specific role I would think of – for example the translator sketch is so funny with the “Narcos” cast. So, we flew Pêpê Rapazote in from Portugal, and then we had the guy from “The Sopranos” who I’ve always admired. These two amazing dramatic actors and putting them in a room with a complete fucking idiot is really funny to me.

Listen, the best gift about having a show is employing people. People get to go to work, they get to go see their families, they get to be on TV, further their careers with something that you created in your head, in a basement in Brooklyn somewhere. That to me is the greatest gift.

Do you have anything in this inaugural season that is your favorite bit?

I’ve had a hand in everything we’ve put forward for sure but the most personal ones I believe, like the quinceañera storyline, was something that we added last minute. We had this storyline about Arturo trying to get into a fancy dating app, like the whole episode was him trying to primp up his profile in order to get accepted. It seemed to me it was funny, but I thought, “Family is super important to me, and there’s nothing that makes me more selfless than fighting for somebody that doesn’t have the opportunity to fight for themselves.” So, the quinceañera thing came together.

Usually these things take rounds of notes, you send them to the network, you rework. And with this, [the network] really believed in my vision and my writers room and I was just really happy that we got to do it. I have to credit one of my writers, Jennifer Burton, she’s really good at capturing heart. And so, me and Jen talked for like 15 minutes and I told her what the concept was, and she gave me a draft the very next day. Then I workshopped the draft and that’s what we shot. So that was very personal to me. That and tias [episode] are the most personal of the interstitials for me.

Onto my last question, what do you hope that viewers get from this show?

I hope that it dispels some of the ignorance, I hope that it creates some empathy. I feel that if you see somebody that doesn’t look like you going through situations that you can relate to; maybe next time you see them it won’t be that foreign to you? And so, my hope is my main theory, that the human experience on a base level is pretty much the same, everybody can relate to being awkward on a first date, or nervous at a job interview, or an idea of you being put on you that you don’t relate to.

So, hopefully that will start a conversation, and bridge the gap a little bit. That would be the dream. And that I get to wear a lot of wigs and put on dresses, that’s fucking sick!

“Alternatino with Arturo Castro” is now showing on Comedy Central.