Alfonso Portela on race, burritos and jokes
How Alfonso Portela balances cultural observations and characters in one of the city’s funniest acts
It's not a great night at the Ooley Theater. Just a fourth of the seats in the tiny community theater are taken on this particular Thursday, and there's this older white dude in the front row who won't laugh at any of Alfonso Portela's jokes.
The Sacramento comic's style employs characters, accents and fiery dialogue in the middle of clever stories and sometimes absurd situations. But it's a simple setup and punchline that finally gets the stubbornly stoic guy.
“My girlfriend calls my penis a super burrito,” Portela says, both hands on the mic. “Because I always have to finish it for her.”
The man in the front row keels over, roaring for the first time all night. But the joke that precedes the penis joke is actually stronger, smarter—but it doesn't always go over well with the older white guys.
It's a bit about Portela's very real hankering for Chipotle while in San Francisco's Mission District, and his brother's resulting disgust. Where was Portela's Mexican pride? Well, it was later found inside a Chipotle, watching a college-aged white girl struggle to wrap his burrito. He sneers: “Do you get my people's struggle now? Do you get it? Does it make it sense to you, Claire?”
If it doesn’t land, he segues to the other burrito.
“It’s a solid joke. The crowds dig it. It’s about my penis. It’s got everything going for it,” Portela says, laughing.
Portela isn’t a political comic. At all. But when he does address race and culture, it’s refreshing. It’s not charged with anger. And it’s not merely making fun of white people—something seen so often in the Sacramento comedy scene that it’s almost cliché.
Most local stand-up shows feature a string of white dudes, give or take a woman or person of color. Despite the pattern, Portela says the scene is fairly diverse—certainly more than it was when he first started four years ago. Still, people come to shows with their own expectations.
“Sometimes, an audience that would appreciate my not-whiteness is then immediately disappointed by my apparent whiteness, despite not being white,” he says. “They’re like, ’This isn’t the Mexican dude I wanted.’”
See burrito joke.
He has a white power joke that—you guessed it—doesn’t always go over well with white audiences. And a gay joke that’s hit-and-miss, though not for the reasons you’re probably thinking. Instead, it flips the narrative: A dad is really disappointed in his successful, heterosexual sons, purely because they’re not gay.
With pained facial expressions and passionate snarls, Portela’s performance really sells the irony. So, when audiences wouldn’t respond at first, insecurity grew. But Portela doesn’t let it bother him anymore. He’s come a long way since the informal start of his comedy career. When he was 12 years old, he’d write jokes for him and his brother, then they’d perform and critique each other—even though Portela was behind everything. As an adult, he became known around town for more than comedy: he’s a drummer in Modern Man and a skilled barista at Insight Coffee Roasters, a champion of latte art competitions.
Looking ahead, Portela wants to rely less on character jokes and ramp up the punchy humor.
“Anything that could be Tweeted—except I don’t Tweet,” he says.
That super burrito joke does, indeed, come in at less than 140 characters.