You may not know the name Carlos Alazraqui, but you've undoubtedly heard him.
The Los Angeles-based stand-up comic, who's appearing at the Irvine Improv tonight and Saturday, provides the voice for a certain talking chihuahua with big, soulful eyes and a yen for fast food. You know the one:
"Yo quiero Taco Bell," Alazraqui, as the tiny Taco Bell dog, said so memorably in a commercial that took the nation by storm when it debuted in November 1997.
The 30-second spot propelled the moderately known comic to new heights.
"It gave me national recognition," the comedian, 37, said. "It got me on 'Hollywood Squares,' 'Extra' and television interview shows. I had radio stations calling me from all over the country. The chihuahua definitely took me into a different arena."
Alazraqui was speaking this week from a recording studio in North Hollywood, where he was taking a break and clearly munching on something. No, it wasn't a taco: "I'm eating a bagel," he said.
The comic has carved out a successful sideline as a voice-over actor for a string of animated television cartoons, including the voice of Rocko on Nickelodeon's "Rocko's Modern Life" and the one he was working on at the studio, "Detention." (He's the voice of Gug, "a small but tough Latino kid," on the Saturday morning cartoon that airs on the WB network.)
But it's the tiny chihuahua that has proven to be a gold mine for the comic.
Alazraqui, who began doing stand-up full time a year after graduating from Cal State Sacramento with a degree in recreation administration in 1986, was one of about 150 actors who auditioned for the voice of the Taco Bell dog.
By the time Alazraqui's turn arrived, the director told him she wanted something different from the high-pitched voices that most of the other actors were doing.
"I just kind of dropped the bass on my own voice a little bit, and quite frankly didn't think anything was too special about it," he recalled. "Other than pronouncing the words correctly, I didn't really put too much spin on it until I got the callback audition."
That's when he saw a videotape of the commercial for the first time and one of the producers told him to play it "really cool and tough but in hushed tones" when the little dog passes by a female chihuahua and walks up to guy eating a taco and then utters his immortal line.
Since then, Alazraqui has done a couple of dozen Taco Bell commercials, and more are on the horizon. Complaints from Latino activists who find the commercials offensive have died down, he said. "Most people, Latino or otherwise, enjoy that commercial."
Alazraqui obviously can't ignore the Taco Bell dog in his act.
"I do a couple of the slogans--'Yo quiero Taco Bell,' 'Viva gorditas,' 'Here lizard, lizard,' and everybody likes 'Drop the chalupa' " he said. "I also talk about how my parents reacted to my being the Taco Bell dog and how proud they were.
"When my mom heard about it, she became Taco Bell central. She was the headquarters of any and all information about the Taco Bell chihuahua. Whenever I pick up my mom at the Burbank airport, there's always two female flight attendants with her: 'Oh, so you're the Taco Bell dog.' "
Alazraqui describes his stand-up act as high-energy and character-driven rather than merely observational.
"I talk about my own twist on things," he said. "Some of the things are darkly skewed, some are non sequiturs, some are bizarre. I do Tony Montana [Al Pacino's coked-up Cuban] from 'Scarface' as a children's birthday clown. And I talk about the sick and twisted origins of the merry-go-round: Let's take a proud stallion grazing in a field and skewer him with a giant pole right through his belly."
Alazraqui also talks more about his parents, who are from Argentina. (His mom now lives in Alameda, his father in El Paso.)
"My parents were diametrical opposites growing up," he said. "My mom was this fiery Latino woman shot out of a cannon every morning, and my dad was British-educated, Mr. Mellow. My dad does not have an accent at all; my mom can peel wallpaper with an 'H.'
"It was confusing growing up, kind of like being raised by Charo and Gandhi."
Carlos Alazraqui co-headlines with Anthony Griffith at the Irvine Improv, 4255 Campus Drive. 8:30 and 10:30 p.m. today, 8 and 10:30 p.m. Saturday. $12 both nights. Closed on Halloween. (949) 854-5455.