George Lopez has tackled the late night realm on television, and is bringing a quick wit and humor that ranges far beyond his Latino roots.
From the Print Edition:
George Lopez, January/February 2010
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Adds Paratore, “Part of George’s motivation came while he was working on the Obama campaign in 2008. He felt the energy of this new generation and saw what a multicultural world it had become.”
What Lopez brings to the show—what he brings to his stand-up—is a sense of humor about the culture itself, from a viewpoint that doesn’t usually get the chance to poke this kind of edgy fun at the majority. Born and reared in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, the Mexican-American Lopez frequently refers to himself on the show as a Chicano, a Latino and a Mexican, and he regularly points out that he’s the only Latino hosting a major TV talk show.
Still, Garcia says, it’s wrong to pigeonhole Lopez as a Latino-American comedian: “We’re all Americans,” he says. But he notes that what Lopez’s presence on TV represents is invaluable.
“I don’t have to be from the same ethnic background as Richard Pryor to get his humor,” Garcia says. “It’s the same with George. But culturally, it’s an important thing for young Hispanics and Chicanos to have that role model. He’s someone they can identify with—someone from their neighborhood—and he’s a role model.”
Some early critics of “Lopez Tonight” sniped at Lopez for leaning on ethnicity in his humor. But, Lopez says, that’s part of who he is and it’s always been part of his act.
“Look, race has always had a huge place in humor and in drama,” Lopez says. “Anybody who is anybody—from Richard Pryor to Chris Rock to Cheech & Chong—has had an agenda. Bill Cosby once said, ‘I don’t know what the secret to success is but I do know the secret to failure: trying to please everybody.’ ”
The key to Lopez’s humor is his empathy for human foibles. “One thing that stands out is his ability to witness things the average person wouldn’t pick up on and find humor in them,” Marc Anthony says. “He studies the nuances of life and the crazy shit that people do. He’s aware of life constantly going on around him.”
Paratore recalls running into Lopez in Chicago in Neiman-Marcus’s men’s store a few years ago, when Paratore was working in syndication and Lopez was in town to perform.
“That night at the show, he did 10 minutes on a funny guy in the shoe department,” Paratore says.
During more than 30 years as a stand-up comedian and actor, Lopez has worked in the solitary manner of most comics: writing material by himself, trying it out onstage, refining it through repeated performances to find out where the laugh is and how to get it reliably. But the talk show demands four fresh monologues a week, most of them running eight to 10 minutes at the top of the show.
It’s a massive amount of new material on a daily and weekly basis. But Lopez is famous for going full-out in his stand-up routine; as a headliner, he doesn’t feel as though he’s given an audience its money’s worth until he has been on at least 70 minutes, as he noted in his autobiography, Why You Crying? Still, the nightly monologue is a daily source of pressure on Lopez and the team of writers he’s assembled.
“I have them writing the structure of the monologue and then I add the flavor,” Lopez says. “It does change my own stand-up. We’re always going over it, after the show, first thing in the morning. Essentially, those guys write a bunch of jokes that aren’t connected. I make it smooth.”
“It feels like watching a great comedian at work when he does that nightly monologue,” says TBS’s Wright.
It’s markedly different from writing “George Lopez,” the popular sitcom in which he starred for five seasons and which still airs in syndication.
“The sitcom was about spending five days rehearsing a 22-minute show,” Lopez says. “This is about writing that hour for tonight, doing it and having it be gone. It keeps the moment fresh and connected, knowing you’re running against the clock. I’m up early every morning. I’m not going to be sleeping until 10 with this show; I’m not even sleeping until eight.”
By now, Lopez’s history is well-known to his fans, who have watched him turn an early life of hardship and poverty into a comedy act that draws on his own experiences: abandoned by his father before his first birthday and his mother by his 10th, reared by a strict, unaffectionate grandmother whose tough-love approach left the young George bereft of self-esteem. Finding an outlet in stand-up comedy, he struggled for almost a decade, finding breaks where he could get them.
He was launched on “The Arsenio Hall Show” in 1989, where he guested 16 times in its five-year run: “He and I became friendly, which was amazing, because I was just starting out and he was . . . Arsenio! I was spending my whole check on new clothes so I’d look good. And he’d call me into his dressing room everytime and we’d talk. It was like a ritual.
“I didn’t think about being famous or popular. Getting on ‘The Tonight Show’ was my ultimate dream and I made it in 1991.”
But while Lopez was working regularly and making money, he wasn’t feeling the satisfaction he thought he would.
“I was playing Caroline’s in New York and was having a horrible week,” Lopez recalls. “This was 1996 and I wasn’t comfortable in my own skin. I was doing stand-up I didn’t believe in just to make money. None of it meant anything but it got the bills paid. But nothing was really happening for me.
“Chris Rock’s manager came to see me and told me afterward, ‘Nothing about your act tells me anything about you. You need to get more in touch with that.’ ”
Lopez took the advice to heart and began talking about his own life: about growing up poor and Chicano in America. In his pinchpenny, withholding grandmother, he found his muse: “Whenever I went onstage and started talking about her, there it was,” he says. “I locked into something that wasn’t even Mexican in its viewpoint. It was about the social order, about the economics.”
He began to develop a following, including actress Sandra Bullock. She happened to see Lopez perform at a point when she and producing partners were trying to find the face for a show that would speak to a Latino audience. She brought Lopez on board, building a breakthrough sitcom around him and his life.
“George Lopez” was a hit, though ABC, the network that aired it, kept moving it into new time slots, including pitting it against ratings powerhouse “American Idol.” When ABC announced it was canceling the show in 2007 after five seasons (replacing it with “Cavemen,” a show ABC itself owned, unlike “George Lopez”), Lopez took it personally: “TV just got a whole lot whiter,” he said then, noting that the network had put 170 people out of work who had been employed by the show.
Meanwhile, the “George Lopez” show itself—or rather, his dedication to it—nearly killed him, literally. Suffering from a degenerative disease that had already cost him one kidney, Lopez waited until after the final episode taped for the 2004-05 season before undergoing a kidney transplant.
“My kidney was so bad it wasn’t even showing up on an ultrasound,” Lopez recalls. “But I knew that, if I stopped before the end of the season, there would be no one knocking on my door. I’d go on dialysis and they’d cancel the show.
“It was tough rolling the dice on my own life like that. A lot of people said, ‘You’re too sick.’ I was so toxic I couldn’t sleep. Nothing about me was fresh. But I went to work everyday. What kept me going was that I was already doing something I never thought I’d do—a sitcom. I didn’t want to lose that.”
The kidney for the transplant came from his wife, Ann: “Now that’s a wife,” cracked Arsenio Hall during a visit to “Lopez Tonight.” “His wife gave him a kidney. I can’t even get my woman to drive me to the airport.”
In solid health now, Lopez takes his relaxation from his regular golf game and his enjoyment of fine cigars. He’s even gone so far as to put his imprint on a personal line of smokes: the “Lopez Tonight” cigar that will be available this year.
“It’s not a novelty cigar. It will be a good cigar in different sizes,” Lopez says. “I smoke when I play golf, but I also smoke when I’m by myself and it makes me feel like I’m not by myself. If you have a cigar, it’s like a little bit of company."
At 48, Lopez is aware that he’s approaching the end of his fifth decade, the big 5-0: “I’m like Sarah Palin. I can see it from my front porch,” he jokes. “I even said the other day, ‘Not bad for a guy who’s almost 50.’ That’s insane. I’m about today, not about tomorrow.”
Four times a week, “today” means creating fresh and exciting TV on a nightly basis. Lopez is thankful that his years on the road gave him most of the tools to handle the job.
“That movie, Slumdog Millionaire, was about how the answers come to you at different times in your life and you have to go through those experiences in order to have those answers,” Lopez says. “When I was going through the hard years of stand-up, I got really good at being funny quick. I was funny in 30 seconds because there was no warming up with a lot of crowds. And that helps me now.
“When I was doing the sitcom, I used to get notes from the network that would make me want to strangle people. Instead, I would throw out the script and rewrite it on deadline to get it right. These are all things that make it easier to do a talk show.
“I never imagined I’d be hosting a talk show. Now I want that reward of winning in this genre. That’s my goal. I’m trying to be the king of late night—el rey de la noche. That would be historical.”
Contributing editor Marshall Fine’s work can be found on his Web site,
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Eric Walker — Charlston , WV, USA, — August 30, 2011 8:49am ET
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