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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“And they’re very easily broken into,” laughs his friend, actor Andy Garcia, adding, “George is very generous with his cigars.”
But it wasn’t always so. Lopez recalls a time in the late 1980s, when he was still a struggling comedian and a novice cigar consumer. While in Toronto for a gig, he spent $100 for three Cuban cigars, then brought them with him to Las Vegas to see a friend’s show at a comedy club. At the club, he lit up one of his Cubans, instantly capturing the attention of everyone he was with. When a friend asked if he had another Cuban he could spare, Lopez said he’d get one from his car. As he exited the club, he started thinking fast.
“No way I was giving that guy one of my Cubans,” Lopez says with wide eyes. So he went into a nearby gift shop and bought a Dutch Masters: “I trimmed the edges and took it out of the plastic and gave it to him,” Lopez says, chuckling at the memory. “He lit it and got a smile on his face and said, ‘Yeah, I’m getting a little buzzed. I’m getting a little light-headed.’ ”
Lopez himself could be excused for being a little light-headed due to the successful premiere of “Lopez Tonight” on TBS on Nov. 9, 2009—a launch that Turner expanded for one night to its affiliates, TNT and truTV, in addition to TBS, reaching an opening-night audience of more than 3 million. Since then, he’s regularly reaching 1 million viewers a night—and the number continues to grow.
Despite being on TBS (or, as Lopez puts it, “a cable network in the triple digits”), Lopez believes he can compete with the big four networks with his Monday-to-Thursday show. With late-night TV talk ruled by white guys, Lopez is ready to inject a Latino flavor into the mainstream.
“I’m bringing a new face to late night,” Lopez says, echoing his own frequent theme on the show. “It looks like a new America. I’m throwing an inclusive party.”
“Lopez Tonight” executive producer Jim Paratore says the only thing that surprises him about Lopez’s leap into talk-show hosting is “that George is even more amazing than I thought he’d be.”
“Being a pioneer is never easy, but it’s something George is comfortable with,” says singer Marc Anthony, a friend and golf companion of Lopez’s. “I’m looking forward to seeing how he changes late-night TV.”
Lopez has been able to reach into his sizable Rolodex and ask friends to stop by for the show—and in the first weeks alone, he had everyone from Anthony to Carlos Santana, Clint Eastwood to Laurence Fishburne, Eva Longoria Parker to Ted Danson, Sandra Bullock to Jessica Alba and Andy Garcia sitting on the overstuffed chairs on the “Lopez Tonight” set, shmoozing, joking and doing his shtick.
Paratore, who helped create talk shows for Rosie O’Donnell, Ellen DeGeneres and Tyra Banks, says, “These are hard shows to do, though they look deceptively easy. The hardest thing for anyone to do is be comfortable in his own skin. To do that and entertain—that’s hard to do and look natural while you’re doing it. There are very few who can do that, who can put it all together.
“This is as strong a start-up as I’ve seen. This guy is in control of the show. He owns the room.”
That’s evident even at a rehearsal before one of his tapings. It’s late on a sunny day in Burbank, but inside Stage 29 on the Warner Bros. studio lot, it’s meat-locker chilly—so frigid that, during taping, the makeup and wardrobe women who attend to Lopez during commercial breaks wear quilted ski jackets. Empty now, the room will be filled in less than two hours with the second cheering, screaming audience of the day (Lopez tapes both Wednesday’s and Thursday’s shows the same day, virtually back to back).
When Lopez emerges for the rehearsal, he’s like a boxer at the weigh-in, giving nothing away before they ring the bell, eyeing the empty studio cautiously. Dressed in a black hoodie, jeans and black boots (along with a pair of knit black gloves), he runs through his monologue in bare-bones fashion, reading the jokes off the teleprompter as he figures out transitions between gags and tightens or expands upon punch lines.
Rehearsing a recurring comedy bit, an advice segment called “Dear George,” he practices offering guidance to an in-studio questioner, a 46-year-old man who wonders whether it’s OK to bring a woman home, even though he still lives with his mother. Lopez banters with the writer who’s filling in for the actor who will play the geeky mama’s boy, then turns to his writers: “I need some harder lines than those. He’s 46 and he still lives at home! I need something sharper than this.”
An hour or so later, it’s showtime—and what seemed skeletal in rehearsal arrives full-bodied for the cameras. The quiet, low-energy Lopez has been replaced by a sharp-dressed man: Lopez in suit and tie, strutting and preening, again, like a boxer trying to intimidate an opponent as he approaches the ring, entering to his theme song, War’s “Low Rider.”
“One thing I learned from Michael Jordan years ago—and that was to gear yourself to be at the top of your day when it’s time to play,” Lopez says later. “For years, I was gearing myself for a 9 p.m. show onstage. Now it’s a 5:30 show—except on Wednesday, when it’s harder because I’ve got to do two shows. So I have to get up earlier, gear down between shows, then get back up for that second show. But during the day, I’m practically horizontal, in terms of my energy output.”
The audience—arranged in sections around the massive soundstage that used to house sets for “The West Wing”—is on its feet, hooting its approval as Lopez asks them, “Are you ready to make some history tonight?”
Throwing his arms wide in a gesture of generosity, he smiles and says to the roaring crowd (and the audience at home), “Mi casa es su casa.” Then his eyes pop and, channeling the thoughts of a blond woman in the front row, he says in a Valley Girl voice, “I don’t know what that means, but I’m going to Google it.”
After his monologue, he easily plays host/interviewer in conversations with guests Ted Danson and comic Bill Engvall. Though he consults with Paratore and the stage manager during breaks (and allows the ministrations of the hair and makeup artists), he also keeps the audience involved, pulling women out of the crowd to get up on stage and dance with him as the band plays throughout what will be a commercial break when the show airs.
“I learned to let the music play in the studio all through the commercial break,” Lopez says later. “After all, I’m the host, even when the camera is off.”
On this night, his flow is interrupted when, as he gets ready to move on to the show’s final segment, Lopez is told that they have to go back and redo a moment in the “Dear George” sequence to pick up a line he missed. One retake turns into three and then it seems to take forever to get set for the final guest of the night, guitarist Orianthi Panagaris (from the Michael Jackson concert movie, This Is It).
When Lopez becomes impatient and asks why it’s taking so long, he’s told there’s a problem arranging a swooping camera move that will bring them out of commercial. Lopez finally calls a halt to the time-consuming setup, either in a bit of temper at the end of a long, two-show day or from a lack of patience for artsy flourishes when he’s trying to create a spontaneous party atmosphere.
“Never mind that, let’s just do this,” Lopez snaps. “C’mon, we don’t need that complicated shot. Let’s just have fun.”
A couple of days later, Lopez reclines in a makeup chair in the dressing room of a Culver City production studio, where he’s just finished a photo shoot. Asked about the brief conflict over the camera shot, he says, “Hey, I’ve got a great performer on the stage waiting to play and they’re holding things up to set up a shot that will last two seconds? I said, let’s not worry about the camera swooping in. Let’s worry about getting it on.”
Then he relaxes and starts talking about how smoking a cigar keeps him in touch with his early life as a comedian—the struggles and discoveries, which were shared over cigars and drinks after an evening playing in a comedy club.
“I always thought of cigars as a rich man’s thing,” says Lopez, 48. “But for me, my best times were sitting around in the Cloud Nine Lounge at Maxim’s Hotel, smoking a Macanudo between shows at the hotel. It was a big thing then just to be part of the show. Cigars keep me connected to the stand-up days. How did I know which ones were good? Well, I knew that anything illegal had to be the best, so I knew Cubans were the best.
“Since then, as my career got better, when anyone would say, ‘What do you get George for a gift?’ someone would always say, ‘He loves cigars.’ So I’d end up with these boxes of Cubans.”
Which reminds him of a recent trip to play golf in Scotland. While shopping in London, a salesman convinced him to buy a box of Cuban Bolivars.
“He couldn’t really tell me to buy them because it’s illegal to bring them back,” Lopez says. “But he was saying things like, ‘Well, we could take the bands off. Some people don’t care about the bands.’ But I like the bands.
“I ended up buying them. I put them in my carry-on and figured, well, if I get caught, I get caught. But when I got to Customs in New York, the security guy takes one look and says, ‘Hey, George Lopez, come right this way’ and lets me through Customs just like that. I should have bought five more boxes.”
He often bases his choice of cigar on what he’s doing at that moment: “I look at it timing-wise,” he says. “A Churchill is great for vacation, when you can take your time smoking it and you’re not in a hurry. When I’m in town, a robusto is the play. I like the robustos and double coronas.”
When he and buddy Andy Garcia get together to play golf, cigars are a serious part of the equation.
“I can smoke three in a round,” Lopez says. “If I’ve got a big one, I smoke it down so far I can tell the middle name of the guy who rolled it. When we played the AT&T tournament in 2004, there was a visible haze of smoke following the two of us around the golf course for all four days!”
Garcia chuckles, then denies Lopez’s description, saying, “Well, that’s why George is a comedian.” He and Lopez have been friends for a number of years because, he says, “we share a sense of humor and a simpatico. Familiar things make us laugh. And we’re both married to Cuban women.
“He shares his life in his work,” Garcia notes. “His material tends to be from his experience, his life, his culture. And George is at the top of his craft. It’s beautiful to watch someone who is that in-command.”
TBS is hoping that the mass audience shares Garcia’s appreciation of Lopez and “Lopez Tonight,” the network’s first attempt at a late-night talk show. The show is aiming at a younger, more ethnically diverse demographic—and Lopez’s humor tends toward the rowdy. He’s as willing to go low-comedy (jokes about the Kardashian sisters’ taste in jewelry which, Lopez notes, includes “pearl necklaces”) as to be provocative (his ongoing list of proofs that Sarah Palin is secretly a Latina: “She’s got a baby and a grandbaby that are the same age—Latina!”)
“George’s whole idea was, ‘Let’s make it a party,’ ” says Michael Wright, executive vice president and head of programming for TBS, TNT and TCM. “He said, ‘Let’s have fun.’ He wanted the comedy to be more raw and youthful. This is not a talk show with a guy behind a desk.”
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.”
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Eric Walker — Charlston , WV, USA, — August 30, 2011 8:49am ET
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