Comedian George Lopez loves cigars— so much so that he has more than 1,500 in humidors scattered around Los Angeles: at home, at a couple of cigar clubs, in his dressing room, at his golf club.
“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.”
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,