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News / Life / Entertainment

Comedian George Lopez sheds light on Latino culture

By Charlie Vargas, The Orange County Register
Published: April 6, 2024, 5:06am

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Stand-up comedian and actor George Lopez has been performing live shows for decades, with his first attempt right before graduating from San Fernando High School in 1979.

For Lopez, comedy became an outlet for exploring the Mexican American experience with humor, which served as a pivotal stepping stone to launch his acting career and become the first Mexican American to host an English-language late night show, “Lopez Tonight.”

“When you can do stand-up on a level that very few comedians have done (then go into) the sitcom, the talk show and now the show with my daughter, all things that are going good, why would you want to change anything in the mix,” Lopez said during a recent phone interview.

He’s getting back to his stand-up roots and hitting the stage this spring, where his show will focus on his aging and some of the baggage that comes with it.

“I think (my show) has always been kind of reminiscent of the backyard cookout,” he said. “Now that I’m getting older and viejito (little old man), I talk about not being able to see with my mouth closed, the medicine, looking at everything that you eat, carrying an EpiPen and all those things that were so foreign, but that’s the how life is lived now.”

Although Lopez’s material has often utilized his Latino identity with a comedic undertone, in his early days, his jokes didn’t have the personal touch that has become a staple of his work.

“In the early ’90s, somebody said to me, ‘If I watched you, there’s nothing really about what you’re talking about that actually tells me anything about your personal life; if you’re married, I don’t know if you have a mom and dad, what your politics are,’ and I thought that was a pretty good constructive criticism of my stand-up at that time,” he said.

To answer that criticism, Lopez began looking for comical figures within his family, which brought him to his grandmother, who had a funny and adversarial personality. She’d often joke with Lopez about being funnier than him and skipping weddings if she had already gone to the first one of the spouses. The advice helped Lopez look at his family and the funny elements in Latino culture he could make light of, such as drinking 7-Up as a medical remedy or the makeshift extension cord leashes he’d see on dogs.

“I started to look at all the stuff that was in my world, and it just became the stuff that people gravitated toward,” Lopez said.

Latino representation has been a mission of Lopez’s work throughout his career, despite a media landscape that’s struggled to tell those stories and underrepresents Latinos more broadly.

A University of California, Los Angeles study by the Entertainment & Media Research Initiative was released last year titled “Hollywood Diversity Report 2023: Exclusivity in Progress,” which examined diverse casting in 521 live-action, scripted television shows during the 2021-2022 season.

The study found that Latinos made up 6.1 percent of leads in broadcast shows, 3.6 percent of leads in cable shows, and 4.3 percent of leads in digital shows despite Latinos making up 19 percent of the population in the U.S. While the numbers aren’t anywhere near where Lopez would like to see them, he said that some progress has been made throughout the years.

“When I started my first show in 2002, Eva Longoria and America Ferrera were just starting, and there was no Eva Mendes or Gina Rodriguez, and directors like Robert Rodriguez were also just starting,” he said. “I see it getting better. Is it ever going to be a level playing field? No, but in 20 years, you do want to see it getting better than it is now, but it’s also hard for everybody. When you don’t come from a theater or comedic background, you have to scrape and find stuff, so it’s so difficult to make it that many people just stopped (trying) it.”

Lopez encountered some of those obstacles early on when trying to pitch his first television show, “George Lopez,” which eventually got picked up by the ABC network and ran for 120 episodes over six seasons. In a 2006 People magazine interview, he praised actress and longtime friend Sandra Bullock for helping make his show a reality when his pitches weren’t getting anywhere in Hollywood. Bullock would later join the series as an executive producer.

“George Lopez” is a sitcom where he stars as a fictionalized version of himself raising a family in Los Angeles and touches on themes of class and race. Some featured aspects from his real life included his best friend Ernie (same name in the show) and even some places he worked and was fired from.

“I used to work at this place called Powers Book Publishing, run by this guy named Melvin Powers, who used to think he was a big shot. I even used his name (in the show), and one day, they come in with a client, and he said, ‘Hey, how’s it going George?’ and I said, ‘Pretty good Melvin.’ I didn’t call him Mr. Powers, and the way he looked at me, I thought, ‘Oh man, he’s going to fire me,’ and he did that day,” Lopez said. “I found success in not trying to be an astronaut, but in trying just to keep the show grounded, and there’s really nobody that says ‘I don’t get what they’re saying,’ and that is as big an accomplishment.”

The comedian’s latest television venture is the NBC network sitcom, “Lopez vs. Lopez,” about a blue-collar family featuring his real-life daughter, Mayan Lopez. Season 2 will premiere on Tuesday. He said that although there may be some slight overlaps with his previous sitcom, this one delves into more contemporary topics, such as millennial life decisions and other generational aspects that his daughter’s character explores.

“Mayan Lopez has been funny her whole life,” he said. “Every day, I look at her at some point when we’re working. I see her as a 5-year-old girl, a 7-year-old girl, and a 10-year-old girl because that’s just the way my mind works. It’s hard for me sometimes to believe that the little girl who I cut her cord over in the hospital is that young lady who’s on the television show and posters with me. It’s really beyond my imagination.”

While his previous sitcom and new one seek to represent a Latino experience, other aspects are universally appealing to audiences no matter their background, which Lopez attributes to the talent of the writers’ room.

“On the show that we have right now, we have a lot of Latina writers; they’re younger, we have people who are gay, and from every facet of everyday life,” he said. “They can write on all the shows and not just the ones that have to do with an alternate life. These stories are everybody’s story. The friction between parents and their kids and getting older hasn’t changed. I’m not trying to make everybody happy, and I’m not even worried about who’s laughing. I’ve just had a long enough career where those are the things that I shouldn’t have to worry about anymore.”

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