Harris: About 6 or 7 years ago, I heard a comedy CD by a guy by the name of George Lopez. I hadn’t heard of George before that, but he was coming through town to work at the local comedy club, and I listened to the CD and laughed a lot. I said, “Okay, this guy has gotta come in and we’ve gotta hang on the air and have fun.” So I called him and he came in, and we got to be friendly, and then I asked him a few months later if he would perform at a big benefit I was putting together for Children’s Hospital. He said, “You need me? I’m there.” And he came and he absolutely killed that night. Then we kinda stayed in touch by email, and he was performing in Vegas on a weekend that I was there and I went to see him and he did a completely different act and killed there, too. Every time I’ve seen George advancing his career, I have felt happy that, here’s a guy I know, and he’s doing really well. Then he did a show in Los Angeles and became the first Latino to be the primary guy on an English speaking morning show in this country. Now he has his own primetime TV show on ABC. Here’s George Lopez!
Lopez: Oh my God. What an introduction, and I did it all with a 2.2 grade point average. How’s that?
Harris: I’m proud of you!
Lopez: Thanks, Paul. One of the great things — and one of the ways I promote this show is through the radio, and getting to the viewers and the people who listen and doing it that way, almost like a politician would, like a whistle stop tour.
Harris: Well, because you know the power of radio, having done it yourself.
Lopez: Absolutely. And it’s great when you do interviews with — I mean, all the interviews are special — but when you do one with a guy that you’ve known for maybe 10 years, it’s the best, really.
Harris: Explain what the TV show is about.
Lopez: The premise is it’s a working class guy who works in an airplane parts factory who’s just been promoted from 15 years on the line. He’s the first guy to ever be promoted to manager, and all the guys at work think that the party’s just starting. And he takes the responsibility really heavy, and he’s got this mother that he works with who’s overbearing. She raised him herself and she still treats him like he’s 9 years old. And I have a wife who’s beautiful and I have two kids and I’m trying to incorporate myself into their lives, but it’s hard for me, because I got unresolved childhood issues. You know, it’d make a great piece for “Dateline NBC” but we turned it into a sitcom.
Harris: Good! And is your character named George Lopez?
Lopez: Absolutely! One of the hardest things with TV is deciding what to call the show. We didn’t want to call it “Mijo in the Middle” or “La Familia.” And Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts already burned “The Mexican.” So Bruce Helford, who created “Drew Carey” said, “Do you object to calling it ‘George Lopez’ and making it about your life?” And I said, “You know what? If I can become a better person out of this, then I’m fine.”
Harris: How does Sandra Bullock play a part in this? She’s the executive producer of the show, right?
Lopez: She was the one who really took me from day one. She was thinking about doing a show involving a Latino family and — very few people know this, I think I’ve only said this once before — the original concept of the show that she had heard a writer pitch to her, was a Latino “Beverly Hillbillies.” And I wasn’t happy about that, but I took the meeting just to meet Sandra.
Harris: Well, of course! Why not?
Lopez: Because the Latino “Beverly Hillbillies” is one away from opening the show with me scratching a lottery ticket and jumping up and down. So I figured, I’m not gonna rock the boat, I’ll meet her. l wanted her to see my stand-up. From the night that she saw my stand-up which was around August of 2000 — and it was really about the family and the dysfunction and the love and everywhere I wanted to go they told me I had already been, and grownups thinking you were poor when they were just stingy, and all of these things that were not unique to me, but universal in all cultures — she wanted to make the show about that, so the Latino “Beverly Hillbillies” went out the window.
Harris: When they call you and say somebody wants to talk to you about a TV show, you’re already excited. And then when they say, “It’s Sandra Bullock,” you answer, “What time do I have to be there?”
Lopez: Oh, absolutely. I remember one time, the truth, I was in Austin, Texas, and she lives in Austin, and there was talk she might come to the show. This was even before I met her, and literally, I was so nervous, I — you know when you’re in Little League and there’s one out left and you go, “Don’t hit the ball to me!” I didn’t want her to come, and I thought, “I hope she doesn’t show up.” I just couldn’t take it, I couldn’t take it!
Harris: How did the network react to this? Because there haven’t been a lot of Latino TV shows.
Lopez: There are two curses. There’s the curse of the “Seinfeld” cast that they’ve all had to overcome, Jason Alexander, and Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, and Michael Richards. I have the curse of “Aka Pablo” over my shoulder.
Harris: Was that the Paul Rodriguez show?
Lopez: Eighteen years ago was the last show, and everybody I talk to, that’s all they want to talk about. That and the ghost of “Chico and the Man.” But this showis just about a regular guy trying to raise a family. I told everybody, “Look, we’re just a regular family with good tans.”
Harris: As a kid growing up, what did you think of “Chico and the Man?” You’re a Latino yourself, and here’s a guy on TV making it into a vaudeville act.
Lopez: You gotta remember, Paul, at that time, in 1973, Archie Bunker was the most beloved character on TV, and he was worse than Freddie Prinze and Jack Albertson put together.
Harris: Well, that’s true, but did you say to yourself, ”Okay, they finally put a Latino on TV and he’s THIS guy?”
Lopez: I didn’t have a problem with him not being what he said he was. I was just happy to see somebody who looked like me. I just loved the fact that he spoke English, and then he’d switch to that “Lookin’ good!” At that time, I’d never seen anybody that was young, that looked Latino. Up until then we had Jose Jimenez which was a Russian guy, Bill Dana, playing, an ignorant Mexican guy. And don’t forget that before the Taco Bell dog, there was the Frito Bandito, who was giving erasers away in a potato chip bag! I was happy to have that! I used to go to the market and try to steal the erasers out of the potato chip bag!
Harris: We keep saying “Latino” because you prefer that to “Hispanic,” don’t you?
Lopez: I’m not really a fan of “Hispanic” because it contains the word “panic.” I don’t want to be identified with a word that could promote fear. If “caucasian” was “caca-casion,” I don’t think anybody would be checking that box.
Harris: You’re absolutely right! So anyway, you go to the network and you and Bruce Helford, the producer, pitch this show. Did they say to you, “We want to make it more Latino, we want to make it less Latino, we’re afraid of Latino,” what? How did you get it on?
Lopez: No. Sandra Bullock and Bruce Helford have the same attorney. Bruce Helford, for the people who don’t know him, created “Drew Carey.” And he worked on “Roseanne,” he won a Peabody Award for “Roseanne.”
Lopez: ABC was great because they had taken heat from the press about not having any Latinos on the channel, much like NBC and CBS. So, ABC was the only place we went to and they’ve been great since day one. They’ve never asked me to either become more Mexican or become less. I don’t know how I could be less, but the tone and the direction that we originally planned out for the show is the one that we stick to and they’ve never said anything otherwise.
Harris: There’s an item in a Knight-Ridder newspaper article that claims that ABC wanted you to make the kitchen look more authentic by putting a tortilla maker on the kitchen stove.
Lopez: Yeah, that’s true.
Harris: So they ARE trying to make it more Latino!
Lopez: Well, that was kind of in a passing. By the time it got to me, it was like laundering money. The person who said it, you couldn’t trace it back to.
Harris: But somebody said it.
Lopez: It was almost an off-hand comment. I said, “Wait a minute! Is this person saying what I think they’re saying?” And they said, “George, there’s nothing in the kitchen that would depict that this would be a Mexican family.” And I said, “Like what?” And they said, “Like how do you make tortillas?” And I said, “Yo, I don’t make ‘em!” But I think they expected me to say, “Well, I go to the back yard and I pull a rock out of the driveway and we grind our own corn!” Like they expected some little fat woman with her hair in pigtails to be makin’ it in the back yard!
Harris: Yeah! And I don’t see one tamale on the show! What’s wrong with you? This could be a much more Mexican show!
Lopez: So the legitimacy that we wanted frightened some people and they would say things like that. I had to fight with them about my clothes. I always wear my shirts untucked because I like the way it looks untucked! But to some people, “Well, it’s menacing.” I asked them, “How can a shirt untucked be menacing?”
Harris: Ray Romano always has his shirt untucked on his show.
Lopez: You know I’m a guy trying to hide my waist. It’s flattering, not menacing!
Harris: And by the way, how about the fact that you have a Mexican family, doesn’t that tell people it’s a Mexican family?
Lopez: That’s what I told them. I said, “How about paying attention to the people sitting at the table?” We did a “Good Day Live,” a national Fox show, and I told Steve Edwards, who’s the host, that I have fun with my Latino culture. I’m not that politically correct because I’m a comedian. I said, “Not only will we have Latinos on TV, but we’ll have the best manicured lawn in the history of television!” I said, “I’m out there with a lawn blower two hours before I even have to get in makeup!”
Harris: As the star of the show, do you get to pick your co-stars? You said you have a beautiful wife on the show. Did you get to audition women?
Lopez: Paul, I’ve been married 8 ½ years, and there was this woman — let me look out the window and see if my wife is here — there were two women who were the finalists. One was the gelato girl on “Everybody Loves Raymond,” the one that Brad Garrett, Bobby, fell in love with when he went to Italy. She’s just breathtaking. And there was this woman Constance Marie from “American Family,” who’s a friend of my wife’s. And I actually liked the other one better because she was tall and, let me tell you,
unbelievable. For the peace of the show, so I wouldn’t have to stay in the Starlit Motel in Burbank, we had to go with Constance, but she turned out to be great.
Harris: I understand. If it comes down to the incredible looking woman and the friend of your wife…
Lopez: Let me tell you, Standards & Practices at ABC have nothing on my wife! She is much tougher than any Standards & Practices guy that’s working in television, believe me.
Harris: I’m sure. Now we’ve been talking about how tough it was to get a show like this on the air. It’s been eighteen years since the last sitcom with a Latino in the lead. Other than this help from Bruce Helford and Sandra Bullock, have you found in your career that being Latino has been a real impediment to you getting where you want to go?
Lopez: I don’t think it’s an impediment to the work as much as to the quality of the work. What kind of road do you want to take? You know me well enough to know that I would never take any demeaning parts or even drug dealers and criminals and murderers and that kind of stuff that routinely gets written with Latinos in mind. I turned down just a slew of those parts hoping that there was even a slim chance I could do something else, something real. Because it’s almost impossible to get a television show on the air regardless of whatever color you are. The fact that I have these people behind me, it’s almost a reward for holding out for the right thing.
Harris: You and I talked about this on the air at length one day. All they were saying to you was, “We have this part, it’s in somebody else’s show and he’s a drug dealer or he’s a pimp, and so we wrote it as a Latino guy.” Why don’t you write the lead guy as a Latino guy and make the pimp or the drug dealer a white guy? They exist, too.
Lopez: Absolutely! One time on the “Cosby” show, the one that was on CBS a couple of years ago, originally the part of the son-in-law was a Latino character named Hector. And I read for it, and for one weekend I thought I was gonna co-star with Bill Cosby. But Cosby rewrote it and made the guy black. So even Bill Cosby, who is Mr. TV and Mr. Father, even he was gun shy.
Harris: Now, with this attractive woman who’s playing your co-star, the friend of your wife, are you two going to have scenes where you’re kissing and making out?
Lopez: Paul, she’s a vegetarian. And vegetarians, they have this breath that no one else has.
Harris: What do you mean?
Lopez: They eat hummus and broccoli and vegetables. Let me tell you, it’s a nasty breath. Don’t ever trust the vegetarians, man! Go with the carnivores.
Harris: But George, you have your own show. Get some mints on the set!
Lopez: Not even a mint could cut through that funk! It stays in them or, I don’t know what it does. It comes out of their pores, but they stink!
Harris: So, your show will not be rivaling Univision and Galavision for the sweatiest Latinos on TV?
Lopez: No, no!
Harris: But you know what I mean about those channels, don’t you?
Harris: Every time I turn them on I think to myself, “Are there no Latinos with air conditioning?”
Lopez: Well, they can’t run the cameras and the air at the same time. It shorts out! They gotta choose one or the other!
Harris: Hey good luck with the show, man. I’m happy for you, I hope it runs a long, long time. But don’t forget the guys who knew you when!
Lopez: Thank you, Paul!
Copyright 2002, Paul Harris.