Tough childhood inspires George Lopez's comedy, TV show

Comedian George Lopez never dreamed he would become one of the country's top stand-up comics and one of its most well-recognized comedic faces.

But here he is: writer, co-creator, producer and star of his own television sitcom, "George Lopez," a top-rated comedy that appears at 8 p.m. Fridays on ABC.

"I'll be honest," Lopez said by phone last week from Oakmont Golf Course in Glendale, Calif., about 15 miles from the Toluca Lake home he shares with his wife, Ann, and daughter, Mayan. "I've exceeded all of the expectations I've had for myself."

That's not surprising since Lopez was raised by his grandparents in a poor San Fernando Valley neighborhood in California. It wasn't the best of situations.

"I'm an only child, and they were really kind of disconnected," said Lopez, 42. "Grandma probably was the most disconnected. There wasn't a sense of family. So I developed this relationship with TV, and when I saw Freddie Prinze (of "Chico and the Man") in 1973, it really changed my life because not only was he a stand-up comedian, he also had his own show. So from the time I was 11, I wanted my own show and I wanted to be a comedian."

But Lopez discovered that dreams are easier in the mind than the material world.

"Once I realized how difficult it was, I didn't think I would ever have a show, forget having one named after me," he said. "Before I started doing this show, I couldn't even get an audition for a part on a television show. That's how far out of the loop I was."

So Lopez continued to hone his craft in comedy clubs, occasionally grabbing a small role in a movie or on television. As he approached 40, no bright lights seemed ready to pop into Lopez's career. Until he met actress Sandra Bullock.

Bullock sent employees of her production company to scout local clubs for Latino talent because she realized there was a lack of Hispanic shows on the air.

"Her agency, CAA — the most powerful in Hollywood — liked the idea, but they didn't see a show there," Lopez said. "But she stood beside me. She never wavered in her belief of me, and now look what we've done in three years."

The show, which is in its third season with 38 completed episodes, depends on more than Bullock and Lopez.

"I did what every smart actor or comic would do — I surrounded myself with wonderful actors," Lopez said. "The woman who plays my mother (Belita Moreno) is as solid as a rock every week. She's great to play comedy off of."

There's also the wife, the daughter and other characters, including periodic guest roles by Bullock. But it's Moreno and Lopez who command the lion's share of the story.

"I think the show is more driven by our relationship, hers and mine, that it is by me and my wife's relationship," he said. "There's much more history in the mother and son than the wife and husband."

Lopez said the show is a look into the past of the life he's led. Much like his stand-up comedy act, Lopez prefers to tell it like it is, regardless of the reaction.

"There are no sacred cows in stand-up," he said. "So if something makes people uncomfortable, then that really means that you are doing well. Whether you moan or you cry or you laugh, to us, to comics like the way I work, it means you're telling the truth.

"I never fabricate things. If I talk about how difficult it was growing up or that fact that parents kind of manhandle kids when they shouldn't or they never listen... that's from personal experience."

Lopez used his stand-up career as therapy to deal with his childhood issues. Sometimes, the reality seemed a little harsh.

As Lopez honed his stand-up career, he was reminded of the lack of Latinos who have had success on sitcom television. Only two names came to mind: Desi Arnaz and Prinze.

Lopez admits he had chances to appear on television and movies before his sitcom came along, but he turned most of them down. It seemed the roles were all stereotypical roles for Hispanics — car thieves, drug pushers, inmates, gang members.

"I never wanted to play a role that was derogatory toward Latinos or that was gratuitously stereotypical," he said. "I didn't need them then, and I definitely don't need them now. I think this show (his sitcom) is kind of a reward for holding out."

Lopez said he believed for many years that his ethnicity was holding him back. He doesn't subscribe to the theory anymore.

"I really thought I'd never been on television because of the way I look," he said. "I thought that I looked too Mexican for TV, and that the doors wouldn't be open. But what I was doing was putting myself in my own way. It's all about being prepared. I wasn't prepared back then, so I used excuses that I made up because of the way I looked and what I was and the white man's keeping me down.... When you're prepared and you've got a product that's good, doors open up."

Now, studios are clamoring for Lopez's attention, but he just turns the other way.

"The show has my complete attention because it's almost like being the owner of a small business and then seeing it grow," he said. "You don't want to open another shop. You want this one to succeed. I've turned down movie development deals. I just want to keep this show on the air and keep it good like it really is. You can't reinvent the sitcom, but you can keep it from becoming too corny and too formulaic. I think we've done that with my show. So, I'm giving it my total attention."

When the show finally does come to an end — Lopez would like to see at least another 20 episodes made to ensure the show reaches syndication — he already has plans.

"I think I'd like to reward myself by taking time for myself and my family," he said. "If the show gets into syndication, I'll probably never have to work again and I probably won't. I'd golf and enjoy myself ... do the Johnny Carson and totally disappear.

"Who knows, I probably will work again at some point, but I'd like to just spend a couple of years and do nothing."

In the meantime, he's enjoying what he does, including stand-up.

"It's edgy," he said of his stand-up. "And it's aggressive toward family values and is heavily dysfunctional. But it's real."

So is Lopez. Despite what he says about his grandparents and family, it's truth, Lopez said, and that's what counts.

"I think I'm a better person now than I've ever been," he said. "I think I provide for my family and my grandmother, whom I adore, like I never thought I could."