George Lopez mines working-class background for laughs

Vikram Patel
Photo by Matthias Clamer

According to Forbes magazine, comedian George Lopez earned $12 million in 2013. But in a recent interview, Lopez convinced Play that he is not phoning it in. "When I am done with a show, I want the audience believing that I was actually there, that I am not just telling jokes for the money, or that it's just a job. I want them to leave thinking that I was there, talking to them."

Lopez, a 52-year-old Mexican-American comedian best known for starring in the eponymous sitcom "George Lopez," started working on his comedy at a very young age. "I had some pretty good friends growing up who were funny. We lived near each other and walked to school together every day. I think it was those days, walking together, that made me comfortable with those guys. I could be funny with those guys."

But being funny isn't enough to make it in comedy. After being abandoned by his parents, Lopez was raised by his grandparents, who taught him about working hard. His grandmother worked in a factory, and his grandfather "was a ditch digger, a laborer, doing plumbing and sewage work.

"He would come home beat up every day. To see a guy work that hard, never have a lot of money, and just drag himself into the house every day, take a bath, eat, sleep, and drag himself back to work the next day -- that taught me I better have a pretty tough work ethic," Lopez said.

Lopez began performing stand-up comedy, relying on his painful childhood experiences and focusing on his Mexican-American heritage. In his late 20s, Lopez started experiencing some commercial success, landing his first movie role at age 29 in "Ski Patrol."

After a few more films and a TV appearances, Lopez self-produced "George Lopez," a comedy about a Latino factory worker named George Lopez and his family. Featuring a nearly all-Latino cast, "George Lopez" defied network expectations and ran for six seasons, long enough to achieve syndication (there were enough episodes that a network bought the rights to play reruns). That meant large royalty profits for Lopez and the other producers. "Of all the things I have done, getting the show to the point where it was going to syndicate was one of my proudest achievements," said Lopez.

In 2007, the show ended after its 120th episode. The experience was an eye-opener for Lopez. "As a kid, I watched a lot of TV. But I never had any idea what it took to make it go, to make it last," said Lopez. "I watched 'Sanford and Sons,' but I never thought about the attention that went into every detail, into all of the storylines. I never thought about doing a sitcom while I was growing up (in comedy). I was just worried about doing stand-up."

Despite having a hit TV show, working on a new show called "Saint George," penning his autobiography, working as a radio host and hosting various awards shows, Lopez has continued performing stand-up throughout his career. He says he now leaves "30 percent wiggle room" for improvisation in his act. "It tests you. You can get an idea offstage, but you can write it onstage. The more comfortable you get, the more your head fires during your act, you can become a sharper comedian," said Lopez. Joke writing and improvisation "work well together."

Speaking of working well together, Lopez will not be performing alone at the Egan Center on April 5. Joining him on stage will be comedian Russell Peters. Due to scheduling constraints, Play was unable to interview Peters. But Lopez shared his opinion of his co-headliner: "Russell is an international comedian. Not a lot of people do that. He performs in Dubai, India, Amsterdam. I have never performed outside of the United States."

Lopez is not only impressed with Peters' geographical reach. "Russell is really, really funny." Peters, of Indian descent, spends much of his act making fun of his own culture and many others. Lopez observes a synergy between their acts. "There are similarities between the two cultures, between people from India and Latinos. So, it works well together. We both have big audiences, and we are a good pairing."

Lopez was kind enough to answer a few more questions for Play:

Play: What is the secret to being funny?

Lopez: Being funny, it comes from being nervous. But you have to become completely comfortable being nervous.

Play: When did you become completely comfortable telling jokes on stage?

Lopez: It took a long time for me. To become completely comfortable, like I am now, I would say within the last 10 years. 2005? (Laugh.) Just in the last 10 years...

You never know at first if shows are going to be a ton of people, or nobody, and that's nerve-wracking. But when you start to sell tickets, when they come to see you, then you build up your comfort a little bit.

Play: Who is your favorite comedian, besides yourself?

Lopez: Of all time?

Play: Yeah. Say you are on your deathbed and can only pop in one last DVD of another comedian. Who would you choose?

Lopez: If it was my last day on Earth, I would pop in Richard Pryor, "Live from Long Beach," with the red shirt, the black pants and the silver shoes. That's the bible of comedy. If anybody wants to be a comedian, they should watch that. Also, people used to say that Pryor was too adult, too profane. But if you watch that, you will see that he was much cleaner than most comedians are today.

Play: Do you like where comedy is headed in 2014?

Lopez: I think comedy is better seen live, so it's been good to see long lines in front of the clubs in LA. I drove home from dinner the other day in Hollywood, and the Comedy Store had a long line, then the Laugh Factory had a long line. But (online sketch comedy site) Funny or Die is also great. It has given a springboard to the writers and creators of comedy, the producers. Comedy will always grow performers, but the fact that it is also growing creative people who are not on stage is really important.

Play: The writers out there appreciate that perspective.

Lopez: It always comes down to the writing. I always found it interesting when TV actors get bothered by fans recognizing them. They are just people hired to read the funny lines that somebody else wrote.

Play: You performed in Alaska a few years ago. Are you looking forward to your return?

Lopez: Yes, it was nice last time. Not too cold! And the people were great. They were excited that I was in Alaska, and I am excited to come back.

By Vikram Patel
Daily News correspondent