You can forgive popular comedian George Lopez if he’s a little sensitive about how Latinos are perceived in this country.
At a Newport Beach golf club he was asked to caddy. In Chicago, he was asked to park a car. In Atlanta, a woman in an elevator couldn’t wait to get out after he got on. “I was wearing a suit, too,” said a chagrined Lopez, who will perform through Friday at Comedy Nite in Oceanside. “Do you get angry?” he asked. “No, you get funny. I felt like telling that lady it was OK, that I had left my knife in my other suit.”
Pretty insulting goings-on for a five-year club veteran who has co-starred in a movie, told jokes at top clubs in Las Vegas and Atlantic City, been on Arsenio seven times, Comic Strip Live nine times and Carson once (“Just to say I did it”).
But Lopez is not an angry young man. He is simply a determined one. Firm but not fanatical. He uses the stage to erase stereotypes, and he wishes people would quit looking at each other like “color” commentators.
“People see color first. After a show in Houston, a guy came up to me and said, ‘I didn’t think you’d be funny.’ I said, ‘Why, because I’m Latino?’ He said ‘yeah.’ I appreciated his honesty, but it shows the stereotypes we’re fighting.”
The 30-year-old comic sees no need to distinguish between races.
“I don’t do ethnic material. I only do ethnic material to people who see color. When I was growing up, I never looked at color. I don’t see color. I see people.”
As Lopez talked during a phone interview last week, it became apparent that erasing stereotypes and seeing Latinos make a better life for themselves is high on his agenda. He is forceful without being militant. Ignoring the issues will not resolve them, he says, and he does not apologize to critics who tell him that talking about those stereotypes simply reinforces them.
“I’ve always had car insurance. We don’t all write on walls,” he said matter of factly.
“Latinos are very, very serious people. They only see (comedians) as another guy who’s putting them down. I wish as Latinos we would take more care of ourselves. . . . If you’re a single father of two kids, take care of yourself. I dress up and take care of myself. Just leave me alone and let me work.”
Lopez credits his late grandfather, a strict but loving disciplinarian, for his ideals and work ethic. His parents were divorced when he was a child. His father was a farm worker. Both his parents were young. After the divorce, his grandparents took him in, telling his mother they would watch him until she was able to take him. He never left.
Growing up as an only child in the San Fernando Valley, Lopez watched a lot of television, where he saw Freddie Prinze, Cheech and Chong, George Carlin, Redd Foxx and Richard Pryor.
“There’s a lot of Pryor in my act. His 1979 show from Long Beach is a classic stand-up tape.
“I knew I wanted to be a comic since I was 12,” Lopez said. “I’ve done Vegas. I’ve done Atlantic City. It’s hard work. People think anybody can be a comedian by getting on a stage somewhere and telling a few jokes. That’s like saying give somebody a rope and suddenly they’re a cowboy. It’s just not true.”
Lopez, who co-starred as ski patrolman and explosives expert Eddie Martinez in the film “Ski Patrol,” took the big step for a comedy career on July 17, 1987, when he walked out of his factory job in Van Nuys. His bosses told him they would keep
his job open for him for six months. He said that wouldn’t be necessary. “I wasn’t cocky, just confident.”
But his career wasn’t a laugh a minute right away. For reasons he can’t explain, Lopez was a little lazy about looking for jobs at first. His grandfather’s death around Easter of 1988, however, was a turning point for him.
“That’s when I started getting serious. I never thought he’d die. He asked me to take care of my grandmother. That’s when I became a man and did what I had to do.”
Before that, he was sitting around with other comics drinking beer after shows and just thinking about where they would go the next night to do the same thing. They also talked about their acts.
“Standup is very interesting. Some guys do the same routine wherever they are; they just change the name of the city. I like to work with the audience. I have an opening and an ending. The crowd determines the middle.
“I’m not an intellectual. I go on stage and take an idea and see what happens. I work at different levels. Sometimes I’m nice, sometimes I’m mad. I’m working on a new character now: Spike Lee Trevino, a golfer with an attitude.”
When Lopez, who lives near Universal Studios in Los Angeles, has time off, he likes to golf (he shoots around 90), read and watch TV to keep up on current events. He even includes golf jokes in his routine.
“I was playing golf this morning,” Lopez often tells a crowd. Then he pauses. “You guys are looking at me like, ‘That’s ethnically impossible.’ ”
Before heading home after a show, Lopez likes to talk to those who came to see him. His fans range from 18 to 80, but there are some differences in how they react to the work.
“You get that barking sound at 18 versus applause at 30,” Lopez explained.
Eventually, the comic would like to get more of that appreciation from TV viewers, perhaps a show like Jerry Seinfeld’s. In fact, all the comics that Lopez mentions as being on his preferred list are connected to television: Seinfeld, Tim Allen, Roseanne Arnold, Arsenio Hall, Dennis Miller and David Letterman. He says the format of the show isn’t critical as long as the premise is good, meaning not demeaning to Latinos.
“Parts that they write are horrible for Latinos,” he laments. “I think “Mexican” has a negative image through TV.” Lopez has vowed to never play a murderer, a drug dealer or a gang member, even if it means giving up a big payday and a Porsche.
But, until the right TV deal comes along, he wants to keep working and establishing his reputation in stand-up.
“Once you define yourself as a stand-up character, it makes it easier to get a TV role. Stand-up is your base, and you gotta be funny. Otherwise, nothing. I’ll continue to be funny and see what TV offers. If they offer a role as a watch robber, you pass. That’s very important.”
But television isn’t the only medium on Lopez’s hit list. The movies also take a shot.
“In ‘Regarding Henry,’ a Latin guy shot Harrison Ford. In ‘Grand Canyon,’ a Latino took Steve Martin’s watch. Why do (actors) take these roles? So far, I’ve done nothing to be embarrassed about.”
Lopez is particularly proud of a television ad hawking chips and salsa in the Midwest.
“I’m me, dressed in a shirt and slacks. There’s no donkey and cart in the background, no Linda Rondstadt costume. It was just me being myself with my name on the screen. That was good.”
MTV has also picked up on Lopez. At the end of this month, the music channel will feature him on its “Half-Hour Comedy Hour.” In April, he’ll be back on Arsenio.
“I don’t do flying jokes or formula jokes, no safe comedy. Who cares!?!? I want to say something to upset people, make ‘em think,” Lopez said. His other subjects include war, beating victim Rodney King, L.A. Police Chief Daryl F. Gates and Taco Bell. “When the comedy boom is over, only the significant comedians will still be around.”
After his Comedy Nite dates end, Lopez will head back to Los Angeles to do a benefit Saturday for the Starlight Foundation, a group that grants wishes for critically, chronically or terminally ill children. He’s scheduled to be on a bill with Kenny G, Michael Bolton and Pointer Sisters.
“That’s pretty good company. I’m proud of that. Of all the comedians they could have asked, they wanted me.”
* George Lopez will perform tonight through Friday at Comedy Nite, 2216 El Camino Real, Suite 104, Oceanside. Opening acts are Paul Dillery and Mike Gabriella. For times and details, call 757-2177.