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The good, the bad, the funny

The not-always-happy youth of the upbeat George Lopez often inspires story lines on his sitcom. But his humor thrives, and the thankful comedian looks ahead.

January 12, 2003|Mark Sachs | Times Staff Writer

It was just shy of 5 a.m. on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, and although in a few hours the sprawling fantasy factory would be a blur of activity, nothing stirred the predawn blackness.

Almost nothing. In a cramped office just off Stage 4, a light was burning. Comedian George Lopez, who had been caught up in a writing meeting on the lot until nearly midnight the night before, was back at it again, chatting up his second-season ABC sitcom "The George Lopez Show" for a string of drive-time radio programs from across the country. And as onetime host of his own such gig here in Los Angeles on 92.3 FM -- the first Latino to helm an English-language morning radio show in the Southland -- the turnabout nature of the situation was not lost on him.

As the interviews were winding down and his normal sitcom workday was gearing up, Lopez sailed through the transition without missing a step.

"This show may go one more episode or 100, but it's not going to fail because I didn't give enough of myself," he says. "No one expected me to get this far, and so I want to see how far I can take this. I'm giving my time, my life, my stories -- good and bad -- to this show, and after I don't have any more stories to tell, I'll walk away, having really done it.

"I'd walk away now," he adds with a faint smile, "but I don't have enough money."

For a 41-year-old stand-up comic who once thought his role as Eddie in the 1990 movie "Ski Patrol" might end up being his chief contribution to the acting profession, these are good days indeed. His series, based more than loosely on his life growing up in the San Fernando Valley's Mission Hills neighborhood, returned from a monthlong holiday hiatus on Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. with a new episode. The show has consistently won its time slot this season, and Lopez also has a small but key role in the current well-received indie film "Real Women Have Curves." So regardless of the ungodly hour set on his alarm clock, Lopez says he never has a problem jumping out of bed.

"After struggling through the '90s just to feed my family and pay my bills, this is a pretty good time," he says at breakfast recently in a Toluca Lake coffee shop, just down the street from the house he shares with his wife of nine years, Ann, and their 6-year-old daughter, Mayan. "If you consider being a road comedian a career, good luck."

Yet it was his years on the road that helped build the buzz that resulted in Lopez getting his big break.

An influential fan

Actress Sandra Bullock, who had been interested in putting together a TV project with a Latino story line for some time, was given one of Lopez's comedy albums to listen to, and she was impressed enough to check out his act at the Brea Improv in August 2000. And it was love at first sight.

"I fell in love with his life story," says Bullock. "He had a real likability, and the material runs deep. It was ripe for comedy, but in a loving way."

After the show, Bullock went backstage and made her pitch.

"She said she wanted to be in the George Lopez business," the Mexican American comedian recalls with a blissful grin. "I owe everything to her, because she didn't have to do this. She's a movie star, and even when her agents at CAA told her, 'We really don't see a show here,' she never gave up. She told me, 'Let me worry about that -- you just worry about being funny.' She did this out of a love for the culture and because of a lack of visibility for Latinos on TV."

At a recent taping, Bullock was a roaming presence, huddling with cast members and watching scenes on a monitor while surrounded by production staff. "When I'm out of town, technology helps me stay in touch," says Bullock, who also guests on the show as a goofy, accident-prone recurring character named Amy. "I can still watch run-throughs and give notes. And seeing how hard everyone is working just makes me want to work harder."

In Lopez's act, he managed to wring humor from the real-life stories of his father leaving his mother when George was 2 months old, and how they lived with her parents until his mother remarried when George was 10 and moved away with her new husband, leaving the boy to be brought up by the grandparents. Lopez, who had always been told that his father was dead, learned about that time that he was probably still around, but that no one had seen him in years.

Those details went on to form the framework of his domestic sitcom, even down to the aerospace firm where Lopez and his grandmother once worked together. For TV purposes, his grandmother's gruff character became his mom (played by Belita Moreno), with Constance Marie ("Tortilla Soup") portraying wife Angie and Masiela Lusha and Luis Armand Garcia featured as daughter Carmen and son Max.

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