Let's get one thing straight: Just because George Lopez and Freddie Prinze Jr. are Latino men with their own sitcoms on ABC, and their shows just happen to be scheduled consecutively on Wednesday nights, doesn't mean there's a new "Latin hour" on prime-time television.
So, por favor, don't call it that. Nobody called the pairing of the wacky Barones on "Everybody Loves Raymond" and the emotionally challenged Harper brothers on "Two and a Half Men" the "white hour," did they?
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday October 18, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Latino TV stars -- An article in Wednesday's Calendar section about George Lopez and Freddie Prinze Jr. said that Prinze was the fourth Latino to star in his own TV show. There have been more than that, among them Paul Rodriguez and Greg Giraldo.
"Shows should just be able to be shows without hyphenating their lead characters," Lopez said. "[With] us, they feel like they need to somehow label it to say, 'All right, this is what you're going to be watching, so are you sure you want to watch?' But they don't do it to people who are Jewish or African American. Because we have the muscle but we need the voice to say you can't do that to us. Just watch because you think the shows are funny. Don't watch because we're a couple of Latino guys."
To which Prinze added: "I have no patience for that. Because Latino is cool, all of a sudden, they're like, we'll say this and we'll be cool. Shut your face, man. It's TV."
Actually, there's a lot more to it than TV. Both Lopez and Prinze, whose lives and careers are connected by the tragic death at a young age of Prinze's father, Freddie Prinze Sr., feel they have a lot to prove to the television industry, to mainstream America and to themselves. To them, the idea that their back-to-back shows on ABC have been labeled "the Latin hour" undermines the historic and cultural impact of what the shows bring to the entertainment landscape.
For the first time, there will be two shows centered on Latino families hailing from different cultures ("The George Lopez Show" is Mexican, "Freddie" is Puerto Rican) and socioeconomic perspectives (Lopez is working class, Prinze is upscale) but who have no qualms about expressing their Latino pride. Additionally, "The George Lopez Show" will air its 100th episode this season. It's the first time a show about a Latino family has reached that milestone, which potentially means big-time syndication dollars. And for its creator and star, it means a place in history next to the only other Latinos who had hit shows: Desi Arnaz and Freddie Prinze Sr.
"It means a lot in that I always felt invisible and I was louder in my own head than I was verbally," Lopez said. "I was torturing myself, wanting to say things and not knowing how to be. The stand-up was a way out but it never came easy. So to have something that's named after me make it, and that has history tied to Desi and Freddie and now Freddie Jr., it's unbelievable to me because I never really thought anything good would happen to me."
In recent years, TV has introduced characters who are able to remain true to their Latino roots without hitting viewers over the head with their ethnicity: Rico (Freddy Rodriguez) and Vanessa (Justina Machado) on "Six Feet Under," nurse Carla (Judy Reyes) on "Scrubs" and Gabrielle (Eva Longoria) and Carlos (Ricardo Antonio Chavira) on "Desperate Housewives." (Although the latter drew the ire of Latinos when it was revealed that the wealthiest couple on Wisteria Lane gained its riches illegally.)
"This is indeed a milestone but it's 2005: Why has it taken so long?" said Vince Gutierrez, a National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences governor who chairs the diversity committee. "There is finally recognition that the themes that George's show portrays cross racial lines and have struck a chord with the viewing audience."
But even now as Lopez approaches a career landmark, months after his wife donated one of her kidneys to save his life, and just before his idol's son will become the fourth Latino man to star in his own show, Lopez resents that he hasn't gained the level of respect of other comics with their own sitcoms, such as Ray Romano or Chris Rock.
"I think it's easier for African American and white comics to be praised than it is Latinos because they think our culture or our humor is substandard," Lopez said. "I mean, I just don't think they want to give us credit. I just don't think that they see us as important enough to be at their level.... I'm the longest-produced [comedy] at Warner Bros. and I don't feel special. They come over and say hello. But everybody's gonna make a lot of money and I don't feel like I'm special to them."
Inspired by the lives of their stars, "The George Lopez Show" and "Freddie" demonstrate what should already be obvious as the Latino population has swelled and the culture blended more into the mainstream.
"If you leak anything out, it's that we are very different," wisecracked the 44-year-old Lopez, who grew up in the San Fernando Valley. He finds it perplexing that such a fact needs to be pointed out at a time when Latinos, the largest minority group in the country, represent $700 billion a year in buying power and 11.2 million homes with TV sets.