March 5, 2014 at 11:47 AM ET
When “Saint George” premieres on FX Thursday, comedian George Lopez will be telling the second chapter of his life story.
Lopez’s first sitcom, “The George Lopez Show,” was based on his earlier life as a working-class Mexican-American trying to raise a family while battling childhood emotional scars left by adults who were more adept at exacting discipline than showing love during his formative years.
“Saint George” picks up where Lopez's real life is now. At 52, Lopez is embarking on his third television show in 14 years, is now divorced, an avid golfer, and a philanthropist. His character, George, is a self-made wealthy entrepreneur, who has recently divorced and is giving back to his community by teaching history once a week at night school — a Latino character not commonly depicted on television.
It's a long way from Lopez's days as a young comedian on the club circuit.
“I remember one time I was at the San Francisco Grill on Pico when I first started doing stand-up and Bill Murray was in there,” Lopez told TODAY during an interview in his trailer on the “Saint George” set in Los Angeles. “And I introduced myself to him and I said, 'I’m a stand-up comedian.' And he said, ‘I could never do that. It scares me to death.’ And I never forgot that. To be that honest and to be that revealing of yourself and of your faults, it frightens him. But I don’t know how else to do it.”
Indeed, the first Latino to lead a show into syndication has become famous and rich by mocking himself. Even after TMZ published an embarrassing photograph of the comedian passed out on a Canadian casino floor, Lopez dealt with it the only way he knows how. During his comedy show, he told the audience, “I just did in Windsor what Justin Bieber does in America.”
On Twitter, he also joked. (Lopez was detained by the Windsor police department but not charged.)
On “Saint George,” Lopez will again derive most of his laughs from his family life. His character is learning to relate differently to his ex-wife (Jenn Lyon of “Justified”) and to be a better father to his 11-year-old son. George has made it big creating an energy drink and his “Tio” or uncle (Danny Trejo) and cousin Junior (David Zayas of “Dexter”) are constantly mooching off of him. The show also features a combative mother figure, played by Tony-nominated Olga Merediz (“In the Heights”), who moves in with George and gives him a hard time.
But Merediz infuses Alma with a certain lightness, making her critical but well-meaning. The character is loosely based on Lopez’s grandmother, Benne Gutierrez, who died in 2009 and was never able to express love after an abusive childhood and first marriage.
“My grandmother was a tough person," Lopez said. "But also she would say something to me and then look at me and say, ‘I’m funny, huh, George?’ And I would say, ‘Yeah, you’re funny, grandma. You’re a little bit mean but you’re funny too.' And she would say ‘I know, I know, I know.’ Those are the times that bring people closer together.”
FX will air 10 episodes of "Saint George," and if a certain ratings threshold is met, 90 additional episodes will be ordered and syndication will follow—a deal similar to Charlie Sheen's vehicle, "Anger Management,” also on FX.
The trade-off for that sort of production means working at a faster pace and completing an episode in two days. By comparison, sitcoms normally film an episode a week and single-camera comedies, like “Parks and Recreation,” usually take more than a week per episode.
It’s also the first time in his career Lopez hasn’t had a live audience.
“In the first couple of episodes, it was a bit unusual because you want honest laughs,” Lopez said. “So I reminded the camera and sound people and visitors: don’t fake-laugh. It needs to be natural. We got that out of the way early.”
Ultimately, Lopez is just really glad to have made a return to television.
“Whatever color you are, or from whatever era BC or AD, it is great to be back,” Lopez said, joking about ABC’s cancellation of his first show in favor of the short-lived “Cavemen" in 2007. “This is perhaps the time in my life that I’m better than I’ve ever been — more creative than I’ve ever been, happier than I’ve ever been, and productive and more open.”
Merediz hopes Lopez’s audience can connect with the new side they will see on “Saint George.”
"The fact is George is a successful, affluent Mexican-American,” she said. “He did come from nothing but look at him. His story is very compelling. It’s tragic comedy. It’s tragic but it’s funny.”