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George Lopez: Putting On a Happy Face

How humor saved his life

En español | Congenital kidney disease is no joke. But two years after receiving a life-saving kidney transplant from his wife, comedian George Lopez can kid about it in his trademark acerbic style.

To a friend’s comment that Lopez had to be nice to his wife, Ann Serrano Lopez, after the transplant, another friend replied, “Not as nice as he had to be before it.” Recognizing good material, Lopez claimed the line as his own. “Really, what’s she going to do? Take it back?” he quips.

All his life, Lopez, 46, has laughed at his tough breaks: an abusive childhood, an uphill climb in the comedy world, and the kidney disease he had unknowingly carried since he was young. In a way, humor saved his life.

“My humor was derived from a dark place, from negativity, from everyone in my family not being very nice people,” he says. “Instead of having [this negativity] destroy me, I made light of it.” And that perspective, he says, has earned him his success. “Making these people seem funny, with their ideas as ridiculous as they are, relates to people who come see me perform.”

And people do relate to Lopez. He sells out as an arena headliner, has major roles in two movie comedies this year, and just signed a deal with Warner Bros. to produce Latino-themed projects.

His ABC sitcom, George Lopez, which just completed its sixth and final season, has gone into syndication. No other Latino-led family show has reached this important milestone.

At the end of August, Lopez will hit the big screen in a comedy about professional ping-pong, Balls of Fury. Co-star Dan Fogler says being on the set with the comic brought back childhood memories: “It was like hanging out with that high school buddy of yours who, when the teacher had her back turned, would make the whole class laugh. But when she turned back around, he’d shrug and point at you.”

“A sense of humor has been a constant in my life and helped me become free.”
—George Lopez

Growing up in the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles, Lopez never knew his father and was left in the care of his grandparents after his mother abandoned him. Lopez says his grandmother never offered a kind word when an insult would do. “She was impatient, not very happy with her own life, and trying to tell me how to live mine,” he says. Comedy became a defense mechanism. He credits her with unwittingly teaching him how to use humor to survive. He even made one of her frequent expressions the title of his bestselling 2004 autobiography, Why You Crying?, and used her as the model and namesake for his acid-tongued TV mom.

And while some complain the humor is too “mean” for a family show, Constance Marie, who plays Lopez’s TV wife, Angie, finds the humor true to the experience of many families. “There’s something to turning around the most horrible things you have to deal with and making them funny,” she says. “That’s what George has done with all of his life. We can all relate.”

Next: Lopez's instincts put to the test >>


The indomitable actor’s scrapping instincts have been put to the test — during its run ABC moved the show a half dozen times. But he faced his biggest test in 1999 when he was diagnosed with congenital kidney disease, which had made him ill since childhood.

His work ethic kept him on the show and silent about his surgery until the last possible moment — when his kidney function dropped to 18 percent. His wife donated one of her kidneys to him in 2005. It wasn’t long before he was kidding about the surgery. “Tension creates humor as well as honesty,” he says. But kidney disease is more than just new material for his act. It’s a matter of life-or-death education.

Wrapped in acidic humor, Lopez’s health lessons really reach his audience, says labor leader Dolores Huerta, who has known him for years. One show that addressed how diabetes can lead to amputations convinced one of Huerta’s newly diagnosed friends to improve his diet. “[Lopez] isn’t lecturing,” says Huerta. “He’s putting himself in the role of someone who’s going through that.”

Lopez and his wife have now become spokespersons for the National Kidney Foundation, and he speaks at hospitals and camps for children with kidney disease. He also works with The First Tee, related to his other love, golf. The group coaches kids through golf, which, he says, “teaches patience and temperament. It’s about people, and you can also do it alone.”

Golf has also fostered friendships with, among others, golfer Lee Trevino and actors Cheech Marin and Samuel L. Jackson. This year Lopez served as host of the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, conferring on Lopez the unofficial title of golf’s comedic ambassador.

Lopez finds being on the green as liberating as comedy. “A sense of humor has been a constant in my life and helped me become free,” he says. And free to hit holes-in-one in his work, community service, and home.

Chime In: The Power of Humor
Like actor and comedian George Lopez, these Latinos have witnessed the power of humor in their lives. Here they share their experiences:

Ruth Sanchez, 65

Delray Beach, FL

The comedy Blazing Saddles and [Mexican comedian] Cantinflas allow me to confront my seriousness and laugh at life and myself. A good laugh makes me feel alive. I also smile daily as a form of prayer to express gratitude.

Felix Contreras, 49

Silver Spring, MD

My parents, my brothers, and I used humor as a bonding mechanism. Our favorite was slapstick. We watched lots of the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges. My wife, two sons, and I share lots of laughs.

Ana Nogales, 56

Los Angeles, CA

When I smile, I’m in touch with my best spirits. I remind myself through humor that I’m a happy person. I feel hope even in the darkest moments. Humor reminds me that life has pain and sorrow, but nothing changes the essence of my happiness.

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