George Lopez hadn’t visited Howard Stern’s SiriusXM morning radio show since before Stern had moved to satellite radio. In the nine years that had elapsed, Lopez had left behind a successful ABC sitcom; gotten a kidney transplant from his wife, whom he later divorced; launched a late-night talk show on TBS; moved the show an hour later to accommodate Conan O’Brien; lost Lopez Tonight; and signed a 10-90 deal for a new sitcom on FX; and quit drinking. That’s a lot to cover.
Stern got Lopez talking about all of it.
That’s not unusual. What we hadn’t heard much of openly until today, however, was candor from Lopez about his two years in the trenches of late-night TV with Lopez Tonight on TBS from 2009-2011. Lopez said now that TBS lost interest in him and his diverse, edgy fare, because the network fell in love with O’Brien as a “folk hero,” while Jay Leno wanted to pick a fight with Lopez over a joke.
“It’s a hard gig, but I loved it,” Lopez said.
What makes late-night TV hard? Stern wondered.
“You have so many people up your ass every day,” Lopez said.
“What do you mean by that? Network executives?” Stern asked.
Lopez: “Yeah. Telling you what they think is funny. What’s funny to them. Meanwhile, they’ve never sold one fucking ticket or know anything about fucking comedy.”
Lopez pointed the finger at David Hudson, senior vice president of late-night and specials for TBS and TNT. “The guy was based in L.A. I’m not going to say his name but it sounds like David Hudson,” he said. “And TBS was in Atlanta,” adding: “But that guy can eat my ass. Because he was such a backbiting, back-stabbing motherfucker that, he’s one of the reasons it’s not on.”
Stern took Lopez’s side, wondering how TV treats comedians (much like he said radio treated him) when they limit their voice, when it’s their voice that earned them the gigs in the first place.
“You know, it’s specific. You know, you hire a guy. You let the guy be himself,” Lopez said. He noted that he recruited Michael Bearden to be his bandleader for Lopez Tonight after Bearden’s previous employer, Michael Jackson, died that summer. “Jim Paratore (former president of Warner Bros. Telepictures Productions and co-founder of TMZ), who’s not around anymore, he passed away a couple of years ago. But he was the biggest fan of mine and of the show. He said we should reach out to Bearden. And I did.” Lopez recounted filming a pilot for the talk show on the old E.R. set with Samuel L. Jackson, Kaley Cuoco and Dane Cook.
Cut to November 2009, when Lopez Tonight began airing at 11 p.m. Eastern/Pacific weeknights on TBS.
“They wanted the show to be edgy,” Lopez said. “I had Lance — that works for Chris Rock — Lance Crouther…as my head writer. I had great writers. Great writers who wrote comedy that was edgy. That was what they wanted. Edgy. Promos during baseball, if you remember…I will say anything that I need to say to make people laugh. And I don’t care. So we get that. We start out, big audience. ‘Too black.’ ‘Too many Latinos.’ ‘Not enough white people.’ ‘Not enough older people.’ ‘Skew back.’ ‘Not enough Latinos.’ ‘Too many white people are watching.’ ‘Not enough black people are watching.'”
“I know how confusing that can be,” Stern said, recalling his own radio career and notes from program directors about audience demographics. “You got to be yourself and hope people come to the party.”
“Just attract an audience,” Lopez said.
Stern: “That’s right.”
Lopez: “The first year, we struggled to get picked up. Struggled to get picked up. And then, the second year, Conan came in. They asked me, the guy Steve Koonin (president of Turner Entertainment Networks) over there at TBS flies in. And he sits in the office. And he sits in the chair and he says, ‘We have a chance to get Conan? You know. What do you think?’ And I’m like, what do I think? I don’t run this company. You know. And it’s like, it’s crazy because they bullshitted that fool. Conan’s agents. They said if Conan doesn’t come to TBS, he’s going to go to FOX. Fucking FOX doesn’t have late-night. It’s almost like saying, ‘If you don’t eat these fucking enchiladas, we’re just going to give them to McDonald’s.’ They don’t fucking make that shit! Fucking idiots!”
“Here’s the thing,” Lopez said. “TBS had never been in the talk-show business. So they’re watching it. They’re taking this shit personal. Instead of looking at it as what your audience likes, they’re looking it at like, ‘Well, he’s talking about Republicans, he’s bashing this, he’s talking about Boehner, he’s talking about Obama, he’s getting in trouble.’ … We did a thing where we did a nun dancing on a pole. Just because they were doing strip religion. Then we did a thing where we talked. We did Oprah in a bathtub of cheese. And the lady eating cheese and crying. You know a guy, Steadman. We just did shit that was wild.”
Lopez had been on the air five months when TBS announced the Conan deal publicly.
“That was it for me,” Lopez said.
Not that he fought the move to midnight — allowing Conan O’Brien to bump his show an hour, the very thing O’Brien wouldn’t allow NBC to do to him in 2010 with Jay Leno.
“I actually told Conan — truth, truth! — I called him. They asked me to call him.” Why? “Because they don’t have any fucking balls. Close the fucking deal yourself! So I call Conan, pick him up. I’ve known Conan. To tell him that it’s a great place to work.”
“Listen, man. If you say no, that you’re not going to move, then you’re out that year,” he rationalized.
“Well, when you move to 12, there’s less people watching. His numbers weren’t strong. At the end of the hour, there’s really nobody watching. And, you know, less faces, less eyes, less ratings.”
Lopez told Stern that his TBS numbers beat Conan’s.
“Even right now, with the $70 million that they spent on Conan, my numbers are better than his.”
Of course, all TV ratings are on a downhill slide historically as fewer people watch TV on TV.
So why the switch by TBS? Stern asked Lopez.
“I think they wanted Conan. I’m going to tell you something that nobody knows. This guy, Koonin, comes into my office. He calls Conan a folk hero. And I said. He said, ‘He’s a folk hero. People love him.’ And I said, ‘Oh, alright. He’s a folk hero.’ And I said, ‘I guess I’m nothing in the Latino community.’ And that’s an audience that’s not fucking watching TBS. Alright, he’s a folk hero. So I said, ‘OK, cool. He’s a folk hero.’ Listen. When they don’t want you there, just ride it out as long as you can go.”
“The thing is: We were very diverse. I had 50 Cent on. I had Far East Movement first time, (Justin) Bieber’s first late-night talk show. Prince was on. Janet Jackson was on. Very diverse kind of show. And no desk. And edgy! I gave out marijuana brownies. We took shots.”
He said he’s clean and sober now. Especially since he drank screwdrivers and Avion on a flight to his Feb. 28 gig at Caesars Windsor, then about 17 shots of Patron the night before that gig. Lopez said he has reached out to friends of his who have stopped drinking, and that his therapist is an addiction specialist.
But back to 2010 and Conan and the Upfronts.
“They extend us. They didn’t cancel the show. They extended, and they pick him to like 2017! And extend us. So we know it. We know it, so we’re just like, ‘Fuck TBS.’ We’ll just do the shows that we want to do. Here’s the thing nobody knows. You know how diverse it is. People love the show. And this and that. So Jesse Jackson. You know, whenever the shit’s really bad, Jesse Jackson comes in. You know. He just appears. (Impersonating Jackson) ‘I understand there’s a problem with TBS, and I have to come in here.’ So he calls the president of TBS to say this is a show we’d like to continue on the air, because it’s diverse. It’s inclusive. It means a lot to the community. They don’t give a fuck about what Jesse Jackson has to say! And still cancel it. And get threatened by the fact that Jesse Jackson called them.”
Stern thought Lopez was calling TBS out for racial discrimination, or worse. “You’re not even hinting. You’re being blatant about it,” Stern countered. “Is it racism?”
“No. It’s not. It’s love of white,” Lopez said. “They love each other so much there’s no room for me at the table…no, no, no, everybody blames everything on race. This is not about race. It’s about numbers. It’s about money. And it’s about love of themselves. So I’m not going to say it’s about race.”
“Was it racism that Jay Leno went did to him (Conan)?” Lopez said. “No. It’s the same situation.”
“But then again, Conan went out a year, he went on tour, he flew around, lamenting that he had been fucked over. And they gave him a check for 40 million dollars. I didn’t get shit. I got two weeks. I got two days to get out of the building!”
Lopez was on Team Coco, though, as he publicly said on the airwaves in 2010. “I didn’t think that 10 o’clock show was necessary,” Lopez said of The Jay Leno Show in NBC primetime of fall 2009. “Let the guy have his show. Let Conan have it. It changed the whole climate, the landscape. Let Conan succeed or fail on his own with The Tonight Show without Jay Leno going at 10 o’clock.”
Then again, Lopez doesn’t much care for Leno as a person, or for his hosting stints on The Tonight Show.
“He wouldn’t put a lot of comedians on The Tonight Show. Johnny Carson did. I can’t speak for Jay Leno, but you know there was a lot of dissension among the comedians that he wasn’t a comedian-type of guy,” Lopez said, before zinging him a minute or so later: “If Jay Leno could fuck one of his cars, and it could fuck him back, he would have never done The Tonight Show. He would’ve been happy in his garage.”
Moreover, he joked about Leno calling him up once after he mocked Leno on a different radio interview years ago and threatening to fight him. At Richard Jeni’s funeral service back in 2007, Lopez alleged “Jay Leno goes up to Paul Rodriguez and says, ‘Listen, man. If you’ve got a problem with me, why don’t you say it to my face?’ That motherfucker don’t even get his Mexicans straight!”
Back in 2014, Lopez is in the middle of a 10-episode run of Saint George on FX. If ratings are good enough, FX will pick up an additional 90 episodes, guaranteeing Lopez a long second life in sitcom syndication.