A golf cart drives by George Lopez's trailer on the Warner Bros. studio lot and causes the floor to rumble, triggering a 20-year-old flashback.
Lopez had been putting together material to send to comedy clubs when fatigue overwhelmed him and he went to his bedroom. One of his head shots was lying face up on the kitchen table when his brusque grandfather walked in with a friend. The tough old guy pointed to the photograph and remarked that his grandson was talented and very funny.
Lying in bed, Lopez overheard the comment.
"Thank God for tract housing," he said. "If we had been able to afford insulation, I never would have known."
His dysfunctional, working-class upbringing in the San Fernando Valley northwest of downtown Los Angeles has provided Lopez reams of material for his successful comedy and radio career. Now, it landed him on a very exotic plane for a Latino: prime-time network television, with his own sitcom, "The George Lopez Show." The last episode of the short-run series airs Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. on ABC.
In addition to starring, Lopez has creator, producer and writer credits on the program. "I had a good lawyer," he said.
The show, even in a limited engagement, might help ABC deflect some of the criticism from activists who have complained for years about the dearth of minorities in front of and behind the camera.
The network's No. 1 sitcom right now, "My Wife and Kids," stars Damon Wayans as the patriarch of a loving, middle-class black family. ABC bestowed a scheduling gift upon "George Lopez" by placing it after "My Wife and Kids." The series faced the possibility of a fall return, but early ratings in its one-month run were not encouraging.
In November 2000, Lopez hit Los Angeles radio airwaves with a morning drive-time show, becoming the city's first Latino morning DJ on an English-language station, in a market dominated by Spanish-language radio. The show rose into the top 10.
The easygoing, bear-like actor also has a few movie credits under his belt, including HBO's original movie "Real Women Have Curves," which drew awards at the Sundance Film Festival this year.
Still, Lopez, 40, noted that nothing could have prepared him for the blunt, tough world of network television. At one point, an executive told him to stop "bugging out" his eyes when he was surprised.
Lopez is part of a complicated dance as the networks attempt to diversify their programming. When launching a show such as Lopez's, ABC must appeal to the widest possible audience, convincing viewers that Lopez's show isn't ethnically or culturally exclusive while making Latino viewers feel special and understood.
It's a difficult balancing act, one ABC previously tried in the early 1990s with "All-American Girl," a show built around Asian American comic Margaret Cho. That program lasted a single season.
"Everybody here is really hopeful it could draw a big audience, a big family audience," said ABC Entertainment President Susan Lyne. "He is someone who could genuinely break out."
ABC bought promotional time for the program on the Spanish-language networks.
In some magazines, the network placed a full-page ad of a shirtless Lopez wearing a green dress that hooked together only at the waist. In large type it read: "G-Lo. The other Lopez."
During the first episode, only one word of Spanish was spoken.
"In [past shows], when they got mad, they broke into Spanish," Lopez said. "But for us, we wanted to go easy at first. We're not afraid of Spanish, but I'd like the show to stand on its funniness first. We want to play it in the middle of the road."
But two characters, Lopez's on-screen mother and his best friend, Ernie, have punched up their delivery with accents.
"My thinking was, if I'm his best friend, I need to be as close to him as possible and as true to where I grew up as possible. Most Latinos have an accent of some sort," said Valente Rodriguez, who plays Ernie, and envisions his character as born in East Los Angeles.
One of the show's executive producers, Bruce Helford, who is known for his success with other comic-driven sitcoms including "Roseanne" and "The Drew Carey Show," said "The George Lopez Show" has "rhythms" to it. In addition to Lopez, two members of the writing staff are Latinos.
"It sounds different than any other show," Helford said, although there seemed to be some confusion about the characters' accents. Helford said Ernie was born in Mexico, despite Rodriguez's view of his character. Helford also said the mother's origins are unclear, while the actress playing her, Belita Moreno, is sure she plays an East Los Angeles native who learned English as a second language.
No, said Helford. "We haven't gotten around to where she's from, but she has an accent, so she's old world," he said.
There has yet to be a sitcom with central Latin characters who are complicated and real, such as the black leads in "My Wife and Kids" and Fox's "The Bernie Mac Show." There also have been relatively few attempts, among them: in 1987, ABC premiered "I Married Dora," with Elizabeth Pena as an undocumented Central American housekeeper who avoided deportation by persuading her boss to marry her. This plot line violated immigration law, and the network ran a full-screen caveat and disclaimer to viewers: "You should not try this in your own house."
In 1996, meanwhile, the network featured Greg Giraldo as a Latino lawyer in "Common Law," another short-lived comedy. And last year, NBC ordered a comedy pilot featuring Latina comic Debi Gutierrez, but the show fizzled in the development stage.
PBS, meanwhile, is airing "American Family," a rare Latino drama developed and passed on by CBS. PBS remains publicly supportive of the show, even though it has averaged less than a 1 rating (or 1 percent of U.S. homes) since its January premiere, a disappointing figure for any network.
The drama's cast underscores the small population of Latino performers with television experience. Some "American Family" cast members are juggling their work on the drama with roles on other series, including Esai Morales, who co-stars on ABC's "NYPD Blue," and Constance Marie, who plays Lopez's wife.
"The George Lopez Show" came to ABC by way of film star Sandra Bullock, and the ease with which she landed a deal testifies to the strength of connections in Hollywood. She pushed for a television project about two years ago and sent out feelers that she was interested in good comics. She caught Lopez's act at a local comedy club, met him after the show and said she wanted to pursue a sitcom centered on him. Bullock, Helford and two of the show's other executive producers met with ABC executives in August, and the network committed to 13 episodes.
As always, the hope is that the show's humor will play not only to Latinos but to a wider audience. In the first few minutes of the premiere, for example, Lopez tells his teenage daughter that she doesn't have to learn how to swim because "we're already here."