George Lopez Told Racist Jokes for Years. Now He’s Finally Trying to Get It Right
Jokes about racism among Latinos were a staple of the comedian’s routine for years. His new Netflix stand-up special signals a long-overdue shift—but is it too little, too late?
In 2017 George Lopez kicked an audience member out of a packed house in Phoenix. The young woman had stood up during the comedian’s performance and flipped him two middle fingers after he said, “There are only two rules in the Latino family: don’t marry somebody Black, and don’t park in front of our house.” The woman was Black and Mexican and later said she’d meant for her response to be playful. But Lopez went on a tirade that soon spread across various gossip and entertainment sites.
“I’m talking, bitch,” Lopez said. “You paid to see a show. Sit your ass down. You can’t take a joke, you’re in the wrong motherfucking place. Sit your fucking ass down or get the fuck out of here!” A full minute and several expletives later, the comedian made the decision for his guest, booting the woman and her friend from his show and repeatedly shouting “Bye!” after them as they left.
Months after that exchange, Lopez’s HBO special The Wall debuted with virtually no jokes about Black Americans—a departure from his earlier work, which often riffed on stereotypes across all races and ethnicities. And in interviews even years later, Lopez complained that America had lost its ability to laugh at racial humor.
But in his new special, We’ll Do It for Half, which debuts Tuesday on Netflix, Lopez takes a different approach, mocking white fear of Black and Brown people instead of highlighting the stereotypical divisions that have historically divided these communities to everyone’s detriment.
Lopez opens We’ll Do It for Half by discussing mass deportations of undocumented Latinos, including veterans, as a great failure of the United States. Toward the end of the show, he returns to this idea, as it pertains to a much broader group. “The future of this country,” he says, “is Latino diversity. Chino, Latino, Black, white. They’re in here tonight. This is diversity at its finest. We’re not going nowhere, cabron!”
Lopez adds, “This country is better than what it is right now. You can’t have people call the fucking police on other people just because they’re some place that you don’t like where they are. We need to start to go back to minding your own fucking business and just letting people do their shit.”
At that point, Lopez addressed some of the racist horror Black Americans face daily: “You got fucking white people that call the police on Black people in Starbucks,” Lopez said. “They’re all fucking scared. ‘Hi. They’re in here. Please help! I can’t talk, I can’t talk. I’m gonna use coffee codes, OK? There are four espressos. Two horchatas just walked in…’” Crucially, Lopez notes, Black and Brown people in this country are not the ones committing mass shootings; that legacy is all white.
When Lopez’s spat with his audience member first went viral in 2017, many who defended Lopez wondered what, exactly, his heckler had expected from the show. To an extent, it was a fair question; Lopez’s stand-up act has been pretty consistent over the years, and has often included a smattering of what could be described as progressive-racist humor.
In some ways, it feels odd, even silly to examine Lopez’s body of work so closely. His zeal for scatological humor and joke forms that rely on sexism and homophobia can make his work feel rusty and retrograde. (Even in 2020 Lopez still can’t finish a show without a few vagina jokes and one admittedly sneaky use of “más puto!”) But for better or worse, Lopez also remains one of the world’s most widely recognized Latino comedians—and his quiet turnaround on race could not come at a more urgent time for both the Latinx community and the world.
The joke that caused ire in 2017 is actually a version of a joke Lopez had told for at least a decade. In his 2007 special America’s Mexican, Lopez recalled his grandmother’s racism—and joked that for revenge, he’d made sure all of her elder care nurses were Black. His grandmother, he joked, was so consumed by dementia that she called her nurses names like “Diana Ross” and “Chaka Khan.” In 2012’s It’s Not Me It’s You, he said that his grandmother, like “all” of his audience’s grandmothers, was racist. He signaled his disapproval for her racism by calling her “la cabrona,” which loosely translates to “that bitch” in English.
“If you’re a girl, your grandmother will tell you, ‘[Marry a Black man] and you’re dead,’” Lopez said at the time. “‘To me, you’re dead.’” He also included a bit about his grandmother not wanting President Barack Obama anywhere near her house.
Typically when Lopez makes such jokes, he clarifies, directly or implicitly, that he does not approve of the racism he’s describing. But either way, as Jorge Cotte wrote for Remezcla after Lopez’s 2017 fan confrontation, Lopez was employing what Australian scholar Sara Ahmed has labeled “progressive-racist” humor.
“[T]he progressive racist would expect the other to be willing to be the butt of the joke by receiving that joke as an expression of solidarity,” Ahmed writes. “The person who is not willing to be the butt, would then get in the way of political solidarity (as well as taking the fun out of the joke)… The problem is: inequality exists in the very structure of address; you cannot joke your way out of a structure.”
Traditionally, Lopez’s humor has played with and inverted stereotypes. At their best, his shows provide an affirming space for Latinos to see and make fun of themselves. Lopez frequently speaks to his audience in Spanish and teases those among them who are not bilingual—reinforcing that his shows cater to his community specifically. The broader entertainment industry, meanwhile, has only recently begun to make room for portrayals of Latinx people beyond drug lords, sex workers, and maids.
But Lopez’s older jokes about race, like the one he told on stage in 2017, also center a certain Latinx identity—the non-Black Latinx—as the Latinx identity. And although Lopez often made clear that he himself does not agree with the racist behaviors he recounted, he still cast these attitudes as inherently funny, rather than actively harmful. With Latinx comedians and series like the now (sadly) finished Vida and Netflix’s brown-love-focused Gentefied addressing colorism head on, playing to these exclusionary stereotypes feels retrograde.
In recent weeks, Black Lives Matter protests have spread throughout the world. In early June, some of Chicago’s predominantly Latinx neighborhoods grew more dangerous for Black people before leaders collaborated to spread a message of unity. Latinx leaders specifically have denounced racism as they urge Latinos to stand with the Black community in this fight. And in Los Angeles, where Lopez is from, Latinx solidarity with the movement has been strikingly strong.
Lopez has been active in this fight as well, using his platform to rally Latinos in support of Black lives and partnering with NYC Together to create opportunities for Black and Latino teenagers. It’s the kind of message all Latinx leaders should be promoting right now. We have all, as a community, allowed racism and colorism to persist among us for too long. And if the king of the “pedo” and “panocha” jokes can get it right, we all can.