George Lopez is the Latino Richard Pryor. Just as Richard did for black people, George relieved the pressure of being Latino in the United States. For the first time — at least in my generation — there was someone on TV who made Latinos laugh at themselves, instead of someone pandering or poking fun at their expense. I’m not saying George never danced for the crowd; at times you could tell he was laying on the Chicano a little thick. But you knew he was doing it for the same reason all Latinos do it: to feel more like what we imagine Latinos to be. Since much of what we see and hear about Latino-ness comes from the media, and since the media mostly panders and mocks, inevitably we feel less than Latino — even though we’re the real Latinos, while what’s depicted on-screen is merely pretense. George knows our insecurities as his own, and it’s those Latino insecurities that are often the butt of the joke.
Time passes, however, people change, and what was once groundbreaking eventually becomes irrelevant. Today George is an elder statesman of comedy — not just “Latino comedy,” but comedy, period — which means, while he’s still considered a comedic genius, he hasn’t revealed a secret from our everyday lives and made us laugh at it with tears in our eyes in some time. His 2004 comedy special Why You Crying? is a classic, and “the George Lopez show” is arguably the greatest Latino sit-com of all time. But now nearly a full decade since the series finale, and after failed attempts at a late-night talk show and another sit-com, George’s latest project, Lopez, has been renewed for a second season on TV Land. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” as another comedy legend famously quoth, but we all know who’s tuning in to the station that designs its programming schedule around old reruns of The Andy Griffith Show and Everybody Loves Raymond, and it isn’t millennials.
Born in 1979, Cristela Alonzo doesn’t qualify as a Latina millennial. Yet her new Netflix comedy special, Lower Classy, may be the first time a Latino comic has so publicly put their finger on what it is to be youngish and Latino. Her punchlines hit with the accuracy and intimacy of inside jokes and, though she’s far from poor these days, the stories she tells of her childhood are immediately recognizable to any U.S.-born Latino who’s grown up in a single-parent immigrant family. “People don’t understand,” she says in one set-up, “when you grow up between two cultures of any kind, it’s hard because you start realizing that certain things you do that are considered, you know, like, American are ridiculous to the other side of your family.” With such a sharp premise, I needn’t finish the bit, in which Cristela asks her hard-nosed mother if she could go swim with dolphins during spring break. Later on she talks about being profiled by a saleswoman at Bloomingdale’s, dropping a line from Selena — yes, the movie. I mean, does it get any more Latino millennial than that?
Of course, there are other Latino comics out there, even actual Latina millennials. Anjelah Johnson, famous for her role as the ghettofied fast-food worker on Mad TV, dropped what was the greatest hour-long comedy special by a Latina up till that point in 2010, That’s How We Do It! Though it definitely had its moments, like the nail salon bit, there was something unconvincing about Anjelah and her performance. It felt as though she were pandering much of the time, relying on limp Chicano stereotypes for her laughs. Mostly she seemed to be doing a younger, Latina version of George Lopez’s act — though, to be fair, I think every U.S. Latino comic is probably doing a version of George. Anjelah’s next two specials, The Homecoming Show and Not Fancy, were forgettable.
Sofía Niño de Rivera is also a Latina millennial comic, but Chilango‘s 2016 “Chilanga of the Year” gears her jokes more toward audiences south of the border. Still, last year’s Mex-centric Netflix comedy special Exposed had me rolling, and I’m not even Mexican. My wife is though — a juarense by birth — and she found Sofía’s act refreshing and her observations on Chihuahuan culture on point. I’ve yet to catch an episode of Club de Cuervos, the Mexican “dramedy” and Netflix’s first Spanish-language show in which Sofía stars, but given what I saw in Exposed, I’m willing to give it a binge one weekend. And a reviewer calls her Tedx talk on the need to be lazy — “echar la hueva” — “a revelation,” so I fully plan on catching that, too.
I’ve only mentioned the Latinas because, from what I can tell, they’re getting the lioness’s share of the laughs — at least the memorable ones. (Last year Louis C.K. topped Mitú‘s list of must-see Latino comedians, and maybe he his, having been raised in Mexico between the ages of one and seven; Spanish is his first language, though he says he’s forgotten most of it — very Latino. But being raised in Mexico City makes Louie a little less Latino than Pope Frank, and Louie doesn’t even pretend to identify as a Latino.) There are a number of good Latino comics — Vladimir Caamaño comes to mind — but none have the range and depth of a Cristela Alonzo who is so authentic to the mainstream Latino youngish experience, so relaxed and natural on stage. She is, no joke, the new (and improved) George Lopez.
Featured image: Netflix