It takes an exceptionally talented comic to slay a room with jokes about childhood trauma. Not pedestrian traumas like the old monster in the closet, but genuine wounds — the kind you could juice for twenty years in therapy, if you had the desire and the economic wherewithal. Chicano comedian George Lopez uses the stage as a form of therapy, building his routines around autobiographical stories about growing up in a working-class San Fernando Valley home, run by an unyielding Catholic matriarch. In one of his most famous bits, "Mexican Style Beating," he sneers at white mothers for not knowing how to properly abuse their children. ("Fuckin' amateurs! They don't know how!") Lopez impersonates an inept white mother slapping her child under the watchful eye of a mall security camera (and getting arrested), then contrasts it with a caricature of his own despotic grandmother, who had the foresight to beat her children in department store dressing rooms or in the privacy of her own home. "Why you crying? I barely touch you!" Lopez bellows, whilst flaying a microphone with his palms.
Unsavory as it seems in a culture that now debates the merits of more conventional forms of discipline (the United Nations opposes spanking, though it's still legal in the United States), this tale of corporal punishment rings true for a lot of people. Lopez's impressions of the matriarchs in his family elicited big laughs from his audience in the 2005 Showtime special, Why You Crying?, even when the characters seemed unusually cruel. (The show was based partly on Lopez's autobiography, which provided a thumbnail sketch of the comedian's hard-knock life.) But comedy isn't mere catharsis for Lopez, who's always been kind of a ham. He's a very physical actor, often using the whole stage in the course of a single bit, and rendering his microphone into a prop. (He's screwed off the top and pretended to slug from a flask; smacked it as though smacking the skull of an unruly child; wrapped the chord under his nostrils to impersonate his now-84-year-old grandmother with her oxygen tank).
Though Lopez advertises himself as having a culturally affirming brand of humor (his ABC series The George Lopez Show was very much about putting a Latino couple in the prime-time spotlight), he delivers the "cultural" part in such a sardonic, politically incorrect manner that you can empathize without having ever been paddled by a saucy Mexican grandmother. If you heard the story told straight, you might find it objectionable. But Lopez strips all the sentimentality away — not for nothing did he call his first special Why You Crying? George Lopez performs at Oakland's Paramount Theatre (2025 Broadway) on Friday, Dec. 5. 8 p.m., $39.50-$75.50. ParamountTheatre.com
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