Playwright Develops Hispanic Sitcom
May. 07, 1998
LOS ANGELES (AP) _ At 17, Josefina Lopez was an undocumented immigrant, working in a sewing factory and dreaming of the day she would be a legal resident and able to go to college.
At night, she vented her frustrations by writing. Using anger as inspiration, Lopez wrote an award-winning play that same year. Within two years, it was in production in small theaters, and eventually went nationwide.
Now 29, the funny and passionate writer wants to expand her audience through television. A former staff writer on ``Living Single,'' Lopez is working with pioneering TV producer Norman Lear to develop a sitcom pilot about Hispanics, ``The Chavez Family.''
She described the show, which is being shopped to networks, as a blend of ``Married ... With Children'' and the Lear-produced ``All in the Family.''
``I love her,'' Lear said. ``She's extremely talented.''
In an industry where Hispanics are nearly invisible on- and off-screen, such a project is ambitious. Some might say its mass appeal is dubious.
A Michigan State University study, analyzing a week of broadcast network programming from 1996, found only 18 Hispanics among 566 major and minor characters on TV.
And according to the Screen Actors Guild, Hispanic performers in film and TV roles in 1997 made up 4 percent of all actors.
But Lear and Lopez believe the project will be successful.
``I think it can happen,'' Lear said. ``I think the American public is ready for anything that's right.''
``Everybody wants a Latino show, but nobody wants to take a chance,'' Lopez said. ``This could be the project.''
In 1984, Lear produced the short-lived ``a.k.a. Pablo,'' starring comedian Paul Rodriguez. With a nearly all Hispanic cast, the show was an example of the experimentation that has garnered Lear accolades and long-running sitcoms, but also a few failed shows.
``a.k.a. Pablo'' earned low ratings and went off the air after six episodes, which Lear thinks was not enough time to give the show a fair shake.
Lopez thinks the show failed because the concept of a Hispanic-themed sitcom was ahead of its time and the show relied on jokes that stereotyped Hispanics.
``The Chavez Family,'' she said, is representative of the Latino experience. ``The laughter comes out of the experiences rather than stereotypical things.''
Among recognition earned by Lopez' several successful plays and TV scripts, ``Simply Maria or the American Dream'' won an Emmy after it was performed on public television in San Diego. The National Conference of Christians and Jews honored it for promoting cultural understanding.
She caught Lear's eye with ``Real Women Have Curves,'' a play about women working in a sewing factory, like the one where Lopez worked as a teen-ager.
Throughout her career, Lopez has used her experiences for performance material, writing about her father's infidelity, the pain of cultural assimilation, and dealing with the machismo inherent in the Hispanic culture.
She's been so candid about her family life that her family has, at times, been embarrassed.
``How could you tell everyone?'' they've asked her, even refusing to attend an awards ceremony.
But it is Lopez's ability to deal honestly with Hispanics and their lives that may be the key to her success.
``She has a real emotional and comedic side to the travails of part of her life and Latino life,'' said Bill Miller, Edward James Olmos' partner at the Olmos Production Co. ``She can really express the irony that gives (the audience) a real bang and stops them in their tracks.''
Lopez is working on a couple of TV movie scripts for Olmos' company, including ``The Lupe Vasquez Story,'' about a young homeless woman who earns a scholarship to Stanford and graduates at the top of her class to work in Silicon Valley.
``We're one prominent production company, but we need more. We need many more,'' Miller said. ``The amount of Latinos in the United States are over 30 million who are watching television, who want to watch Latino-themed shows. It's a power that can no longer be overlooked by the networks, by the studios.''
Elsewhere in television ....
MAD MILLER: The 100th episode of ``Dennis Miller Live'' shows on HBO Friday night with former ``Saturday Night Live'' cohorts David Spade and Norm MacDonald as Miller's guests. The satirist also gets his point across in ``Ranting Again,'' out next month from Doubleday. In the book he writes about ``clueless politicians (who) compete for baseless votes cast by uninformed citizens'' and about the downfall of the middle class, bad drivers and UFOs.