What is your stand on illegal immigration?
There’s a need for a place where people can come and work. If you chase people by taking away things, we damage ourselves as a country. It’s easy to say illegal immigration is responsible for the economy and taxes. In Las Vegas, a lot of the people who clean those rooms are probably undocumented. If that goes away, you’re not going to pay 99 cents for a shrimp cocktail, you’re going to pay $12. You’re not going to get a room at Palace Station for $30 a night. Everything is going to be $300 and up. The laws need to be changed. My grandfather was not a citizen—he was happy being a citizen of Mexico—but he had his green card and worked here for years and did things the right way. So there’s a place to meet in the middle.
Is it difficult to work immigration into standup comedy for a broad audience since it’s an incendiary topic now?
You work it in by saying, “[Hispanics are] the largest-growing population in the United States, and everything you touch we touch first. And we come to this country with love for this country, we’re not terrorists—we only terrorize family members, never strangers.” Or when Donald Trump says Mexico owes him money, well, “If you borrow money from a Latino, you don’t get it back all at the same time.” I do humor that’s socially relevant, but not to the point of grandstanding.
When your sitcom (George Lopez, 2002-2007) was canceled, you criticized ABC for using racially motivated reasons for its decision. Now ABC airs Cristela, starring Latina comedian Cristela Alonzo. Has there been much change for Latino representation on television since 2007?
Things have gotten better in some places but not in others. When I said that—“television just got a bit whiter,” I think, was the quote—I sounded crazy that day. Now I don’t sound so crazy. I had everybody on my show—African-American people, Asian people, white people. When I do things, I like to keep them to how the country looks. Cristela does that, and that’s nice. But NCIS: Los Angeles, I don’t think any of the lead guys are Latinos. True Detective is coming to Los Angeles, and the people I’ve seen have not been Latinos. Better Call Saul is filming in New Mexico, and it looks like they’re shooting around us. The change has to come with the creators of the shows. When I was the creator, I made it look like things look.
Only a few comics—Bill Maher, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler are some—have joked about the Bill Cosby sexual assault allegations. Is that difficult because he’s a member of the comedians’ fraternity?
It wouldn’t be part of my comedy anyway because I am in favor of women, I love them and they should all be safe. I know Bill Cosby, but not only as a friend of Bill Cosby but as this is something legal that’s still going on, I don’t think there’s a place for me. Bill Maher I get because he’s Bill Maher. John Oliver as well. They’re the satirists of our day. But Eddie Murphy didn’t [impersonate Cosby] on Saturday Night Live [40th anniversary special]. It’s to our own judgment, and mine would be that I would not.
Has your approach to comedy changed over the years?
When I started to do Arsenio in ’89, I was still very green. The ’90s were interesting. I got a bit of a following, then it went away. Then there were four years that were really tough, like ’95-’99, being in the clubs all the time, not having a direction yet. You always look at other people and go, well, why are they doing that and how come I’m not doing it? The minute I stopped worrying about anyone else and why they had a show and I didn’t, everything turned around for me.
You’ve had a few public feuds with other celebrities. Any regrets about those?
I wouldn’t want to be a person who had something done to them and didn’t speak up. I don’t think anybody should be like that. The Eric Estrada thing continues because he continues to say he wants to fight me. [Backstory: A teenage Lopez met Estrada at the height of his CHiPs fame, and Estrada, Lopez said, refused to shake his hand]. All I wanted was an apology. All he wants is to antagonize me. Well, [Estrada] has 16,000 Twitter followers. I have access to 15 million people. It’s really not a fair fight. To bring it into the light only helps him, so I leave it in the dark. But I went to Ralphs supermarket [in Los Angeles]. A guy who works there said, “I saw your buddy [Estrada] in here yesterday.” He’s laughing and says, “He was in here looking at the day-old bread.” And I thought, “I’m winning right now.”
And Jay Leno, when I had my [kidney] transplant I got calls from a lot of people. And he was the only one who called me and wanted something for himself. He wanted The Tonight Show to be the first show I went on. Everybody else asked how I was doing, That didn’t sit right with me.
How did experiencing such a severe illness change you?
When I had surgery in 2005, [I was] healthy for the first time. My thought changed from instead of just wanting to get better and go on with my life, to it being a disservice to people who live sick every day to not go out and try to help them, so we started a foundation. I’ve raised a few million for kids with kidney issues and military people. It gave me a healthy life, but it also gave me a purpose to help other people and expect nothing back for myself.
10 p.m. March 13-14, The Mirage, $60-$80, 702-792-7777, Mirage.com.