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George Lopez

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Over the past two decades, George Lopez has gone from factory worker to TV funny guy, turning his rich life experiences into a hit sitcom, ABC’s The George Lopez Show. After actress Sandra Bullock saw the comedian in a Southern California comedy club in 2000, Lopez got his biggest break. She executive-produced his show, which has become the most successful Latino sitcom on network TV since Chico and the Man in the ’70s, starring one of Lopez’s idols, Freddie Prinze.

With his show’s third season premiering Sept. 10 (8:30 p.m.), Lopez told PEOPLE about his early days on the stand-up scene, his comic heroes and his daughter’s knack for the “Lopez put-down.”

You were 18 years old when you started in stand-up. Tell us about your first time.
It was June 4, 1979, the first time I went on stage. I didn’t know I could do it but I knew I couldn’t not do it. I quit everything in my life and this was the one thing I couldn’t quit. The first night was awful because I was so afraid, and I was never more afraid because it was going out of my character to be outgoing and to be vulnerable and to be out there and onstage. My hands were sweaty and I couldn’t swallow, and I drank a bottle of wine to calm my nerves.

How did you refine your comedic skills?
I love comedy and I would write things to myself as an exercise in writing. I didn’t do well for years, and I quit. I started to break down why I was afraid and started to look at people I admired, like Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Freddie Prinze, George Carlin and all. I said, To get to where they are, they all have had to endure bad nights and it’s not easy. If the worst thing that can happen is that nobody laughs, then I can deal with that, because the worst thing that can happen at the factory is that I could lose a limb or be crushed by a huge machine.

So I started to relax and would work on my act eight hours a day, sitting at a desk writing at my grandmother’s house, and I would put on Richard Pryor Live on Long Beach and would play it like a loop and think and write.

How do you feel about all your success?
I’ve gotten to a place where I am comfortable and I don’t battle myself. I’m further ahead than I ever thought I’d be. I’ve exceeded everyone’s expectations – including, I think, my own.

Sandra Bullock is one of the executive producers of your show. How is your relationship with her?
They were putting together a book for her birthday of all her friends, and they asked me to fill out a blank piece of paper and tell her how I felt. I couldn’t do it because I have a hard time putting my thoughts on paper, because I’m not a put-it-down-on-paper person. I tell her in person all the time how much she means to me, and I e-mailed her and sent her a huge flower arrangement.

Of all the types of shows she could have done, it’s amazing that a Latino family show is what she wanted to do. If it was any other kind of show, we would have never met.

Tell us about your 6-year-old daughter, Mayan.
She’s a lot like me. We were playing Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? and she was sitting on my lap. I didn’t know what the flag of Tunisia was, and I wasn’t getting it from the clues. After four tries she looks at me and says, “You didn’t go to college, did you?” She’s hilarious! That was a Lopez put-down!