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April 08, 2014

Truth Be Told

In his new show, Saint George, starring George Lopez, producer Matt Williams offers a comic, candid look at America’s culture clash.

Amy Dawes

Expecting a reverent, warm and fuzzy depiction of a Mexican-American family on FX’s new comedy Saint George? Better brace yourself.

This cable show arrives shot through with the hilariously impolite sensibility of comedian George Lopez, and it delivers its comic kick like a party-size serving of tequila y limon.

“Go back to where you came from!” somebody yells within the series’ 1st minute — and that somebody is an acid-tongued abuelita, or little old lady, yelling at the TV, where her fellow Mexican immigrants are demonstrating for their rights in the streets of Los Angeles.

“What FX has told us from the beginning is, ‘Don’t back off, don’t smooth the edges, be very truthful about how people feel and think,’” says executive producer Matt Williams, whose Wind Dancer Films partnered with Lionsgate TV to create the project with Lopez.

That unfettered atmosphere has contributed to what Williams describes as “the most fun I’ve ever had in my life working in TV.” 

For a guy who began his career as a writer on The Cosby Show and went on to co-create the hit Home Improvement starring Tim Allen, that’s saying something.

Lopez, who honed his button-pushing culture-clash material in his stand-up act, on his ABC series The George Lopez Show and on specials like HBO’s America’s Mexican, is right in the middle of it all.

He’s an executive producer, creator and writer on the show, along with David McFadzean, Williams’s longtime writing partner and cofounder of Wind Dancer. Other executive producers include Michael Rotenberg, Dete Meserve and Judd Payne.

“George is in the writers’ room with us,” Williams says. “Everything we pitch, he puts his spin on it.”

The multi-camera sitcom, which premiered in March, revolves around Lopez, who plays a successful entrepreneur caught between cultures when his overbearing, working-class mother (Olga Merediz) moves into his upscale house in the wake of his divorce, trailing a posse of relatives who are reluctant to fully assimilate.

The cast includes Danny Trejo as Lopez’s fun-loving, freeloading uncle Tio; David Zayas as his cousin Junior; Jenn Lyon as his demanding ex-wife Mackenzie; and Kaden Gibson as his sensitive 11-year-old son Harper.

The show grew out of a pitch Williams and McFadzean made in their initial creative meeting with Lionsgate. The duo had set up a 1st-look deal there shortly after they’d relaunched Wind Dancer in 2008, following a hiatus of 7 years.

Lionsgate was looking to create a project for Lopez, one that could adhere to the 10/90 syndication model, which provides that if a series hits certain ratings thresholds in its 1st 10 episodes, it triggers an additional 90-episode order.

The model worked for FX’s Anger Management — and Saint George is now slated as that show’s weekly lead-in.

For Williams, the model offers a major incentive — the chance to move into highly profitable syndicated status at episode 11. But with that comes a significant challenge: a major ramp-up in the pace of production, up to 45 episodes a year, compared to a broadcast network’s traditional 24. 

To meet the challenge, Williams says, experience is essential, since run-throughs and rehearsals are all but eliminated. That’s why the show drew most of its cast from a New York theater background.

“They really have their craft down,” notes Williams, adding that Lopez, who’s in almost every scene, “always knows where the funny is and is always super-prepared, so he sets the bar.”

Williams and McFadzean share a remarkable history. They 1st worked together on Roseanne more than 25 years ago and met even earlier, as roommates at the University of Evansville in Indiana.

Their thinking has become so symbiotic, Williams relates, that they’re able to run 2 writers’ rooms simultaneously, dividing 8 additional writers between them.

They further split the workload by having 1 act as showrunner on set while the other is focused on rewrites or editing.

As for the show’s target demographic, Williams sees it as countrywide.

“When the first question you are asked at the cash machine is whether you want to proceed in Spanish or English, there’s something going on,” he says. “Mexican-American culture has infused nearly every state in America.”

To bridge the divide as an Anglo writer, he relies on what he learned on The Cosby Show:

“Bill Cosby said, ‘Do not write color — write character. If the characters are specific, they will become universal.’”

The sardonic title of the sitcom, Saint George, grew out of the initial concept that Williams and McFadden pitched to Lionsgate, a series about a guy who gave back by teaching English as a 2nd language to immigrants during night classes in downtown Los Angeles.

In the FX show, Lopez’s character gives 1 night a week to that endeavor.

That’s a mere glimmer of the philanthropic efforts of the real-life comic, via his Lopez Foundation, which supports those with chronic kidney conditions and raises awareness of organ donation. Lopez had a kidney transplant in 2005.

Williams, too, has a charitable agenda. His Laughing Angels Foundation works on behalf of children in Haiti who are still suffering in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake.

In partnership with Yves Deshommes, a Haitian-born violinist who works as the concierge at his Manhattan office building, Williams has fostered hope in the village of Bas-Citronniers. The foundation has helped fund a permanent school with classrooms, bathrooms, a medical clinic, a kitchen and vegetable garden and a performance pavilion. The goal is for the project to become self-sustaining within 5 years.

“We have to do this right because it’s a template,” Williams says. “I believe that if you start with one school, others will follow.”

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