Finally, Diversity In Late Night Comedy?

  • Playlist
  • Download
  • Embed
    Embed <iframe src="http://www.npr.org/player/embed/120116498/120116473" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no">
  • Transcript

Three new late night talk shows will debut on major networks this fall, and producers promise they won't be serving up the same old Conan O'Brien and David Letterman fare. The new programs are hosted by two African Americans — one a lesbian mother of twins — and a Latino. Damian Holbrook, of TV Guide, and Elon James White, of "This Week In Blackness," talk about the implications of Mo'Nique, Wanda Sykes and George Lopez joining the late night television comedy scene.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Finally, to a very different topic. If you've been staying up late at night and looking for something on the tube to keep you company, until last month your choice were: Letterman, Conan, Jimmy Fallon, Craig Ferguson. Notice any similarities there? Well, so did the actress and comedian Monique.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Mo'Nique Show Weeknights")

MO'NIQUE (Comedian, actress): For the babies out there, Aunt Nique(ph) understands, baby, I understand when you open up them history books and you keep saying wait a minute, where are we? And the only time you see us in the history book is in shackles and chains. Then when you see us, you see us only from February 1st to the 28th. Well, that just don't work well with my system.

Unidentified Woman: That's right.

MO'NIQUE: So we're going to start having Black History Month, right now, today.

(Soundbite of applause)

(Soundbite of cheering)

MARTIN: Monique launched her late-show "Weeknights" in early October on BET with a promise to bring a new perspective to late-night television, and she isn't the only one. Wanda Sykes is coming to Fox, starting this Saturday, with a weekly program. Sykes is not only an African-American woman, she's also a lesbian and mother of twins.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Wanda Sykes Show")

Ms. WANDA SYKES (Comedian, actress): You know, people ask me why I'm doing late-night TV. Well, now whenever we ask our friends to come over you know, they want to know, are the babies going to be there? I'm like, of course, the babies going to be there. They're like oh, well, we can't make it or I got to go give blood.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SYKES: And so clearly, I had no choice but to find another place to hang out, so this is my home away from home.

MARTIN: And Latino entertainer George Lopez will be joining the fray too.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. GEORGE LOPEZ (Comedian, actor): Hey, this is George Lopez and today's topic is one of my favorites. It's race.

Unidentified Man: Hey, George. My best friend, Pedro married a white girl and now he doesn't want to hang out with the boys. What happened?

Mr. LOPEZ: Well listen, if I scored myself a white woman, I wouldn't want to hang out with a dude with a goatee and backward hat anyways. So the thing to do is go get yourself one. All right? They're all over the place, dude. They're at the malls, also Office Max, and Staples.

MARTIN: Well, all righty then. Joining me to talk about these new shows on the late-night scene are Damian Holbrook, of TV Guide. He's writer of the guide's weekly "Hot List," and Elon James White. He's a comedian, writer and host of the Web series "This Week In Blackness."

Gentlemen, welcome to you both. Thank you for joining us.

Mr. DAMIAN HOLBROOK (Writer, TV Guide's "Hot List"): Thank you for having me.

Mr. ELON JAMES WHITE (Comedian writer): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So Damian, of course, this isn't - Mo'Nique, Wanda, George Lopez aren't the first people of color to have programs on late-night television. Arsenio Hall had a program in the 80s. What happened to him?

Mr. HOLBROOK: Well, you know, he kind of peaked. You know, he really burned bright when he first started and that was a place for everybody go. It was a destination show. But then there was a kind of a lack of sincerity, a disingenuous, you know, feeling to it and people kind of tuned out. You know, it kind of played itself out.

MARTIN: And, of course, there've been other host of color, Whoopi Goldberg, Keenen Ivory Wayans, Magic Johnson all had runs on late-night television. In fact, I had to look that up because I didn't remember...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: ...remember all of that. But why do you think they didn't do particularly well?

Mr. HOLBROOK: You know, I'm surprised that "The Whoopi Goldberg Show" didn't take off just because she's so good with a crowd. But some of the others, they just didn't have that energy. They don't have that chemistry. The Magic Johnson show was just so poorly produced. He didn't have that connection. He wasn't comfortable on camera, you know, it was just - it was a bad fit. He and late night were not good. And "The Chris Rock Show," I think he was just a little too edgy for Middle America to pull in the ratings.

MARTIN: Okay. Elon, what's your take on this?

Mr. WHITE: I mean, a lot of the shows that failed were because of like a lack of authenticity. Like, when Arsenio Hall first came out everyone really felt it was the show - it was a real show. Everyone's like yeah, Arsenio, woo. But then like, as he said, it got played out. But those other shows actually started out kind of played out to begin with.

MARTIN: But what does that mean? I mean obviously there's a matter of taste and one's (unintelligible) and what we think is funny is, you know, we have our own opinion. But what does that mean to you?

Mr. WHITE: Well, for example, the "Chappelle Show" was very authentic. Like it from the beginning, like he always made jokes that this show was about to go off the air at any moment because the fact is that he was doing what he thought was funny where he wasn't going in like we need to get best ratings ever. It was like we're going do what we think is funny and then see what happens - let's hopefully, no one will sue us.

MARTIN: Hmm. It was a high-wire act sort of do you think?

Mr. WHITE: Right.

MARTIN: Well, Damian, what do you think about that? And I'm also interested in your take on, you know, we are highlighting the identities of these three performers as people of color.

Mr. HOLBROOK: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: But I think they may - I mean they obviously use that question and in Wanda's case, she also talks about her sexual orientation...

Mr. HOLBROOK: Right.

MARTIN: ...which is something she only made public a couple of years ago. But they may see themselves primarily as comics. But I am interested in this whole question of to what degree they bring their identities to the fore and build a mass audience with that.

Mr. HOLBROOK: Yeah.

MARTIN: And also, I just want to mention, of course, you know, Mo'Nique made a joke at the beginning in the clip that we played about how black people only see themselves in, you know, the history books in shackles and chains. Well, you know, I would edit that to say a duh, they're in the White House too so...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: ...so it isn't the only place you can see black people on TV these days, clearly. And you know, but...

Mr. HOLBROOK: No, I think there's an African-American kid on "90210."

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Yeah.

Mr. HOLBROOK: But, you know, she's right. You know, like there is not a huge, you know, presence on television right now. But I don't think that any of the networks or the executives are looking at bringing these guys into late-night as our chance for diversity. I really think in the way that you set this up, I think they've run out of funny old white guys, you know, and they have to go find new blood.

MARTIN: Hmm.

Mr. HOLBROOK: Whether they're Latino, African-American, woman, gay, lesbian, whatever. I mean they're looking their bottom line and who's going to bring in some ratings. And Mo'Nique obviously right now is smoking hot with "Precious" coming up. And Wanda Sykes continually delivers with her HBO specials. So you look at these two women and you think well, they would be really safe bets. And Lopez, his show ran for a lot longer than it probably should have on ABC so obviously, he's got an audience that he can bring to this thing.

MARTIN: Okay. And Elon, what do you think?

Mr. WHITE: First of all, I don't think they ever run out of old white men. There's always white - someone out there that they could put on a show. What's happening right now is that - as it's been happening since - especially since Obama came to the forefront here. A lot of people are scrambling for blackness or diversity because like oh, look. It looks like we're becoming more diverse. We need to make magic now. We need to put some more color out there.

And that's why - it's not like a big woo, we want people to be happy and see themselves on television. Like he said, it is about ratings. They want to see if they can catch on to, right now, the feelings that everyone have about being all diverse and happy and joyous and that's why they're throwing out the Mo'Nique's to the - I mean, but Mo'Nique is on BET. That's not exactly being very diverse there.

MARTIN: Hmm.

Mr. HOLBROOK: Right.

Mr. WHITE: But like with George Lopez, I believe he's on TBS.

MARTIN: He is.

Mr. WHITE: Yeah. They're trying to catch that magic in a bottle, basically, which they tried with D.L. Hughley on CNN, they tried with David Alan Grier on Comedy Central. It's an attempt to get that market that's obviously not being served. Like the hole that was left with the "Chappelle Show" and things like that.

MARTIN: Okay. So Mo'Nique is BET.

Mr. WHITE: RIGHT.

MARTIN: Lopez is on TBS.

Mr. WHITE: Right.

MARTIN: And who is, as you mentioned, did have a network - a sitcom and Wanda Sykes is weekly - Saturday's on Fox.

Mr. WHITE: Fox.

MARTIN: And so does that mean something and she was heavily promoted during the World Series, by the way, so it seems clear that the network is making an effort to promote that program.

Mr. HOLBROOK: So definitely is. Especially, I mean, you think she's also got this role on "The New Adventures of Old Christine" so they kind of want to remind people, like this woman's on our network too. And the one thing about all three of these hosts, also, is they probably are the most likely to say things that will get people talking. None of these three ever really hold their tongues, so...

Mr. WHITE: But that...

MARTIN: What do you - go ahead Elon. But, you know, can I ask you this though, there was this interesting conversation around the time of the inauguration about - in fact, one comedian did - one of the late-night host actually did a skit about that is can you make fun of Obama? And are you sort of crossing some line? And obviously "Saturday Night Live" got some attention when they have an actor, Fred Armisen, who is biracial, but not part African-American...

Mr. HOLBROOK: Right.

MARTIN: ...in essentially, in black face portraying Obama. There was some kafuffle around that. But can you - do you think the expectation is that these artists, because they are artists of color will somehow be edgier around Obama or more - take more chances in talking about Obama than they would if they were white. And I'd like to hear from both of you. Elon, what do you think?

Mr. WHITE: I don't really think that it's the edgy factor. Like I know people keep being freaked out about the idea of making fun of Obama. And the fact is, like you can make fun Obama when Obama does dumb things. Like, there's no line of that you can't cross in making a joke about Obama. But I don't think they were brought on to be that like oh, well they're of color so they can say things that the white people can't say. The big thing with Armisen on "SNL" was that he also does a horrendous horrendous Obama impression.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WHITE: Perhaps, if it was funny it would be like, oh, then oh, that's fine. But it's like at this point, he's not even trying. He's just talking and it's like, why are you Obama? Like, it doesn't make sense at all.

MARTIN: And just to clarify it, it was Jimmy Kimmel that I was thinking of who did this skit at this black barbershop, saying, sort of testing out his jokes. I don't know how you felt about it. I thought it was funny. But Damian, what do you think about that?

Mr. HOLBROOK: You know, I know that Wanda Sykes has been very open about she plans on defending the president. I mean she's ready to take on the conservatives and her show's going have more of that Bill Maher feel, where it's going to have a political edge. It's going to have the roundtable concept. But she's determined to kind of, you know, champion Obama.

I think Lopez will probably have more fun poking at the president. And Mo'Nique, her show isn't really - it doesn't have that vibe. It doesn't have that political thing.

MARTIN: Political vibe. It's more like a party.

Mr. HOLBROOK: It's more like a party.

MARTIN: Yeah.

Mr. HOLBROOK: And in Lopez's show, I mean has said looks like a street fair. So there's going to be a lot more fun there. But his stuff has always been he always goes into that immigration stuff and borders and things like that, and you can't, you know, you can't avoid the political speech when you do...

MARTIN: Well, that's interesting because Lopez actually campaigned for Obama, so that'll be interesting. There were a number of performers in evidence at the Denver Convention, but and some actively campaigned. I know that Wanda Sykes, of course, has been a defender and supporter of the president.

Okay. Finally, Elon, we only have 30 seconds so what do these hosts need to do to be successful?

Mr. WHITE: Be funny.

Mr. WHITE: In the end, I mean like if you do what you do and you're funny at what you do, then hopefully it will hold water. There's not much else they can do.

MARTIN: Okay. Damian, very briefly you, what do they need to do to succeed?

Mr. HOLBROOK: I completely agree. They need to be funny. I don't care what their color, what their race is, who they sleep with. They need to be funny and bring on some good guests.

MARTIN: All right. Damian Holbrook, of TV Guide joined us from Philadelphia. Elon James White came to us from New York City.

Gentlemen, I thank you both.

Mr. HOLBROOK: Thank you.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

(Soundbite of music)

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.