Mo'Nique, the charismatic, bold comedian and actress, can pinpoint exactly when she started to fall out of love with late-night television. It happened in the spring of 1994, when Arsenio Hall, the man who broke the genre's color barrier, walked away from his popular syndicated show.
"When Arsenio left late night, so did I," she recalls. "I just hated to see him go. When you watch television, you want to see people who look like you." Starting last month, Mo'Nique began doing her part to make that happen by hosting her own hourlong blend of talk and variety. "The Mo'Nique Show" airs Monday through Friday at 11 p.m. on BET.
"We want you to feel good. It's a party, baby," she said. "When you're done watching, you're going to go to bed with a smile on your face. We're setting you up to have the sweetest dreams possible."
That's a rousing mission statement, indeed. But Mo'Nique won't be the only one looking to bring a fresh look to a late-night scene long ruled by white guys. Also adding some color are Wanda Sykes and George Lopez, who launch their own programs Saturday and next week, respectively.
"The Wanda Sykes Show" will air Saturday nights at 11 on Fox and feature the irreverent comedian's take on the events of the week, along with discussion panels and comedy segments. Meanwhile, "Lopez Tonight" (TBS), airing weeknights at 11 starting Nov. 9, will offer an "outdoor street-party atmosphere" with celebrity guests and musical and comedy performances.
"Change has come to the White House, and now change is coming to late night," says Lopez, who plans to eschew a desk and cue cards. "We can send a message."
Ask Sykes why it has taken so long to incorporate some diversity into late-night and she offers a sly, tongue-in-cheek response.
"White people," she says. "There are too many of you."
Arsenio led the way
But back in 1989, when Johnny Carson still lorded over late night, "The Arsenio Hall Show" debuted in syndication with a hip young upstart host who found a way to carve out his own piece of late-night turf. While Carson catered to old-Hollywood types, Hall drew rappers, musicians and other performers who typically didn't populate the talk-show circuit - people like MC Hammer and Bobby Brown (not to mention a young presidential candidate named Bill Clinton).
Several other black hosts eventually tried to follow Hall's lead. Magic Johnson had his own show, as did Keenan Ivory Wayans, Whoopi Goldberg and Byron Allen. Quincy Jones produced a show called "Vibe." All of them, however, flamed out quickly - and then the well dried up.
When Carson abdicated his throne, the parade of white men began with Jay Leno and David Letterman leading the way. Later came Conan O'Brien, Carson Daly, Jimmy Kimmel and Craig Ferguson. And this year, when NBC had a late-night vacancy after its highly publicized Leno-O'Brien shuffle, another white male was waiting in the wings: Jimmy Fallon. E! Entertainment's Chelsea Handler, who debuted in 2007, is the lone female in the ranks.
"Nowadays, the hosts of late-night TV look like the audiences they are chasing. Their target audience is young males," says Eric Deggans, a media critic who has written extensively on late-night television's lack of diversity.
Following Oprah's example
Meanwhile, daytime talk TV has become the domain of women - including Oprah Winfrey - largely because females make up the daytime target audience.
Mo'Nique, who says she was inspired by Winfrey and has long yearned to do a talk show, says she's looking forward to joining the "boys' club." Her show, however, originates from Atlanta - not the typical late-night hub - and will offer a distinct alternative.
"What makes me different is I wear dresses every night," she says. "Now, if George wears dresses, that's his business. But I hope he don't do it out in public."
While the newcomers bring change to the late-night landscape, it remains to be seen what kind of impact they can make. Lopez says his show's position on basic cable will allow him the "freedom to take greater liberties," but his ratings aren't likely to approach Leno or Letterman level. The same can be said for Mo'Nique on the niche BET.
Meanwhile, Sykes is on a broadcast network, but her platform will be limited by the Saturday night time slot.
Still, these shows can have an influence, claims Deggans, who believes other networks will get involved if viewers respond. It also will depend, he says, on whether they can "distill something special" that the network shows have not.
"Arsenio offered a window into a vibrant, often-black entertainment culture that was mostly absent from the late-night mainstream," he says. "But these days, Jimmy Fallon has the Roots as a house band. Jay Leno had Kanye West and Jay-Z as his first musical guests [in his new time slot]. If any of these other comics can tap a special vibe, they will stick out as vibrant alternative. If not, they're just the same old shtick in a different-hued wrapper."
Wanda Sykes is psyched for her new talk show
Heading to the set of CBS’ “The New Adventures of Old Christine,” where she plays acerbic Barb, and fresh from her latest hilarious HBO special, “I’ma Be Me,” Wanda Sykes is exhausted yet exhilarated from work and caring for the 6-month-old twins she and her wife have. Her new late-night show hadn’t been taped at this writing, but Sykes, 45, explained the premise to Zap2it.
Will anything be off limits?
No. I told the writers as long as it’s relevant, if I can see why we are doing it, it has to be grounded in reality, let’s not be mean-spirited. I’m not going to just call somebody fat.
What’s the format?
I am going to do a monologue. It will be the big story — whatever the hot story is everyone is talking about this week. I have a sidekick, Keith Robinson. We have been friends for over 20 years. He’s a very funny comic who opened for me on the road. The audience can see me with my real friends. He pushes my buttons.
So you can riff on anything from reality shows to philandering politicians. Then what happens?
Then it’s just a big hodgepodge. We’re calling it “Wandarama.” That will be video clips and photos, doing all of the stories of the week, then a three-minute produced piece, a man-on-the-street or correspondent. This weekend I went to Adultcon, the convention for the porn industry, asking them to go green. What’s wrong with a solar-powered vibrator?
That should be rich territory. After the produced piece, what do you do?
Then a panel. That’s where the drinking begins. There’s a bar onstage. And we will have a panel, a pundit or an author and a celebrity and maybe a comedian. Not straight-on interviews, more about whatever pop culture, another pushing the buttons. It will not be interviewing a star about his new movie. It’s a little bit like Bill Maher, but not so stiff, more laid-back. Just hanging out with your friends on a Saturday night.
Who would be your ideal guests?
I would love to have Jane Fonda, Chris Rock and Andy Roddick, would be a great panel. Throw Michael Phelps in there.
Anyone you don’t want on?
Jon and Kate, no thank you. And I don’t know if I need to talk to real housewives, but I don’t want to rule anyone out. I am not going to have anyone on if I’m not going to be pleasant.
--- JACQUELINE CUTLER, Zap2It.com