Wanda Sykes debut shows possibilities and pitfalls in new late night scene
If you've watched any other new talk show debut -- Jay Leno's new 10 p.m. show and Jimmy Fallon's new 12:30 a.m. show this year come to mind -- you know that's a bigger feat than it might seem. Successful talk shows most often are a painful, public trial and error exercise; a slow march from mediocrity to something more, as the performer and the format evolve over time to their fullest potential.
Debuting Saturday with a pre-taped piece making fun of conservative pundit Ann Coulter's ridiculously long eyelashes, the show's first 10 minutes offered a machine gun-quick sample of the show's strongest assets; Sykes' taste for amusing taped bits (later, she would try to recycle her used sex toys), an explicit-yet-somehow not seedy sense of humor and an unerring standup comedy style which saved a lot of borderline moments.
Noting that Obama didn't start illegal wars or torture detainees in a secret prison, Sykes promised to be the "first person on Fox not to pick on President Obama," comparing people who accuse the president of doing too much to bosses on a union job.
Later, after showing a montage of pundits downplaying the Dow Jones average crossing 10,000 points, she told them exactly what to kiss, cementing her status as the self-appointed "tell people where to go and what to kiss czar" for the Obama White House.
What worked: Sykes's monologue, the pre-taped bits -- which end when the joke is made, unlike Leno's -- Sykes' own comfort onstage and ability to segue between a blizzard of segments.
What didn't work: Sidekick Keith Robinson, who I have seen open for Sykes on tour and know is a really funny standup comic, could not find his voice, mostly looking like a lame safety net; the panel discussions with Sykes' friends at the "Wandabar," which were centered on trite topics and didn't give participants (Amazing Race host Phil Keoghan, Brothers star Darryl Mitchell and 24 co-star Mary-Lynn Rajskub) room to be funny; handing drinks to panelists, because you always think things are funnier than they are when you're tipsy -- unless the TV audience gets drinks too, it's rarely a good idea.
But Sykes made a powerful, interesting start, even getting New Adventures of Old Christine co-star Julia Louis Dreyfus to show for a quick scene. Now the challenge is to keep the party going every week, getting better enough that this debut looks like a pit stop on the way to a classic late night series.