Why George Lopez really lost out: He failed to create a new voice for young, urban America
George Lopez put on his game face Wednesday, joking with the crowd gathered for his TBS late night talk show about the lightning-quick cancellation that will see the comic's program yanked after tonight's episode.
In his heart of hearts, Lopez knows that he took a bullet, in part, for Conan O'Brien, whose return to late night on TBS knocked his show back an hour not long after the program had started, gobbling up much of the media attention he would need to draw new viewers in the process.
It didn't help that Lopez's program never really jelled, forever flailing in an attempt to make its host look hip, cutting edge and uproariously funny -- too often failing on all three counts.
But I think Lopez Tonight also failed for a more basic reason; the young audiences who once found Arsenio Hall a hip, urban alternative to mainstream late night talk many years ago never showed up for Lopez -- in part because today's mainstream hosts have already got that cultural ground covered.
Indeed, if anybody is articulating a new blend of cultures for late night audiences, it is NBC's surprise success Jimmy Fallon, who regularly taps house band The Roots and a few other contributors of color to create a compelling pastiche of Millennial style for the few college kids who aren't watching Jon Stewart or Adult Swim.
When I think about late night shows that did succeed hosted by non-white performers, I think of Arsenio, Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle -- all guys who excelled in offering entertainment from a multicultural, urban perspective that was also hip, edgy and entertaining. They were, basically, the coolest house parties you could find on the TV dial.
Lopez's biggest problem may be that he assumed a few jokes about Mexican American culture, a sprawling set, kicking band and some glad-handing with celebrities of color would pay the same dividends Arsenio earned 20 years earlier. But today's TV landscape is different; mainstream icons like David Letterman and Jay Leno are just as likely to feature B.o.B. or Drake as anyone else. And its Fallon who has excelled at turning old school rap nostalgia into viral videos, tapping Justin Timberlake for a history of rap that would have made Arsenio swoon back in the day.
The fact is, today's upstart late night talk hosts have to offer what the mainstream is not -- from the news parodies of the Daily Show to Chelsea Handler's sexy, boozy celebrity skewering.
These days in late night television, we have seven or eight different versions of smart alecky white guys in ties dissecting the day's events for fun and satire. I was hoping Lopez would find a different voice in the middle of that noise that was unique and similarly compelling.
Lopez didn't manage that -- fumbling a prime opportunity to create a new voice for young urban America in late night.