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George Lopez, Wanda Sykes changing look of late night TV

Minutes into a conversation with George Lopez, you realize he's intent on making TV history.

He's already assured of that. When his Lopez Tonight debuts Nov. 9, he will be the first Hispanic performer to star in a major English-language late night TV talk show.

But Lopez wants something more. He wants to break the logjam of white male hosts currently leading nearly all weeknight talk shows.

"They think I'm fighting over the Tonight Show audience, but I'm not," said Lopez, 48, who compares the challenge to a prizefight. "I'm fighting to create a new audience at TBS . . . which already has a 20-year-younger viewer, hugely African-American and hugely Latino, before I even get there.

"The challenge is to get those people watching TBS at 11 o'clock for something other than Friends reruns."

And, in an unusual turn, he's going to have some company.

In October, comic/actor Mo'Nique became the second black woman to host a weeknight talk series when The Mo'Nique Show debuted on Black Entertainment Television (Whoopie Goldberg did it first in 1992). And on Saturday comic/actor Wanda Sykes will become the first black woman to host a network late night talk show when The Wanda Sykes Show takes MAD TV's 11 p.m. time slot.

The producers of these shows hope that viewers who feel left out by the procession of Jays, Conans, Jimmys and Daves might respond to a talk show coming from a slightly different angle, especially in the age of President Barack Obama.

"To me, (the show) is more like The Daily Show meets the old Politically Incorrect," said Sykes, 45, whose stab at late night glory will feature a roundtable of guests chewing over the week's events.

"A talk show . . . allows me to speak on what's happening, flex my standup muscles without the traveling," she said during a June interview, tossing out a joke about the sheriff's department seizing the Octomom's uterus. "Maybe kind of like The View meets Howard Stern, but I'm not going to have the naked girls and stuff. I don't want to have to explain that to my wife."

This isn't TV's first mini-explosion of late night diversity. Through the '90s, after the brief success of Arsenio Hall's talk show, outlets handed programs to Keenen Ivory Wayans, producer Quincy Jones, ex-NBA star Magic Johnson, Goldberg and Real People alum Byron Allen.

What they found out the hard way: Such shows can't survive without a unique point of view pulled straight from the host's own attitude.

Can these 40-something comics of color really be the voice of a new TV generation? Perhaps if they pay attention to history; here's a look at the most notable talk/variety shows hosted by people of color, with a few notes on why they were so important.

The Nat "King" Cole Show, NBC, 1956-57: This wasn't a late night TV show, but it had many of the elements we now associate with the form, including appearances by stars of the day and musical performances. Cole was perhaps the first black performer to star in a TV show who wasn't a living stereotype; suave and talented as a pop crooner and pianist, he welcomed a who's who of stars eager to see him succeed, from Harry Belafonte and Sammy Davis Jr. to Peggy Lee and Mel Tormé. Even after time slot changes and complaints from Southern affiliates killed the show, the point was made: A charismatic star could lead a great TV show.

The Arsenio Hall Show, syndicated, 1989-94: At a time when rap was just beginning to take over pop music and TV still had few venues for youth or urban culture, Hall came along with a syndicated show tapping that attitude. Musical guests included artists popular with black audiences who hadn't yet crossed over to the mainstream such as Bobby Brown and MC Hammer. And the band was a funk group more likely to kick into a Prince or Cameo tune than any jazz number. He found success until hosts such as David Letterman and Jay Leno started booking Hammer and Brown themselves.

The Magic Hour, syndicated, June to September, 1998: Former NBA star Earvin "Magic" Johnson's show was the last in a long line of failed attempts to clone Arsenio Hall's success in the '90s. Distinguished mostly by bandleader Sheila E., Johnson's pointed inability to form complete sentences, and the decision to awkwardly fire white sidekick Craig Shoemaker in favor of black comic Tommy Davidson, it was also final proof that success in late night required more than just sticking a famous black person in front of a band and studio audience.

The Chris Rock Show, HBO, 1997-2000: Previously known as a protege of Eddie Murphy who had an undistinguished tenure on Saturday Night Live, Chris Rock first showed signs of comedic brilliance on this series, which became the first late-night show for the hip-hop generation. Featuring legendary rap DJ Grandmaster Flash, this series was fueled by skits based on stuff folks might clown about in the barbershop (I loved the fake after-school special about a kid embarrassed because his dad still wears a flattop haircut). It also served as an early showcase for writer/comics who would later get their own shows, including Sykes and Louis C.K.

Chappelle's Show, Comedy Central, 2003-06: Another show that wasn't quite a late night enterprise, this also was a natural successor to Rock's HBO gig. Featuring music provided by more militant rap artists such as Dead Prez, Chappelle offered in-your-face takes on race and pop culture, from a brutal impression of faded funk legend Rick James to a fake Frontline segment on a blind white supremacist who doesn't know he's actually black. Until Chappelle broke down under pressure and fled a $50-million contract with Comedy Central, it was the best example of using urban culture to attract broad, young audiences since the days of Arsenio Hall (who now appears as a correspondent on Jay Leno's new 10 p.m. variety show).

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: Comic George Lopez's new late night talk show Lopez Tonight debuts at 11 p.m. Nov. 9. A story in last Sunday's Floridian listed an incorrect date.

The shows

The Wanda Sykes Show debuts at 11 p.m. Saturday on WTVT-Ch. 13; Lopez Tonight starts at 11 p.m. Nov. 9 on TBS.

George Lopez, Wanda Sykes changing look of late night TV 11/03/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 4, 2009 1:32pm]

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