YBOR CITY — Calmly using an Afro pick to nudge his inch-high "fade" haircut to even greater heights, "Motown" Maurice Jeoffroy does not look like a man whose future hinges on reinventing the local TV industry as we know it.
He's undertaken an ambitious quest, mostly financed with the help of two high-limit credit cards. But minutes away from taping his very first late-night TV show, the 29-year-old knows he's on the precipice of something big, win or lose.
Already, he's achieved a lot, nabbing guests blessed with what Chris Rock once called "ghetto fame" for his first two shows: Good Times alum Bern'Nadette Stanis (a.k.a. Thelma Evans) and a co-star from Martin Lawrence's long-gone Fox sitcom, comic Tommy Mikal Ford.
With about $8,000 scraped together for eight weeks of broadcast time, he'll debut at 1 a.m. Saturday on MyNetworkTV affiliate WTTA-Ch. 38. And he's persuaded a crew of about 40 people, including a live band and standup comics, to help set up a massive stage in the bowels of the Cuban Club in Ybor City. They are working for free.
Even he admits it sounds a little crazy for somebody with no connections in the local TV industry to think that he could become the next Arsenio Hall.
But Motown Maurice (he hates using his last name professionally) has turned the challenge into a cause, galvanizing a devoted team with the promise of creating Tampa's first black-oriented, local late-night TV talk program, The Motown Maurice Show.
"The fact that I can acknowledge that I am a little bit crazy makes me even more powerful," he admitted, laughing. "Instead of that being a weakness, it's a motivation."
Left hanging is the most important question: Can he really pull this off?
Good guests, and a quest
The idea came in earnest about a year ago, inspired by an unlikely talk show idol, ex-Tonight Show host Conan O'Brien.
A transplant from Brooklyn who moved to Florida when he was 12, Maurice has itched to host his own talk show since his days at Florida A&M University. He graduated with a broadcast journalism degree in 2002.
In 2007, he developed and hosted a Webcast that turned into a live discussion of issues, dubbed Wide aWoke Wednesdays, before a live crowd. Why not, he thought, turn this into his lifelong dream — a real late-night TV show?
To make it happen, he's assembled an impressive setup inside the Cuban Club. Four cameras are available to cover the set, which is arranged on a well-lit stage that features the ubiquitous host desk. There's a six-piece band off to the side, complete with a James Brown-influenced theme song.
Two big projectors are on each side of the stage to show off Maurice's pretaped comedy bits, including a gag featuring his mom trying to cut his old-school hairstyle. And there are guests like Tampa native and Minnesota Twins' outfielder Denard Span and Stanis, whom Maurice flew into town on his own dime for the big debut.
Most of all, there's Maurice's determination, which even leads him to pronounce experienced comics-turned-late night hosts such as George Lopez and Wanda Sykes as vulnerable competitors. "I really doubt they would be as successful if they had to build a talk show from scratch," he said. "I've put everything on the line. And I will compete with them."
A new trend, but old worries
Maurice might not know it, but he's on the tip of a growing trend.
Once upon a time, local TV stations created their own version of national programs, cranking out daytime talk shows, public affairs programs and kiddie productions. But a crushing media recession ended most of that.
Now local entrepreneurs are scrambling to fill the void, from WFLA-Ch. 8 anchor Gayle Guyardo quitting the station and developing her own daytime show to WHPT-FM DJ Mike "Cowhead" Calta filming his radio show for Cowhead TV on WTOG-Ch. 44.
But Maurice is the only novice trying this tack, drawing just one major sponsor for his first season, though he also hopes to sell commercials inside each broadcast.
"Right now, it feels like we're working on the best-kept secret in town," said Cleveland Jennings, an account executive with DSI Black Pages who volunteers as the show's marketing coordinator. "But we don't want it be a secret anymore."
Taping the first 60-minute episode on Jan. 23 took more than two hours, as technicians scrambled to line up shots and a long line of volunteers leapt onstage for a Soul Train-style dance party at the show's end called the "Retro Rail." No wonder he calls the show "late night television with an old school twist."
The second episode, taped Saturday, was a funnier show, but drew a smaller studio audience (he's off this Saturday, but plans to tape another episode Feb. 13). It's tough to gauge how all this will look on video, but Maurice reveals a natural charm and talent for working a clearly supportive crowd.
Still, after finishing the first episode, Maurice is quiet and restless, unsettled by persistent financing worries. His ultimate dream — and the longest shot of all — is nabbing a deal to syndicate the show nationally from Tampa.
"There's 12 rounds in this venture, and I don't think I won the first two, because nothing came out of it that's going to secure the future of the show," he said. "But one way or another, I'm going to make this work. I have to."
Eric Deggans can be reached at (727) 893-8521 or [email protected] See the Feed blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.