Few may realize this now, but tonight's debut of comic Mo'Nique's new BET program represents more than the often-dysfunctional cable channel's newest attempt to build a late-night show someone might actually watch.
It's also the start of TV's attempt to answer a serious question: Is there room for a late-night program that isn't hosted by a smart alecky white guy?
The Mo'Nique Show is just the leading edge of several ambitious new diversity-minded late-night projects; Latino comic George Lopez has a TBS show debuting Nov. 9, and black comic Wanda Sykes will lead a program on Fox Saturday nights starting Nov. 7.
This stuff makes sense in TV land, where classic counter-programming strategy demands you do what everyone else isn't. And with six late-night chat shows on network TV hosted by white males — because that's the audience advertisers are chasing — why wouldn't cable TV present shows crafted for 30 percent of the nation's non-Caucasian population?
To some, this sounds like heresy. Why talk about race when it comes to late-night entertainment?
But I've always felt the best shows centered on people of color found something special about that performer's ethnic culture and expanded it into a world that mainstream TV audiences couldn't resist watching.
The Cosby Show revealed the inner lives of a kind of upper-class black family most of America didn't know. Arsenio Hall's classic '90s-era late-night talk show put rappers and R&B singers on television who couldn't get arrested in mainstream show business back then — from M.C. Hammer to Bobby Brown and beyond.
In Living Color, Chappelle's Show and The Chris Rock Show turned stuff black folks laughed about in barbershops and front porches into widely watched comedy classics. And for a people used to seeing another culture's humor rule the tube, watching Eddie Murphy's James Brown impressions on Saturday Night Live brought a pride that's hard to describe.
That's why so many modern shows featuring mostly minority casts are so disappointing — with the first episode of The View co-host Sherri Shepherd's new sitcom for Lifetime, Sherri, (sneak preview at 7 tonight), as Exhibit A.
While viewers see many things about her life — her early days juggling an office job with a standup career and life as a divorced mom — what's missing is her life as a black woman striving in the mostly white, mostly male worlds of office work and standup comedy. So, her first episode feels like every other workplace comedy you've ever seen, with little to set it apart beyond Shepherd's own personal charisma.
Contrast that with Sykes' HBO special airing at 10 p.m. Saturday, I'ma Be Me, where she talks about being a black, gay new mom with a French wife (sample joke: I like to say she's French because that sounds better than saying she's white."). It's politically incorrect, in-your-face and filled with tart observations that are universal, yet revealing about cultures that often don't get center stage.
If Mo'Nique, Sykes or Lopez create this subversive spirit in late night, they will truly offer landmark shows. It won't be easy: Unlike the Arsenio days, late-night TV has opened its doors to performers of color, with rap band pioneers the Roots serving as the house band for Late Night host Jimmy Fallon and Jay Leno featuring three regular correspondents who are black.
Turns out, bringing a new perspective may be these new hosts' greatest challenge. Otherwise, they're just hawking the same old jokes in a different-colored wrapper.