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Following in Arsenio's footsteps

I still remember the moment I realized Arsenio Hall was on to something (and no, it wasn't the moment he snagged Susan Lucci to explain her umpteenth Daytime Emmy loss).

It was the moment he featured a little-known rapper by the curious name of MC Hammer.

Hard as it is to believe now _ seems you can always flip on the dial and catch his signature hit U Can't Touch This somewhere _ back in the late '80s, Hammer was a phenomenon known mostly in America's chocolate cities.

Back then, he was stretching his raps over more ghetto-centric Parliament-Funkadelic tunes and developing the dance moves that would make seizures look stylish for a time.

Guys like him weren't sitting down with Johnny Carson, who hadn't yet retired from NBC's Tonight Show, or David Letterman, even though his brand of rap-flavored pop was bleeding over to mainstream music fans at a rapid clip. Back then, The Arsenio Hall Show was the only late-night TV stop to catch that party.

Almost by accident, Hall's show became a showplace for performers rooted in black culture who couldn't get arrested on mainstream television.

Look past his forgettable monologues and third-string interview guests; where Arsenio really shone was in bringing America New Jack Swing producer Teddy Riley's band Guy, New Edition alums Bell Biv Devoe, a hardcore funky Bobby Brown and a band with players fresh from touring with funk legends Cameo.

Hall provided a program drenched in a newly emerging musical form _ blending R&B, funk, rap and pop in a way that's routine nowadays but was locked out of establishment TV shows back then. And in a trend that surprised no one but clueless TV programmers, this fresh face of black culture also drew young white viewers _ hyped to see a brand of pop culture onscreen that was bleeding into their music and movies.

(Of course, once Jay took over Tonight and Dave moved to CBS, both shows started booking the acts Arsenio once featured, ending his short-lived cultural monopoly.)

Why the history lesson? Because two new late-night shows are trying to play the same hand that made Hall's game so strong: FX's The Orlando Jones Show and rapper Snoop Dogg's MTV joint, Doggy Fizzle Televizzle.

But this ain't 1989, and both shows are struggling with a simple fact: Hip-hop culture _ basically, the voice of young, hip black America _ is already flooding the mainstream. So why should anybody watch?

Case in point: Jones' late-night chat fest, which learned one thing from Arsenio _ style counts.

Accordingly, his show takes place on an elaborate, eye-popping set with gigantic video screens, plush couches for the host, guest and audience, a bangin' theme song and able, Paul Shaffer-style sidekick support from hotshot R&B producer Dallas Austin (TLC, Madonna, Bell Biv Devoe).

Kicking off at 11 weeknights, it's a smart play for young couch potatoes who couldn't care less about local news and wouldn't mind a hip, fast-paced bridge between the latest Meet My Folks episode and Leno or Letterman.

The problem: Not much happens once you get past the couches. Jones struggles with the same problems that have plagued comics-turned-talkers since the beginning of the form: comedians, naturally self-centered, have a tough time asking questions about other people's lives. And as the new kid in town, he has struggled through a parade of second- and third-tier guests, including Muhammad Ali's prizefighter daughter and Malcolm in the Middle co-star Bryan Cranston.

But where Jones' program should shine _ in showcasing the young, urban vibe it has targeted with a vengeance _ he also comes up short.

Musical guests such as Terence Trent D'Arby (who confused everyone by announcing he has adopted a new name, while releasing a new album under the old one) and lame rapper David Banner hardly showcase a thrilling new pop culture wave. And the show's animated shorts _ brief bits about two Hispanic janitors dubbed The Adventures of Chico and Guapo _ come off as hopelessly unfunny and stereotypical.

So far, Jones hasn't yet figured out how to offer viewers something they can't get better somewhere else (though many of his taped skits are funny, including a bit where his pimpin' sports agent character C.N. Money convinces NFL players to charge cash for every caught pass).

Snoop Dogg's Doggy Fizzle is a different matter. Showcasing a surprisingly playful and versatile side to the gangsta rapper, MTV's show mines the twin towers of drug and ghetto humor _ often with surprising results.

Yeah, there's lots of cursing (bet there's already a college drinking game built around Snoop's frequent use of the b-word). And skits where the rapper teaches street slang to immigrants in an English class are prizzle to the mizzle my hizzle (translation: very predictable, my friends).

Still, there's a certain delinquent charm to Snoop's half-hour excursions that are sure to keep wary parents up at night (despite its 10 p.m. Sunday time slot, expect lots of kids to stay up for a dose of Snoopvision, especially during the summer).

One Brady Bunch parody features Snoop as a laid-back dad who solves family problems by sleeping with his white wife, her perky daughter, the Hispanic maid and the family dog. Another bit features a faux commercial for Snoop's Magic Brownies featuring his "special herbs and spices."

It all adds up to a parade of drug and sex references that makes every skit feel like it was cooked up by Snoop and his posse in a haze of, um, special herbs and spices. (Yeah, Snoop says he's given up The Chronic for good. But after 10 minutes watching this show, you'll have a hard time believing that one.)

In the end, both Doggy Fizzle and Orlando Jones are undone by the mainstreaming of hip-hop culture. At a time when Missy Elliott turns up regularly on Letterman's show and rap star Eve has her own sitcom (admittedly, on black-friendly UPN), late-night shows trying to corner the market on youth culture face a challenge Arsenio never confronted.

It is wonderful to see a handful of late-night shows challenging the array of cheeky fratboy-types dominating network TV (yeah, Carson, Jimmy, Conan and Craig: this means you). But it's going to take a lot more than ripped jeans, a bumping soundtrack and a few mary jane jokes to make the difference in this particular culture war.

To reach Eric Deggans, call (727) 893-8521, e-mail or see the St. Petersburg Times Web site at