Fifteen years after Arsenio Hall signed off the air, late-night TV is once again making room for hosts who aren’t white men.
Fox on Saturday launches a weekly showcase for African-American comic Wanda Sykes. Next week, George Lopez becomes the first Latino to host a nightly late-night comedy series on a major network when his "Lopez Tonight" premieres on TBS. And last month saw the arrival of "The Mo’Nique Show" on BET.
Is this the Obamafication of the late-night wars?
"It may have to do with the fact that we have a black president," said Eddie Feldmann, executive producer of "The Wanda Sykes Show."
In the past, "I had been out (in the TV marketplace) at different times with different comedians of color, and you’d go in and say, ‘There’s nobody of color on now in late night,’ and it didn’t get a lot of attention from the networks," Feldmann said. "I do think that it’s because of President Obama, that maybe the networks started saying, ‘Well, OK, we might need to get into this business.’"
Michael Wright, who heads up programming for the Turner networks (including TBS), agrees there’s something happening here. But rather than looking at Obama’s election as the reason for the changes in late night, he’s hoping they’re both signs of a broader societal evolution.
"I would like to think they’re a reflection of a cultural shift that’s going on," he said. "That maybe, please, we’re all growing up and becoming a bit more open-minded and more inclusive."
What’s surprising about the emergence of a new rainbow coaltion in late night is that it took so long for programmers to realize the logic of embracing diversity in the daypart. After all, Arsenio’s smashing success in the early 1990s demonstrated audiences were more than willing to accept late-night hosts who didn’t hail from the Midwest.
And yet, in the 15 years since Hall’s syndicated show was canceled, there have been precious few attempts at changing the color of late night.
"You look at how groundbreaking ‘The Arsenio Hall Show’ was … (and) the networks went away from that," said John Ridley, "Wanda’s" head writer and co-executive producer. "It was like, ‘Oh, people of color don’t matter.’ Hollywood is so liberal. They write the biggest, fattest checks for a guy like Obama. And yet they don’t look at their own landscape and (realize) they’re not reflecting the country."
The only real attempt to broaden late-night audiences between the end of the Arsenio era and today came in the late 1990s. That’s when Earvin "Magic" Johnson, Keenan Ivory Wayans and VIBE magazine all jumped into the after-hours fray — and quickly fizzled.
The trend toward diversity could prove to be short-lived again if the new shows are somehow seen as being targeted toward niche audiences. That’s why producers and executives involved with the newcomers all stress the importance of crossover appeal.
"It always comes down to talent," said Jim Paratore, executive producer of "Lopez Tonight." "When Arsenio was a success in late night, it was because he crossed over and reached white women. George happens to be Mexican, but that’s not the reason he’s doing this show. He been doing standup for 30 years. He’s been on every talk show out there. He’s been preparing for this moment."
Ridley agrees, noting that both Sykes and Lopez aren’t "quite as exotic to most viewers anymore. We are the mainstream now."
Indeed, Feldman notes that at a recent Sykes concert he attended in Orange County, California, "The audience was almost 90 percent white. She appeals to a large and wide audience, even though she has a very specific voice."
It’s not that the new shows are ashamed of their respective hosts’ identities. Hardly.
During a test show, Sykes didn’t hesitate to casually mention her status as a married gay mother of twins.
And TBS is making a strong push to market Lopez to Latinos. The comic has recorded some ads en espanol, while TBS will be sending direct mail to actual Lopez families in major cities, personally inviting them to attend the "Lopez Tonight" party.
But while producers may be hoping for various groups to serve as an audience base, their goal is to reach a wide cross-section of viewers.
"Success for this show will come if the underserved Latino audience comes to it and loves it, and if it also plays to a really broad audience," Wright said. "You want everyone to feel welcome at this show."
Adds Paratore, "We’re not trying to make a show for a certain ethnic group."
While much is being made of the identities of the new late-night hosts, the newcomers may actually end up being notable for something else: their ability to reach a generation of viewers who came of age in the post-Johnny Carson, post-broadcast world.
Despite the endless amount of attention paid to David Letterman, Conan O’Brien and the rest by the media, the network late-night shows might as well be extinct for most viewers under 30. Assuming they’re even watching live TV at 11 or 11:30, so-called millennials are more likely to be watching "Adult Swim" on Cartoon Network than a network show.
"The younger generation has abandoned network late night," Paratore said. "They didn’t grow up in a broadcast world and they have no loyalty to it."
Paratore claimed the bulk of Letterman’s audience, for example, is over 50. He noted O’Brien’s NBC show has also bled younger viewers since NBC switched to a Jay Leno lead-in at 10 p.m.
Add it all up, and "Lopez Tonight" could end up playing in the same ratings league as its network counterparts. "Wanda," likewise, is poised to break through with audiences not anxious to sit through another subpar "Saturday Night Live."
"The audience that’s left watching these (network) shows is old, white men," Paratore said. "There’s this firewall with the 11 p.m. news. Women don’t go through it. Minorities don’t go through it. You take those audiences … and this (could be) a tipping point."
Assuming, of course, that viewers like what they see. As the last wave of minority talkers demonstrated, audiences won’t stick with a show just because its hosts seem different.
In late night, you’ve gotta make ‘em laugh.
"Funny trumps all," Ridley said.