Next month, late night television will reach outside of its customary comfort zone and break with old habits about who sits in the host’s chair as Wanda Sykes and George Lopez join the late night lineup. The addition of Sykes and Lopez is a nod both to the nation’s changing demographics and to its latitude for comedy that pushes the envelope.
Sykes, the uninhibited comic who dropped jaws at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in May, brings her freewheeling brand of humor to a late night talk show set to debut Nov. 7th on Fox. Sykes, who also plays Julia Louis-Dreyfuss’ plainspoken best friend in the CBS show “The New Adventures of Old Christine,” plans to feature panel discussions and her own sharp-elbowed social commentary.
George Lopez, the Latino comedian who was the star of his own ABC comedy series and is a longtime veteran of the stand-up comedy circuit, will host “Lopez Tonight,” which debuts on TBS on Nov. 9th. Lopez, who will be the first Hispanic late night host on mainstream television, is said to be planning to combine stand-up comedy within an opening monologue, as well as musical and celebrity guests.
Besides their talents as comedians, both Sykes and Lopez will break the white male stranglehold on late night television leadership. The two new shows will make Sykes and Lopez the first minority late night talk show leaders of note since Arsenio Hall hosted his own Emmy-winning syndicated show in the early 90s.
For one observer of TV trends, Sykes and Lopez are challenging the history of late night host gigs, which seem to have been bestowed through an impenetrable lineage, as if there is a kind of a divine order of kings of late night comedy.
“There’s been the sense that late night has been an inherited monarchy,” says Robert J. Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. “You had [Johnny] Carson, and the heirs apparent to Carson were Leno and Letterman. ‘The Tonight Show went to Leno and then to Conan. There’s a sense that so many of these slots have been tacitly spoken for.”
Sykes and Lopez are descendants of another kind of comedy lineage – political satire – and heirs to the seismic changes in the television landscape that have happened since Comedy Central’s “Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” debuted in 1999, and “The Colbert Report,” launched in 2005. Given their track records for speaking on a wide range of social and political issues, Sykes and Lopez should make late night television a spicier, more topical environment than it’s been under its multiple ‘wise men’ – David Letterman, Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Kimmel.
It’s an open question as to whether this is a one-off alignment of minority stars, or a fundamental recognition of the shift in the nation’s ethnic mosaic. In the short term, Lopez will undoubtedly garner many of the 45 million pairs of Hispanic eyeballs in the United States. And Sykes should capture black viewers smarting over the March cancellations of “D.L. Hughley Breaks the News,” which was a Saturday night fixture on CNN, and David Alan Grier’s “Chocolate News” on Comedy Central.
Both Sykes and Lopez could push into a wider audience the way Arsenio Hall did. From January 1989 to May 1994, Hall was a reliable fixture in the late night lineup; the June 1992 appearance of saxophone-wielding Bill Clinton, then campaigning for the presidency, became one of late-night TV’s signature moments. With today’s bigger, more unruly television landscape in a country still reckoning with its first black president, Sykes and Lopez could achieve the same kind of breakthrough.
Longer term, though, questions remain. Sykes, who’s made no secret of her lesbian sexual orientation and her support of same-sex marriages, will certainly arouse nervousness among the suits at Fox, which is part of News Corporation, owned by the toweringly conservative Rupert Murdoch. And beyond the shows’ groundbreaking status, a lot is riding on the unknown. Sykes and Lopez are outside the usual templates of late night hosts; what matters now is gaining a following with a notoriously fickle public.
“The big question will be whether the shows are any good,” Thompson says. “The road to talk show success is absolutely strewn with carnage. At the side of that road are the vulture-pecked bones of hosts from Martin Short to Pat Sajak to Rick Dees. Even Joan Rivers, with her experience and track record of success, had trouble in that arena.
Many agree that success as a late night host requires a relationship with an audience that keeps people coming back. Although it remains to be seen whether Sykes and Lopez can do this, their very presence is a good start.