TV Eye

A New Look for Late Night

Make no mistake: I like Wanda Sykes. And I like George Lopez. But after watching their entries into late-night talk and entertainment, I miss Arsenio Hall. The African-American-actor-turned-late-night-talk-show-host of The Arsenio Hall Show (1989-1994) was a hyper, superficial host, but what he lacked in interviewing skills, he made up for by throwing a good party. I still count Prince's appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show among the most memorable in my TV viewing experience. Since the Hall show, there has been no high-profile, truly viable entry into the late-night market that did not feature a nonwhite host. (I don't include The Chris Rock Show – 1997-2000, HBO – only because it didn't seem to be casting the wide net that the newcomers appear to be casting, and forget about The Mo'Nique Show, which premiered on BET in October. After her stunning performance in the feature film Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire, I think Mo'Nique should give up that mess and get back to acting.)

Wanda Sykes
Wanda Sykes

But that all changes this month, with the premieres of The Wanda Sykes Show on Fox and Lopez Tonight on TBS. From both camps, there are lots of promises to shake up the late-night formula. Fine. Neither Sykes nor Lopez wants to be what's already on hand. So then, what will they be?

Of the two shows, Sykes' is definitely edgier. Lodged on Fox, she's the antithesis to the conservative watchdogs on the Fox news outlets that she gleefully takes shots at. Sykes' decidedly liberal politics are front and center, and her effortless leap into subjects usually unspoken of, even on late-night TV – eco-friendly sex toys, for instance – is exciting, until she (like Lopez) veers into the vulgar. I'm no prude, but I just don't find the idea of recycled condoms or fart jokes funny.

Between the two, Sykes is the most affected, running through her opening monologue (still holding to that late-night routine) like a child who decides she's going to say something naughty at the top of her lungs. It's off-putting, as is it perplexing. Sykes really is funny. The problem, perhaps, is that the nervousness about the show's success is showing. That, and there is too much packed into one short hour. The Wanda Sykes Show seemed to settle into a groove when she borrowed a page from Real Time With Bill Maher and had a panel of guests assembled to discuss various issues (spanking, space travel for the rich). Depending on the improvisational abilities of the panelists is a risk, and the evening's guests – 24's Mary Lynn Rajskub, Daryl "Chill" Mitchell of Brothers, and the host of The Amazing Race, Phil Keoghan – were checkered in their abilities to deliver bons mots. As the panel-talk continued, there was a sense that something unexpected might happen – just as the show came to its end.

Lopez Tonight is leaner and more streamlined. After the debut show's opening stand-up routine, which ricocheted from one topic to the next (and where said fart joke appeared), and a "surprise" visit by Ellen DeGeneres, Lopez led a segment where he invited two audience members on stage to test their prejudices of various men and women on the street. The result was as funny as it was revealing. Premiere guests DeGeneres, Eva Longoria, and Kobe Bryant were affable and delighted to be there, but the show took wing when Carlos Santana appeared. That's when the party really started. So when my DVR inexplicably did not finish recording the last few minutes of his performance, I was as aggravated as a concertgoer when the electricity has been cut off.

Neither Sykes nor Lopez is a gentle teddy bear to cozy up to – which is their appeal – and that stands in direct opposition to what late-night talk is. That fact is obvious enough without the shows constantly calling attention to it. So why not dispense with the promise to revolutionize late night? The party is just getting started, and with time, both have the potential to be the parties you don't want to miss.

The Wanda Sykes Show airs Saturdays at 10pm on Fox. Lopez Tonight airs Monday through Thursday at 10pm on TBS.

Follow TV Eye on Twitter: @ChronicleTVEye.

E-mail Belinda Acosta at [email protected].

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The Wanda Sykes Show, Lopez Tonight, a Wanda Sykes, George Lopez, Arsenio Hall, late night TV

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