US & World

Late-night TV gets a double shot of diversity

Say hello to the two newest faces in late-night television: Wanda Sykes and George Lopez. Their new post-prime time programs represent a broadening of the mostly pale-male presence on late-night TV — and may signify a recognition of the increasing multiculturalism of "the American mainstream."

African-American comic Wanda Sykes launched her new Saturday-night talk show on Fox this past weekend, while Mexican-American comedian George Lopez premieres his weeknight program, Lopez Tonight, on TBS this week. Which means that suddenly, late-night TV is substantially more colorful.

Both shows are staking a claim on territory dominated by familiar white men: Leno, Letterman, Conan. Add in Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon and Craig Ferguson, and you have yourself a lot of white guys in suit jackets cracking jokes and interviewing celebrities after the kids go to bed.

Not only are Lopez and Sykes not white, they make a point of making jokes aimed right at their most loyal audiences. Lopez sprinkles his stand-up with Spanish; Sykes makes frequent allusions to her black family and her white wife.

They also swear a whole lot more than is usually acceptable for affable late-night hosts.

"They have to push some boundaries," says Eric Deggans, television writer for the St. Petersburg Times. Deggans says he hopes Lopez will use his new talk show to create a more diverse kind of mainstream entertainment.

"He's able to reflect the mainstream through the eyes of a Mexican-American in a way that other Hispanics enjoy," says Deggans. "But also someone like me, who's African-American, can see it and say 'Wow, I understand that's funny.'"

Lopez says that that's his plan. "This show is for the new America," he declares. "The mainstream America does not look like what people consider to be the mainstream. We live in a different America."

Part of Lopez's vision of the new mainstream plays out in the way he uses Spanish. He's planning to put it to work on his talk show, just as he did in his sitcom The George Lopez Show, which ran for five years on ABC. The show was built on a blend of generic family jokes and a bit of Latino flavor.

"I was really proud of what I was able to do," Lopez recalls. The show retained a broad audience, who laughed even if they didn't speak Spanish. "Words like orale, nalgas or juevos even — stuff that we used that people just understand."

Executives at TBS are encouraging Lopez to incorporate that inclusive approach on his talk show.

"Sometimes that might lead him to a place that is more provocative, and my feeling is that relevant, terrific comedy often has to surprise you that way," says Michael Wright, head of programming for TBS, TNT and Turner Classic Movies.

Although the late-night scene has always been dominated by white males of a certain age, Sykes and Lopez are not the first to break the barrier. Chris Rock spent three seasons on HBO. On basic cable, Chelsea Handler has hosted Chelsea Lately on E! for a couple of years. This fall, Mo'Nique launched a new late-night show on BET.

But those personalities don't have the kind of broad audience Lopez and Sykes are going for. The last time late-night TV scored a diversity success was with Arsenio Hall's syndicated show. For five years in the late '80s and early '90s the comedian held a demographic that was younger and more diverse than the fans of The Tonight Show.

But TV writer Eric Deggans says a lot has changed since Hall's show went off the air. Hip-hop has become even more mainstream, and blacks and Latinos are more visible in Hollywood. He's glad Sykes and Lopez have new shows, but, he says it remains to be seen if they are the right people to bring in new viewers.

"George is 48 and Wanda is 45," he remarks. "Can these guys be the voice of a new generation in the same way that Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock and Arsenio Hall were in their day? We'll see."