David Letterman. Jay Leno. Conan O’Brien. Jimmy Fallon. Craig Ferguson. Jimmy Kimmel. All funny. All men. All straight. And all white.
But this year marks a change in that late-night landscape. This weekend, African-American comedian Wanda Sykes (who happens to be a lesbian) premieres “The Wanda Sykes Show” on Fox, while Mexican-American star George Lopez launches his “Lopez Tonight” talk show on TBS Monday. Last month saw the premiere of “The Mo’Nique Show,” the plus-sized funny lady’s weeknight, late-night talk show on BET.
In the matter of a few days, late-night will become one of television’s most diverse niches — but it’s not an unprecedented move. University of Southern California Communications and Media Professor Larry Gross, who focuses on media portrayals of minorities, says that compared to, say, sitcoms, talk-show formats are generally kind to minorities.
“Talk-show hosting is a role that the public accepts odd casting in,” says Gross. “The examples in particular are Arsenio Hall, of course, but also Ellen and Oprah — if [these new hosts] are willing and able to put their personal identity in the background, it can work. The reason Oprah and Ellen are so successful is that they don’t run your nose in their differences.”
Don’t bring up “differences” or “challenges” to Mo’Nique. “I’m one of the boys, baby,” the comedian insisted while promoting her show this summer. “[My writers] don’t look at [this show] and say, ‘Oh, well, we’ve got a challenge because you are a woman. We’ve got a challenge because you are a black woman in late-night.’ ... We are not worried about everybody else.”
And despite his position as the first Latino in late night, Lopez claims he feels no pressure. “I only feel added pressure because apparently in some parts of the country, I’ll be up against novellas,” he jokes. “I don’t feel any pressure to do anything other than what I’ve been doing the last 30 years, and it is making people laugh.”