The color of late night

BY DAVE REAP
Daily Arts Writer
Published October 21, 2008

Let’s play a little television trivia. See if you can answer this seemingly innocent question: What do fake news shows like “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” “The Colbert Report” and “Saturday Night Live: Weekend Update Thursday” have in common? And what do these shows also share with late night talk shows like “Late Night with Conan O’Brien,” “The Late Show with David Letterman” and “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno”?

Courtesy of Comedy Central

Well, they all have white hosts. And while this probably wasn’t the answer you had in mind, now that it’s been brought to your attention, doesn’t it seem a little strange? Yeah, this is probably just mere coincidence — no, the networks are not racist — but it’s unfortunate nonetheless. There really shouldn’t be a racial monopoly on satirical late-night humor. And what’s more, the current presence of one show is preventing us from hearing the concerns of black Americans and denies us the opportunity to laugh with black entertainers as they transform their particular concerns into comedy. It’s not like Jon Stewart or Conan O’Brien don’t touch upon issues that affect black Americans, its just they can’t give the perspective that a black host could offer on these same topics.

The time is ripe for change, though: There’s never been a better time for a black host to break onto the late night scene, as shows like “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and “Saturday Night Live” are currently generating record-breaking numbers. (Consider NBC’s decision to air three consecutive episodes of “SNL: Weekend Update Thursday” in hopes of riding the surge in ratings “SNL” is experiencing and capitalizing on the unique material this campaign season offers.) As a result, networks are eager to cash in on this current trend, which has given two black hosts a chance to prove they can hang with the heavyweights of late night comedy.

First, Comedy Central launched “Chocolate News,” a pseudo-news show and sketch comedy hybrid featuring excitable black personality and University alum David Alan Grier (“Blankman”). Grier plays the lead news anchor while also taking on a variety of other characters like Maya Angelou and a fictitious rapper named Phat Man. While Grier succeeds in getting across concerns faced by the black community, he often does this at the expense of alienating white viewers. (Roughly three-fourths of his skits ended with a white person or group of white people being beaten up.) And here is where he falls short of Dave Chappelle. Chappelle was a master at addressing issues unique to the black community in a way that a person of any race could identify with and appreciate. And while there’s nothing wrong with targeting a specific audience, the best way a host can get his message across is to relay it to a large audience made up of viewers of diverse backgrounds — something Grier’s late night peers do to some extent.

Perhaps a more promising candidate to appeal to larger audiences is D.L. Hughley (“Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip”), who will be hosting a new late night comedy show called “D.L. Hughley Breaks the News” on CNN. The show is rumored to also be of the pseudo-news and sketch variety, but with the added bonus of special guests. Though Hughley will greatly benefit from the credibility of being associated with CNN and the intrigue that comes with the network’s first display of its lighter side, his time slot (10 p.m. on Saturdays) may prove to be a disadvantage. Despite this, Hughley will probably draw a considerable audience and will not likely suffer as a result of turning off white viewers in the way that Grier does. And, who knows, if Hughley finds a groove and his show catches on, maybe CNN will put him somewhere in their weekly lineup.

As for now, it’s probably safe to say the current late night landscape will continue to be dominated by white hosts, but at least we’re starting to see black entertainers emerging and climbing to more mainstream positions. And let’s remember that this is really what America is all about: Citizens of different perspectives and backgrounds coming together... to rip on their government.