Few might realize this now, but this week's debut of comic Mo'Nique's new BET program represents more than the often-dysfunctional cable channel's newest attempt to build a late-night show someone might actually watch.
It's also the start of TV's attempt to answer a serious question: Is there room for a late-night program that isn't hosted by a smart-alecky white guy?
The Mo'Nique Show is just the leading edge of several ambitious new diversity-minded late-night projects. Latino comic George Lopez has a TBS show debuting Nov. 9; black comic Wanda Sykes will lead a program on Fox on Saturday nights starting Nov. 7.
This stuff makes sense in TV land, where classic counter-programming strategy demands that you do what everyone else isn't. And with six late-night chat shows on network TV hosted by white males because advertisers are chasing that audience, why wouldn't cable TV air shows crafted for 30 percent of the nation's non-Caucasian population?
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To some, this sounds like heresy. Why talk about race when it comes to late-night entertainment?
But I've always thought the best shows centered on people of color found something special about that performer's ethnic culture and expanded it into a world that mainstream TV audiences couldn't resist watching.
The Cosby Show revealed the inner lives of a kind of upper-class black family that most of America didn't know. Arsenio Hall's classic '90s-era late-night talk show put on television rappers and R&B singers from M.C. Hammer to Bobby Brown and beyond when they couldn't get arrested in mainstream show business.
In Living Color, Chappelle's Show and The Chris Rock Show turned stuff that black folks laughed about in barbershops and on front porches into widely watched comedy classics. And for a people used to seeing another culture's humor rule the tube, watching Eddie Murphy's James Brown impressions on Saturday Night Live brought a pride that's hard to describe.
That's why so many modern shows featuring mostly minority casts are so disappointing. The first episode of The View co-host Sherri Shepherd's new sitcom for Lifetime, Sherri, which premiered Monday, is Exhibit A.
Viewers see many things about her life — her early days juggling an office job with a stand-up career and life as a divorced mom — but what's missing is her life as a black woman striving in the mostly white, mostly male worlds of office work and stand-up comedy. So, her first episode felt like every other workplace comedy.
Contrast that with Sykes' HBO special at 10 p.m. Saturday, I'ma Be Me. She talks about being a black, gay new mom with a French wife (sample joke: "I like to say she's French because that sounds better than saying she's white"). It's politically incorrect, in your face and filled with tart observations that are universal, yet revealing about cultures that often don't get center stage.
If Mo'Nique, Sykes or Lopez creates this subversive spirit in late night, they will truly offer landmark shows. It won't be easy: Unlike the Arsenio days, late-night TV has opened its doors to performers of color, with rap pioneers the Roots serving as the house band for Late Night host Jimmy Fallon and Jay Leno featuring three regular correspondents who are black.
Turns out bringing a new perspective might be these new hosts' greatest challenge. Otherwise, they're just hawking the same old jokes in a different-colored wrapper.