This week brought the non-event — "anti-event," one might even say — of TV's winter season, the return of Jay Leno to The Tonight Show, marking an end to the Late Night War of 2010. (Casualties: one.)
That fracas focused attention not only on the two main combatants but on the rest of the relatively small, essentially homogenous group of men who make up broadcast television's late-night comedy-'n'-chat front line: Past Jay and, formerly, Conan, there are only Dave, Craig, Jimmy, Jimmy and Carson, kind of, holding down the desk or filling the comfy chair for the original Big Three networks.
But it doesn't end there. Further down the dial, one finds shows whose hosts are not all straight white men (Wanda Sykes, who has a weekly show on Fox, is none of those things), and other variations are played on the old established forms.
Herewith, a field guide to some of the rarer — and newer — birds of late night.
Chelsea Lately , E!, 11 p.m. weeknights: Just turned 35, Chelsea Handler is narrowly the youngest of the late-night hosts, and although she professionally paints herself as something of a disaster — her latest best-seller is titled Are You There, Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea — and continually points up the low-rent, low-viewership nature of the show, she occupies her space with aplomb and a sort of moral authority that takes the edge off the meanness of some of the humor. She has something of a young, post-feminist Joan Rivers about her, but drier, and less hysterical, in the clinical sense, and even when she seems to be seeing the jokes in her monologue for the first time as she reads them off the TelePrompTer, she stays funny.
The Mo'Nique Show , BET, 11 p.m. weeknights: The talk show as tent show. Like an old Jackie Wilson song, this Atlanta-based talk show is built on gospel rhythms, mixing the sanctified and the saucy. As is true of the network as a whole, The Mo'Nique Show is designed as black television for black people — "It don't happen like this nowhere else in the world," the Oscar-nominated Mo'Nique said one night recently, "just take a look at the colors of the host, the co-host, the band and the DJ, baby" — but there's nothing exclusive in the pitch or the appeal; it's just a good party, and a loud one. (The host is hoarse throughout.) Lots of love in the air here, and when Mo'Nique falters for a question or joke she'll go straight to praise and positivity and cultural uplift.
Lopez Tonight! , TBS, 11 p.m. weeknights: Notwithstanding the Mexican-American particulars of his shtick, Lopez is a hugely successful mainstream comedian, and the proportions of his show reflect it: big set, big crowd, big band, big guests. He delivers his monologues seemingly by heart, as if he's playing a well-worn routine to the back of the main room at the Las Vegas Hilton. The show is thick with prepared material and short on surprise, and it can fall into a torpor that the host's energetic mugging and Spanglish exclamations cannot always overcome.
The Wanda Sykes Show , Fox, 11 p.m. Saturdays: Sykes is a usually able performer, as both a comedian and an actor, but she seems uncomfortable as a talk-show host. (To be fair, she's logged just more than a dozen episodes since her weekly show debuted in November.) Jokes that might play well from the guest's chair, or as part of a live routine, fall consistently flat when she speaks straight to the camera. She does better hanging out with guests in "Wanda's Bar," a Bill Maher-style round table on cultural and political current events. The guest list is diverse and plays to the fringe — Jenna Jameson, Margaret Cho, Megan Mullally, Tim Meadows, Neil Patrick Harris, Snoop Dogg and such. Friday Night With Jonathan Ross , BBC America; new episodes 10 p.m. Fridays; and The Graham Norton Show , BBC America, 10 p.m. Saturdays: These run in prime time, it's true, but only chronologically, not spiritually. Both Ross (straight), left, and Norton (gay) are big kids who court outrageousness — Ross has gotten into hot water with the BBC on more than one occasion — in the service of keeping things loose, friendly and human. Their late-night is not for selling stuff but for letting hair down, and pants down. I speak figuratively, of course, but only just.