Mo'Nique, the charismatic, bold comedian and actress, can pinpoint exactly when she started to fall out of love with late-night television. It happened in the spring of 1994, when Arsenio Hall, the man who broke the genre's color barrier, walked away from his popular syndicated show.
"When Arsenio left late-night, so did I," she recalls. "I just hated to see him go. When you watch television, you want to see people who look like you."
Mo'Nique will do her part to make that happen by hosting her own hour-long blend of talk and variety. "The Mo'Nique Show" began airing this month on BET, and she's promising the weeknight slot will be a blast.
"We want you to feel good. It's a party, baby," she purrs. "When you're done watching, you're going to go to bed with a smile on your face. We're setting you up to have the sweetest dreams possible."
That's a rousing mission statement, indeed. But Mo'Nique won't be the only one looking to bring a fresh look to a late-night scene long ruled by white guys. Also adding some color are Wanda Sykes and George Lopez, who launch their own programs in early November.
"The Wanda Sykes Show" (Fox) will air on Saturday nights and feature the irreverent comedian's take on the events of the week, along with discussion panels and comedy segments. Meanwhile, "Lopez Tonight" (TBS), airing on weeknights, will offer an "outdoor street-party atmosphere" with celebrity guests and musical and comedy performances.
"Change has come to the White House, and now change is coming to late-night," says Lopez, who plans to eschew a desk and cue cards. "We can send a message."
Ask Sykes why it has taken so long to incorporate some diversity into late-night and she offers a sly, tongue-in-cheek response.
"White people," she says. "There are too many of you."
But back in 1989, when Johnny Carson still lorded over late-night, "The Arsenio Hall Show" debuted in syndication with a hip young upstart host who found a way to carve out his own piece of late-night turf. While Carson catered to old-Hollywood types, Hall drew rappers, musicians and other performers who typically didn't populate the talk-show circuit - people like MC Hammer and Bobby Brown (not to mention a young presidential candidate named Bill Clinton).
Several other black hosts eventually tried to follow Hall's lead. Magic Johnson had his own show, as did Keenan Ivory Wayans, Whoopi Goldberg and Byron Allen. Quincy Jones produced a show called "Vibe." All of them, however, flamed out quickly - and then the well dried up.
When Carson abdicated his throne, the parade of white men began with Jay Leno and David Letterman leading the way. Later came Conan O'Brien, Carson Daly, Jimmy Kimmel and Craig Ferguson. And this year, when NBC had a late-night vacancy after its highly publicized Leno-O'Brien shuffle, another white male was waiting in the wings: Jimmy Fallon. E! Entertainment's Chelsea Handler, who debuted in 2007, is the lone female in the ranks.
"Nowadays, the hosts of late-night TV look like the audiences they are chasing. Their target audience is young males," says Eric Deggans, a media critic who has written extensively on late-night television's lack of diversity.
Meanwhile, daytime talk TV has become the domain of women - including Oprah Winfrey - largely because females make up the daytime target audience.
Mo'Nique, who says she was inspired by Oprah and has long yearned to do a talk show, says she's looking forward to joining the "boys club." Her show, however, will originate from Atlanta - not the typical late-night hub - and will offer a distinct alternative.
While the newcomers bring change to the late-night landscape, it remains to be seen what kind of impact they can make. Lopez says his show's position on basic cable will allow him the "freedom to take greater liberties," but his ratings aren't likely to approach Leno or Letterman level. The same can be said for Mo'Nique on the niche BET. Meanwhile, Sykes is on a broadcast network, but her platform will be limited by the Saturday-night time slot.
Still, these shows can have an influence, claims Deggans, who believes other networks will get involved if viewers respond. It will also depend, he says, on whether they can "distill something special" that the network shows have not.
"Arsenio offered a window into a vibrant, often-black entertainment culture that was mostly absent from the late-night mainstream," he says. "But these days, Jimmy Fallon has the Roots as a house band. Jay Leno had Kanye West and Jay-Z as his first musical guests (in his new time slot).
"If any of these other comics can tap a special vibe, they will stick out as vibrant alternative. If not, they're just the same old shtick in a different-hued wrapper."
NEW FACES OF LATE-NIGHT
- "The Mo'Nique Show": 11 p.m. Monday-Friday, BET (premiered Oct. 5)
- "The Wanda Sykes Show": 11 p.m. Saturdays, Fox (premieres Nov. 7)
- "Lopez Tonight": 11 p.m. Monday-Friday, TBS (premieres Nov. 9)