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Breaking: Non-White Males Allowed in Late Night

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Does George Lopez own the song “Low Rider”? The classic War tune was the theme for his ABC comedy, and it also kicked off his new TBS talk show, where the multiethnic band’s ’70s anthem underscores an idea that Lopez re-underscored in his monologue: This was a show intended for an audience that “looks like America.” A point that, even if Lopez hadn’t made it, would have been clear enough in a week where both he and Fox’s Wanda Sykes added some color to a TV format that currently looks more like Finland.

The usual caveat applies here: it’s pretty much pointless to review a talk show based on the first episode since (1) talk shows are creatures that evolve over time and (2) first episodes are probably the least characteristic episodes of any talk show except possibly for their finales.

I can characterize, though, and my first impression is that, of the two, Lopez’s is the program that looks more like a talk show, and he’s the personality who comes off more as a talk-show host. Sykes—blunt, funny and willing to say anything—is an excellent talk-show guest, which does not always translate, and it’s not quite clear how talky her show actually intends to be. Her first outing played more like 2/3 a sketch comedy show and 1/3 a Bill Maher-style roundtable.

This might be a good approach, considering I’d generally be more interested in what Sykes has to say than what she can elicit from her guests. But if the show is going to rely that heavily on comedy, I’d hope the future episodes don’t seem quite as canned—particularly the umpteen million defense-of-Obama jokes, many of which sounded like they were written last spring.

Lopez, on the other hand, stuck closer to a typical late-night-talk format, kicking off with a monologue and fielding two guests (Eva Longoria and Kobe Bryant), plus a guest appearance from Ellen DeGeneres, who told Lopez, “This is a very important show… everybody needs to be represented.”

Which is true enough from the standpoint of fairness, but not many people are going to watch a late-night show–even an “important” one–in the interest of social justice. Fortunately, the first episode of Lopez had promise. Lopez delivered a long monologue, which played more like a standup routine than a topical comedy set; I’ll be interested to see if that changes going forward.

Lopez is clearly positioning himself not just as a brown alternative to the white men of late night, but also a slightly edgier answer to the broadcast-network hosts; he and Bryant, for instance, unleashed several bleeped s-bombs in their back and forth. Lopez was very up and on on his first night, but his comedy has often had an introspective, dark side, and that could become interesting as he grows and loosens in the role.

The one prominent comedy bit in the episode combined live and taped elements, and also followed the theme of playing multiethnic America for laughs. Two audience members came on stage and watched a series of person-on-the-street interviews, in which people of different races were asked different loaded questions: a white man was asked if he had used the N-word; a Filipina woman, if she’d ever given a “happy ending”; a black man if he’d been in jail; a Latino guy if he paid for his cable.

(Speaking of which, I never knew that was an actual stereotype. Is it an L.A. thing? I remember being surprised once by the Asians-can’t-drive stereotype too–I think when I saw it in the “Diversity Day” episode of The Office–maybe because I live in New York, where people take the subway. [And half the cabs have South Asian drivers.])

The twist: the audience members had to guess what the people on screen would answer, based only on their appearance. Being a segment in a national TV show, I doubt it told us much of anything about people’s prejudices–many or most people, I’m guessing, would  automatically give what they figure is the non-racist answer–but it is an interesting experiment in people’s socially conditioned responses. “I want to say yeah, but no,” was one typical response.

I’d compare and contrast the two players’ answers by ethnicity, by the way, but I can’t; one was an African American man, but the other was a woman whose ethnicity I couldn’t make out–white? Latina? Asian? Which is, in a way, part of another theme that Lopez hit as he addressed his audience: that America is getting more and blended (and, he joked, “better looking” as a result).

Late night still isn’t, though, and until it is, it looks like George Lopez is going to try to get as many jokes out of the difference as he can in the meantime.