LOS ANGELES — In the blink of an eye, late-night TV is shifting from a white men’s club to the start of a rainbow coalition.
Wanda Sykes’ weekly Fox comedy show debuts 11 p.m. EST Saturday, followed by George Lopez’s four-night-a-week talk show on TBS, starting 11 p.m. EST Monday. They join “The Mo’Nique Show” on BET.
Lopez is counting on an audience hungry for something different — as in the first Hispanic to host a nighttime talk show on a major network, cable or broadcast.
Sykes is the first black late-night host since the late 1990s, when celebrities Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Keenan Ivory Wayans tried and failed to follow in Arsenio Hall’s successful 1989-94 footsteps.
“There’s a huge percentage of people not watching late-night TV at all,” Lopez said, figuring that the shows headlined by hosts including David Letterman, Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Kimmel draw from roughly the same audience pool.
For people of color, the actor and comedian said, “I don’t think a lot of their needs are met with the current talk shows. I would pull a different audience.”
Shari Anne Brill, an analyst with media-buyer Carat USA in New York, echoes Lopez’s assertion.
“There is a huge, growing multicultural population in this country, and the current late-night fare doesn’t really take them into account,” she said.
But neither Lopez nor Sykes are talking about practicing exclusionary TV. Lopez’s ABC sitcom drew a cross-section of viewers, and Sykes said she expects her show to attract the same mixed crowd she gets at her standup appearances.
“Young, old, male, female, all races, gay, straight. I love the audience that I draw,” Sykes said.
She rebuts the idea she got the job because of her gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation (the actress-comedian, who appears on CBS’ “The New Adventures of Old Christine,” came out as gay in 2008).
“I do understand the importance of being on a late-night talk show as a black, gay woman. But I’ve been at this for 20 years. I don’t think they (networks) were saying, ‘Hey, it would be fun to get a black woman on late-night. Who fits that role?’
“I got this show in spite of being a black lesbian,” she said, adding that viewers will tune in to see her or Lopez and not a type.
“It’s all driven by the host. It’s not what you’re getting from a minority, it’s us,” Sykes said.
She doesn’t see an “Obama effect” in the sudden late-night diversity, given that she was approached before the election of the first African-American U.S. president. But Lopez said his interest was piqued as he campaigned for the Democratic candidate.
“Being with Barack for a year and seeing the people and how their eyes and their faces filled with hope for him, for this country … and, on a very smaller scale, to have a show that is fun and can galvanize people and bring them together” was appealing, he said.
The two shows, as sketched by their hosts, will take different approaches.
Lopez promises to bring “the party back to late-night,” signaling a looser, hipper hour in the tradition of “The Arsenio Hall Show,” said analyst Bill Carroll of media buyer Katz Television in New York. Sykes is planning Bill Maher-type panels with both lighthearted and serious discussion of politics and culture as part of her mix.
“In some ways, these shows are looking at breaking the mold,” Carroll said. “Lopez Tonight,” he suggests, could be “what late-night might look like in the future.”
Sykes, whose show replaces Fox’s “Mad TV,” could compete successfully in her partial overlap with NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” analyst Brill said. “Viewers could watch her show and then switch to ‘SNL’ in time for the news, which is the only part that’s funny anyway.”
Eva Longoria-Parker, Ellen DeGeneres and Los Angeles Lakers basketball star Kobe Bryant are the scheduled debut night guests for Lopez. Sykes will welcome Mary Lynn Rajskub of “24,” Daryl “Chill” Mitchell of “Brothers” and “The Amazing Race” host Phil Keoghan.
John Ridley, head writer for Sykes, said he’s wary of asserting that the show will “blow apart” the late-night model.
“If you look at all the shows, they’re not different. Are we going to have a monologue? Absolutely. Guests? Yes. A panel? Yes. But it reflects Wanda’s sensibility,” he said.
And that, it’s safe to say, is not akin to what Carroll calls the “predominantly middle-aged — to be kind — white men” that have long dominated late-night.