By Ronda Racha Penrice
Reports that The Wanda Sykes Show will most likely not return to Fox for another season isn’t exactly a newsflash. Debuting on November 7, 2009, the Saturday-only late night show just had trouble gaining relevancy. When it comes to failing to master late night television, even when it’s a once-a-week deal, Sykes isn’t alone. Black comedians just haven’t thrived in this medium. A year earlier, D.L. Hughley failed miserably with his CNN weekly D.L. Hughley Breaks the News. To be fair, getting laughs at CNN wasn’t exactly a Las Vegas odds winner. Still, what is it about late night television that spells disaster when a little color is added to the small screen mix?
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As far as the traditional daily late night show format most often associated with the legendary Johnny Carson is concerned, Arsenio Hall is the only African-American to make any significant waves. In comparison to today’s hosts, Hall had considerable training in the late night arena. A former announcer/sidekick for Robin Thicke’s dad Alan Thicke’s troubled 1984 show, Thicke of the Night, Hall got his big break filling in for FOX’s failed Johnny Carson challenger, The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers. When Rivers left in 1987 after only a year, Fox kept the concept alive by rotating in talent that included Hall and Robert Townsend. Hall’s ratings were so promising he led his own show, The Arsenio Hall Show, from January 3, 1989 to May 27, 1994.
Capitalizing on hip-hop’s mainstream emergence, Hall incorporated much of that energy into his show. Today, with The Roots serving as the in-house band for NBC’s Late Night with Jimmy Fallon as well as Jay Z, Nas, TI and many other rappers dropping into The Late Show with David Letterman, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and several others on a regular basis, it’s easy to forget that it wasn’t always that way.