television

Forget Leno and Letterman; the latest talk-show battle is on cable

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Lopez (right) with guest Larry David
Photo: Carin Baer

For years, late-night TV has been dominated by white guys on major networks, with a brief detour for Arsenio Hall. These days, NBC has three and a half hours of talk every weeknight, with the lineup of Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Fallon and Carson Daly, while CBS has David Letterman and Craig Ferguson, and ABC has Jimmy Kimmel. Some of these guys are quite good at what they do, but what they do has, over the years, calcified into a very strict format.

Now that format—with a few tweaks—has spread to basic cable, where a head-to-head competition is taking place as various networks work to establish their own talk-show dynasties, with a bit more diversity in their choice of hosts. First on the scene in 2007 was Chelsea Handler, whose show Chelsea Lately (E!, weeknights, 11 p.m.) has quietly built into something of a juggernaut, offering a female-focused alternative to the network late-night shows. Chelsea Lately runs only half an hour, and while it starts with a topical monologue and later features Handler chatting with celebrity guests, its main component is a roundtable with Handler and three other comedians riffing on pop-culture news, in keeping with E!’s celebrity-gossip mission.

Chelsea Handler

Mo'Nique at the 7th Annual Hoodie Awards at Mandalay Bay Events Center.

Mo'Nique at the 7th Annual Hoodie Awards at Mandalay Bay Events Center.

Two other late-night shows are now going up directly against Chelsea Lately, both of which stick even closer to the established format. The higher-profile one is Lopez Tonight (TBS, Monday-Thursday, 11 p.m.), hosted by comedian George Lopez and touted incessantly as a late-night revolution thanks to Lopez’s ethnicity. While it’s true that the Latino Lopez isn’t white, his show is far from revolutionary, structured almost exactly like his white-bread competitors on mainstream TV. Lopez Tonight features a house band, a monologue, a series of celebrity interviews, musical guests and taped comedy bits. Lopez forgoes a desk (just like Jay Leno does these days) and takes Fridays off, but everything else he does is strictly by the book. His guest list may be a little more diverse than Leno’s or Letterman’s, but it’s still geared toward whichever celebrity has something to plug in a given week.

Lopez is just starting out (his show premiered November 9), so a little settling-in time is to be expected. But his strained overenthusiasm is in stark contrast to the relaxed, convivial atmosphere on The Mo’Nique Show (BET, weeknights, 11 p.m.), which has been on the air since October. African-American comedian Mo’Nique brings the kind of genuine openness to her show that Lopez lacks, and does it without Handler’s forced vulgarity and meanness. Unlike Lopez, she doesn’t seem to be concerned with forming a rainbow coalition on each show; her audience, guests and co-stars (she has a house band as well as a sidekick, comedian Rodney Perry) are almost exclusively African-American as well, but that approach contributes to her ability to be more laid-back and honest, to talk plainly to her guests and her audience.

In that sense Mo’Nique follows the most innovative host on broadcast late night, Craig Ferguson, who’s ditched the current-events-jokes monologue format in favor of free-form storytelling, and whose interviews are earnest and intimate. Viewers skipping their local news in favor of late-night talk shows can opt for empty snark (Chelsea Lately), a hyperactive copy of what they’ll be getting half an hour later (Lopez Tonight) or an honest effort to, well, talk to people (The Mo’Nique Show), which may sometimes feel awkward and forced, but in this new late-night battle, is probably the only way to win in the long term.

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