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A Little Bit of TV History

By admin Published: March 3, 2009

When checking in with TV Tattle, I came across a column by the New York Times's Alessandra Stanley about late-night TV, which among other things complained that "there is even less diversity in late-night network comedy than there was 20 years ago when Arsenio Hall had a syndicated show." There was plenty in the piece to take issue with, but let's look at just that comment a little more closely. ...

One of my friends who follows the NY Times closely says there's no point in criticizing Stanley these days since her record of misstatements is vast. And I don't want to pretend that TV has a glowing record of late-night talk diversity. Arsenio Hall's story is especially telling. When Joan Rivers tanked as a late-night host for Fox, Hall was one of the people brought in to keep The Late Show going after Rivers' departure in 1988 while the network worked on its next move. Arsenio soon enough was the replacement for Joan, and Fox would have done well to have kept him and the show. Instead, it opted for the ill-conceived Wilton North Report, and Arsenio went off to syndication, where he thrived, often on Fox stations.

But 20 years ago is an odd point to mark a time line, aside from the anniversary convenience. For one thing, Hall's show began in syndication 20 years ago, and ran until 1994, by which time he was getting pounded from two directions, David Letterman and Jay Leno.

Nor is Hall the only example of an African-American with a late-night talk show over the last 20 years.

Whoopi Goldberg had a talk show in 1992-93.

Vibe, a late-night talk show hosted by Chris Spencer and later Sinbad, ran in 1997-1998.

That same year saw the short-lived "Keenan Ivory Wayans Show."

Chris Rock's HBO show, which was often brilliant, ran from 1997 to 2000. And I am sure Rock's show would have kept going much longer if he had wanted to. I would rather see him doing talk and stand-up than, say, "Head of State."

Magic Johnson tried a show called "The Magic Hour" in 1998.

D.L. Hughley had "Weekends at the D.L." late-nights on Comedy Central in 2005 and is now doing a show for CNN.

Now, I know that you might argue that some of this doesn't qualify as late-night comedy, although to me that's just Stanley trying to narrow the topic. But there's still more to be said here than just going, "Hey, there are a lot of white guys in late-night" without seriously looking at how that happens -- why, for instance, did most of those shows fail?

Then there's Johnson's claim, after his show tanked: "Black stars think that if they're not on Leno or Letterman that they're not making it. Their managers and agents keep them off the black shows." But I'm not convinced Stanley did more than have an idea and toss it out, when there was plenty to explore in a more serious way.

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