Late night stays white because it’s taken everything it needs from black pioneers like Arsenio Hall. Comedian W. Kamau Bell weighs in on why that matters.
Every time a late-night job becomes available, people on social media and websites like this one get to play Fantasy TV Exec! And we toss around overqualified, non-white guy candidates like Aisha Tyler, Maya Rudolph, Wayne Brady, Tina Fey, Margaret Cho, Ellen DeGeneres, and Chris Rock. Occasionally, I even get thrown into the mix. And for a little while it is exciting to think of the possibility of these shows… until we actually hear the announcement.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m super excited to see what Stephen Colbert does with The Late Show. He’s unquestionably a comedy genius. But you can’t tell me that Wayne Brady wouldn’t do as good a job as Jimmy Fallon.
And now The Late Late Show is going with another Jimmy, James Corden. And there was a collective same as it ever was from those same people who made all those fantasy lists. Look, I’m sure he’ll be great. CBS seems to know what they are doing over there in late night. Nobody predicted Craig Ferguson’s success. (I was sure they would hire D.L. Hughley who also auditioned for the job, but I was younger and more naive then.) And even if Corden isn’t great right away — and this is what usually separates white guys from the rest of us — he’ll get a chance to work out the kinks and get it right. Basically the exact opposite of what happened to one of the greatest comedians of all time, the late Joan Rivers, at Fox in 1989.
And speaking of people who didn’t get a chance to get it right: You may not remember the original Arsenio Hall Show — I know you may think you do, but only a few of us (aka BLACK people) truly felt its seismic impact. Arsenio put people on his show that literally (yes, I do mean literally) nobody was putting on their shows. That simple fact meant that in 1994 this was a revolutionary act:
Well, version 1.0 went off the air that same year. The mainstream story is that with David Letterman moving to CBS, Arsenio was going to lose a gang of CBS affiliates that were airing his show, and he knew he wasn’t going to be able to compete with Jay Leno and Dave. But the barbershop story is that once he interviewed the then-uber-controversial Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, advertisers left and “THE MAN” canceled his show. Being simultaneously a black man and a person who had a short-lived late-night show, I tend to believe both.
But Arsenio proved that the brown-faced actors, comedians, bands, singers, and (GULP!) rappers that he put on his show made money for late-night TV. Then the networks took them, their disciples, and their audience and assimilated them all into The Borg that is late-night television — which meant that the type of booking on Jay Leno’s show that would have seemed weird on its face in 1989 was only weird in 2009 because Jay insisted on making it weird.
Tell me that Kanye West interview wouldn’t have gone smoother with Arsenio in the interviewer’s chair… or with me, or with the next random black person you see. If that’s not proof of the need for more diversity in late-night hosts, I don’t know what is.
But the people who run late night don’t need us blacks to host anymore. Once Arsenio left, late night picked the bones of his show. They picked them so clean that when he came back there wasn’t enough to make it feel as different as it had been the first time. Late night didn’t need a black host because it had all the black host’s guests.
My point is we, the audience interested in diverse voices, have to stop turning to mainstream late-night TV to service our need. They didn’t even want Neil Patrick Harris. (WHO’S A BETTER HOST THAN NPH? HE’S ALREADY BASICALLY HOSTING PLANET EARTH!) But those of us interested in non-Cordenesque entertainers have to do what we have always had to do. We have to seek out those voices and go meet them where they are. Aisha Tyler already has a great talk show. It’s a podcast called Girl on Guy, and it’s brilliant. (Actually she has two: The Talk on CBS.) Chelsea Handler got out of E! network’s wanna-be mainstream late-night TV game and is taking her talents to Netflix. Just like how way back in the late ’80s Arsenio left Fox and headed into the wilderness of syndication where he was successful… until he booked Farrakhan.
And us non-white-dudeish artists have to stop longing to be put in the box of mainstream late-night talk show hosts. Late-night talk is a Johnny Bravo suit if there ever was one. We diverse voices, as usual, have to create our own boxes and continue innovating America’s pop culture… like always. And then we have to try to act not surprised when “mainstream” (read: white and male) steal it… like always.
Late-night TV is big business and wants the biggest audience possible. And the people who run it believe they have evidence the biggest audience comes with a white guy. And it will probably remain that way… at least until 2042.
W. Kamau Bell is performing at Largo in Los Angeles on Sept. 23 and will be heading out on a national tour starting in November. Check out wkamaubell.com for more details.