It's almost impossible to do anything new with the late-night talk show. Many have talked about doing something different with the format, but most have just abandoned innovation in favor of shows that don't really change up the central format all that much or died quick deaths. The last show to really mix up what was going on was Late Night with David Letterman, and that was almost 30 years ago (good Lord). And even that show was basically a regular old late-night talk show with a huge dollop of irony tossed on to appeal to the kids. How long has it been since a show other than something trying to be a Dick Cavett-esque throwback did anything other than opening monologue into skit into first celebrity interview into second celebrity interview into musical guest? I guess The Jay Leno Show plays around with the format, but calling that an innovator seems false.
So the best way to innovate within a late night hour is via tone. Letterman added the irony. Conan O'Brien turned things toward the absurd. And now George Lopez has turned Lopez Tonight into the Crash of late-night talk shows, a show almost singularly obsessed both with the fact that everybody's different and that they're all, also, just the same. If the premiere of the series had the usual technical snafus (at one point, Lopez and Kobe Bryant sounded as if they were talking to us from the bottom of a well) and lame bits that all debuting late-night talk shows have, it also had a tone that seems hell-bent on deliberately avoiding the sort of audience late-night talk shows usually chase. It'd be refreshing if so much of Lopez's humor weren't so hackneyed.
Take, for example, the bit that stood in for the "skit" portion of the show, which featured Lopez showing a young man and woman (the young man was black, and the young woman was probably Latina) footage of various questions his interviewers asked people of various walks of life out and around Los Angeles. For example, a Filipino woman was asked if she'd ever given a happy ending, the audience crying out in shocked laughter at what was happening before the footage paused over her face pondering how to answer the question and Lopez turned to his panel of two to provide the answer to the question. Would they let their own racial prejudices get in the way of things? Would some of the interviewees live up to stereotype? Is everyone a little bit racist sometimes?
I'm all for humor and commentary that both deflates political correctness and tackles the fact that America hasn't completely banished racism to the phantom zone but has, instead, mostly buried it really deeply and then tried to sit on the grave while hoping it doesn't rise up again. Race is one of those things we just don't talk about all that often in polite society, especially since the civil rights era is over. After the election of Barack Obama, there were a few pieces on this, but mostly of the, "The end of racism has arrived!" variety. And that's probably for the best most of the time. Confronting our own biases and prejudices is one of those things that is often best done in private, while confronting the societal stereotypes that lead to things like institutionalized racism is usually best accomplished via the political process. But that doesn't mean that sharp commentary on race can't be kind of awesome all the same. That shocked gasp from an audience that seemed to consist mostly of members of racial minorities (though that may have just been who the camera picked out) was that of people sort of glad that Lopez was going there, both examining the underpinning faulty logic of racism and making it OK to laugh at the fact that, well, everyone's a little bit racist sometimes.
The problem, as you've probably already surmised from my summary above, is that the bit isn't really put together with any verve or sharp lines. Lopez's overly scripted patter with the contestants feels stale (even if it's improvised), while the bits with the people on the street feel more canned that usual. Hell, even when Leno goes out to stump people with questions about who was the first president, he usually includes a little banter to set the mood. The people on the street interview bit, then, felt weirdly airless and edited within an inch of its life, which left too many laughs out of a process that could have been funny, instead opting for a tone that almost approached lecturing from time to time. And it wasn't just this segment. Even in the monologue, Lopez's jokes all went to fairly expected places. The crowd ate them up, but they were the province of hacky stand-up work.
That said, I'm willing to cut Lopez a lot of slack in this regard. I don't particularly have any feeling one way or the other on his work prior to this, and late-night talk shows are hard enough to launch without worrying about having fresh and funny material for the first week of shows that I'm not surprised hacky jokes slide through under those circumstances. Furthermore, Lopez is a pretty interesting interviewer, if his talks with Eva Longoria-Parker and Bryant are any indication. While it's entirely possible a lot of these interviews are pre-scripted, Lopez makes them seem completely off the cuff, wandering down rabbit trails with Longoria-Parker about Obama before nudging her back to a pre-planned segment where she would dance with a stripper pole (apparently something she did for her husband) or getting so caught up in talking basketball and the Lakers with Bryant that it occasionally seems like he's forgotten the audience is even there. An alert and interested interviewer is the best thing a late night show can have, and Lopez is promising in this regard. (Everything else in the late-night talk show package can be finessed by hiring better writers and producers, but interview skills have a certain degree of latent talent to them.)
So if a lot of the first episode of Lopez Tonight was a little hacky, I'm willing to give it room to improve because of the fact that Lopez seems to specifically be targeting the millions upon millions of Americans who don't have a late-night talk show that takes place in their universe. It's an interesting tack to take (particularly since the last to really try it was Arsenio Hall), but it often works in daytime, so why can't it work in late night, particularly on a channel that won't have the sort of viewership requirements one of the big networks would? There's an early moment when Lopez crows about how diverse his audience is (pointing out old people and young, people of all races, etc.), and it's hard not to be intrigued by where he'll take this and if his interest in racial matters in the first episode will prove to be a blip or the founding mission statement of the entire show. Based on material alone, Lopez Tonight probably deserves a failing grade, but based on the potential to be like a lot of other TV but also very, very different at the same time, it deserves something slightly better.
- Thanks to Noel for taking over The Big Bang Theory tonight. I was out until late.
- Lopez's set has a rather cheesy, low-rent look to it, particularly that big, unfurled banner with the show's name on it that's hanging stage left.
- I do like the band, though.