Wanda Sykes and Late Night TV's New Color Barrier

Wanda Sykes was once offered what many comics would call the fantasy job—her own nighttime talk show—but she turned it down. Between stand-up gigs, movie roles, and her part on The New Adventures of Old Christine, she was already keeping a lot of balls in the air. So what's this thing called The Wanda Sykes Show that's debuting this week? A talk show, of course. Sykes says that she changed her mind after the watershed with which we've credited just about everything short of gravity: the election of Barack Obama. "With what's going on politically, I just felt it would be an interesting time to have this kind of platform," Sykes says. What's even more interesting is that after years of resembling an Iowan Elks Club, diversity has abruptly come to late-night television. Mo'Nique just debuted a show on BET, and Sykes's Fox premiere will be followed days later by a TBS talker starring George Lopez. The time has come, it appears, for a late-night roster that looks like America.

Granted, late night isn't quite the good ol' boys' network it's made out to be. Minorities have hosted shows over the years—Whoopi Goldberg, Keenen Ivory Wayans, even Magic Johnson—but most to little success. The exception is Arsenio Hall, who became an unexpected phenomenon during his four-year run in the early '90s. Twenty years later, it seems like minority late-night talk-show hosts would have a better shot at breaking through, but given these particular hosts, we're probably not witnessing the birth of the next Arsenio.

We may associate Arsenio with Bill Clinton and his sax, but it's important to remember this occurred during the Bush 41 presidency, and that the show made hay out of the era's culture wars. Arsenio's show was funny, but it was also edgy and confrontational. For proof, look no further than his shouting match with gay-activist hecklers who criticized the dearth of openly gay guests, still a jaw-dropping moment even by today's finicky viral-video standards. When Arsenio was canceled, speculation ran rampant that his solemn, respectful interview with Louis Farrakhan was the death knell. To flip from Johnny Carson to Arsenio was practically intergalactic travel.

Can any of this new crop even approach that sense of danger? Politically topical comedy has proven every bit as tricky as people worried it would be in the Obama era (though Mr. Edwards, Mr. Ensign, and Mr. Sanford have arguably pulled the focus a little). These newbies will almost certainly have a harder time than the other members of the liberal establishment media. Lopez formally endorsed Obama. Mo'Nique, in a radio interview, offered to be his secretary of state. Sykes's appearance at last year's White House Correspondents' Association dinner was most notable for its uncharacteristic deference to Obama—though she had no problem savaging Bush 43. You'd think that as minorities, they will be able to crack wise with impunity in ways a white comic wouldn't dare. But so far we've seen the opposite: a desire to go easy on Obama, perhaps because of their politics, perhaps because they're loath to go negative on an accomplished minority, maybe a little of both.

Minority comics, after all, can't say whatever they want. D. L. Hughley sparked a backlash when, during a Tonight Show appearance, he doubled down on Don Imus's comments about the Rutgers women's basketball team. "He called them hos, he called them nappy-headed hos, and they weren't hos. But it was some nappy-headed women on that team," Hughley said, turning Jay Leno beet-red. Sykes, Lopez, and Mo'Nique will wrangle with the same problem: playing in the same league as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert with the extra layer of race. Can you be simultaneously reverent and irreverent? What we really need is a host with no sacred comedy cows. I'd vote for a late-night show headed by Sheryl Underwood, the hilarious black comedienne who describes herself as a "sexually progressive, God-fearing Republican." Now that makes me nervous.