Certainly, George Lopez’s ouster at TBS was not a surprise. Lopez Tonight was supposed to be the network’s flagship late night program, trying to vie for a space in what is a ridiculously crowded field of contenders – but the folks at Turner justifiably got starry eyed when a certain red-headed free agent came on the market. Turner thought there was a comedy dream team for late night that they could ride into the dual-revenue nirvana of more viewers and higher subscriber rates. Alas, the thing so far hasn’t worked. After the good numbers that come with any hyped new venture, the ratings have sagged to the point where Conan is running fourth behind both Chelsea Handler and the Comedy Central powers. Does this mean that the TBS venture has been a failure? That I don’t know – and TV ratings for late night have sagged in general as DVRs and the Internet have made staying up to watch a TV program seem kind of stupid.
That said, it feels like Conan O’Brien and George Lopez individually, and Turner generally have serious mishandled what is necessary to survive in a more democratized entertainment environment. George Lopez’ show, especially in its post Conan incarnation succeeded in just being very unmemorable and lined with some Latino stereotype imagery and humor (all the way back to the “Lowrider” theme) that seemed to plunder some very hackneyed Hollywood territory. As the comic Lucas Molandes writes:
Yeah, Lopez was the first Latino late night talk show host. Yeah, some people see his playful jabs at culture – no matter how cliche – as being necessary for not taking ourselves too seriously. But there’s an irresponsibility to what Lopez did on Lopez Tonight: he created a nationally televised precedent for ignorance to perpetuate itself. No matter how harmless his stereotyping was, he still validated the idea that you can judge a book by its skin tone; you can see heritage as caricature and not as humanity. I’m brown, but I’ve never used my skin color to give me a free-pass for a cheap reaction. The way I see it, just because we have the same color skin doesn’t mean you’re exempt from being racist.
But Lopez traded all of his opportunities to be a role-model in for the magic beans of personal success in show business. And guess what?Ultimately, it didn’t work. And what’s his legacy? He’ll be a trivia question on Jeopardy in a few years. Who was the first Hispanic talk show host in America? Lopez could have been a role model, but he was no better than a brown faced Al Jolson. Lopez Tonight was our minstrel show.
Basically, it was fairly hacky, Jay Leno sort of mainstream stuff. Lopez was trying to fight for that “ethnic next door” title which DL Hughley seems to be auditioning for every single year. While his show did attract some guests who you don’t see as often (like boxers), there was never a sense that Lopez’s own talent level was at risk in the show he was producing. This could have been a show produced by anybody in the machine-pressed Tonight Show sort of format.
Conan, while certainly not being the trailblazer that Lopez is (at least demographically), seems to be slipping down the same path. Hey, I felt bad for O’Brien and the fate he suffered at NBC. I tuned in to his program a lot since the TBS launch. However, what you see is just not inspired. It is basically your standard issue late night chat show, with Conan producing a monologue with a laugh or two – some sort of bit, and then a guest parade. Where were the zanier items that marked the better parts of his NBC tenure (like the Year 2000 notions)? It still feels like Conan is trying to capture a broad audience as well as the younger folks who formed what constitutes his “core” audience. But what I don’t get is – in this diffuse age, can just producing a standard issue talk show like Letterman or Leno (and with a non-edge closer to Leno) really capture and keep a core audience?
This leads to the fundamental mistake TBS has made this entire time. On cable, niche has succeeded. Chelsea Handler succeeds with people whom I’ve never met, while Stewart and Colbert succeed with superb writing. I read that on BET, Mo’Nique has some sort of show also that clearly people watch. Jimmy Kimmel is more frat-boyish, but hey … it’s something. Adult Swim becomes a bastion of insanity. All of these entertainments have particular audiences, but they are delivering superior entertainment to audiences that are craving it. What is TBS doing? To me, it seems like it is just a repeat of network television formulas, formulas which network TV hosts still do better. Why is Conan doing a basic guest driven chat show on cable, when Jay Leno gets the big guests easier, and David Letterman is a far better handler? Conan is playing in a shark tank that not only he can’t win in the long run – but antithetical to the best aspect of cable – the democracy. TBS and Conan have to seriously explore how they can form their own space – and not be so reliant on network paradigms. This is the sort of lazy bullshit that has turned CNN, another Turner venture, into a place where other network anchors go to die. Conan is brilliant in his absurdist best, and it would behoove him to double down on it.