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Lessons from late night

June 17, 2003|Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn

Ignore history and be doomed to repeat it. Insiders share the eye-opening lessons learned from some urban-themed casualties of the late-night wars:

The Arsenio Hall Show (1989-1994): There was nothing like Hall and, for a while, he did kick Jay Leno's you-know-what. "Arsenio's show was more like a party and he hosted it with a different edge," says Tony Rock, writer-performer for "The Chris Rock Show." "There were acts on his show you wouldn't see anywhere else. Arsenio filled a tremendous void." But the debut of "The Late Show With David Letterman" in 1993 eventually crowded out Hall's show.

The Whoopi Goldberg Show (1992-1993): An Oscar winner, television producer, comic. But playing late-night host dulled Goldberg's edge, says Robert Thompson, director for the Center for the Study of Popular Television. "Putting her behind the desk was essentially like putting her in a cage," he says. "When you're known for other things, you've got to reinvent yourself." She didn't.

The Chris Rock Show (1997-2002): Rock bowed out before audiences wanted to say goodbye, but Tony Rock says his brother's shoes could have been filled. "Regardless of the figurehead, there were great writers on the show," Rock said of scribes such as Wanda Sykes, whose comic bits were packed into a half-hour.

The Keenen Ivory Wayans Show (1997): Despite a solid writing staff, quality celebrity connections and a stand-up comedy background, Wayans lost footing without a firm foundation of producers. "Anytime you change up your core group it can be difficult to maintain the show," says Craig Armstrong, the show's director-producer. "You need to have a strong support group that there's for you no matter what."

Vibe (1997-1998): Part magazine, part variety, the show launched hoping its brand would shine through in its unknown comic host, Chris Spencer. Two months later, stand-up star Sinbad stepped in ... too little, too late. "If you don't come out with something intriguing, people aren't going to give you a lot of time," segment producer Nick Cates says. "Having a sense of self is essential. Know who you are and be that."

The Magic Hour (1998): Retired basketball star Earvin "Magic" Johnson shoots the breeze with celebrities on TV and finds himself out of his league. "Everybody can't do late night and everybody can't do comedy," says the show's Tommy Davidson. Still, the former athlete wasn't prepared for the daily late-night grind. "He'd only [read the script] a couple of times before we went to camera. Once you're in front of the audience, and you're out there thinking about it, it's going to show."

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