I've written recently about network weeknight news. The late Max Robinson integrated that field in the late 1970s and early 80s when he became the first black journalist to anchor an evening network newscast during the week. He anchored the ABC World News Tonight. Robinson died in 1988 at age 49. Since then, no black journalist on ABC, NBC or CBS has yet to become the second black anchor of the network evening news. Why? It's 2014.
Ellen Cleghorne was one of the first black women added to the cast of Saturday Night Live. The first was the late Danitra Vance. I spent time with both women. We talked a lot about race in our broadcast workplaces. Ellen and I worked in the same building. During her SNL years, I was asked to be in place for the premiere of a new weekend morning news program called Weekend Today in New York for WNBC. One evening, after grabbing a quick bite, Ellen took me up to the SNL offices with her. When she said, "Those are the writers," it looked like chow time in an all-white frat house. They were all eating. They were all white. Then Ellen took me down a long hallway and, in a room, there was one black man. She said that it there was a good idea for a sketch featuring her, it usually came from him. So...the comedy was filtered through a predominantly white male perspective.
There are plenty of black and Latino critics in New York City. I know. I've seen them. I've talked to them. I've had some on my TV shows. African-American Wesley Morris won a Pultizer Prize for film criticism in The Boston Globe. Did we ever see him review a movie on Today? No. We saw Cody Gifford instead. Why?
Why should Deggans have been in that series along with host Terry Gross and contributing TV historian David Bianculli? Because ... in that 5-day salute to the history of late night TV talk show hosts...a salute that took us from the classic nights of Steve Allen, Jack Paar and Johnny Carson to the modern nights of Leno, Letterman, Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel and Seth Myers...not a one of those hour-long shows ever mentioned Arsenio Hall. It was as if he didn't exist. Chevy Chase, Joan Rivers and Pat Sajak got mentioned. Arsenio Hall did not. Five hour-long shows in a week devoted to Late-Night Hosts. On NPR. There wasn't even a mention that Arsenio was returning with a new nighttime talk show. How did NPR manage to overlook his history? How did that happen?
Ellen Cleghorne and I became buddies because she was a fan of my VH1 work. I was the first African-American talent to get his own prime time weeknight celebrity talk show on the cable network. I was thrilled. I'd worked long and hard for that kind of opportunity. When Harry Belafonte hosted the Tonight Show, I was a kid in South Central Los Angeles. I went to school in Watts. Our family lived in the curfew area during the Watts Riots of the 1960s, riots that made national headlines for days.
The late 1980s work I did on VH1 that Ellen Cleghorne like a lot was my talk show host work. Here's a sample.
Here's a clip from my exclusive Paul McCartney interview, taped in London for VH1.
Henry Alford wrote a book of humorous essays called Big Kiss. It was about his young Caucasian trials and tribulations as a struggling actor. He worked on VH1 in the 1990s. If you looked at my two VH1 videos posted, how do you think I felt reading Alford's book when he incorrectly wrote that all VH1 hosts in the 1980s were comics of "the Gallagher variety"? Did you see me whack a watermelon with a hammer in either of those videos? No. I'm not putting myself into major talent category with Mr. Belafonte or Mr. Hall, but I was irked at a young white dude ignoring my history in a hardcover book. Alford became a contributor for NPR.
Ellen Cleghorne understood my frustration at WNBC. I could not land a steady assignment at the desk doing film reviews and other entertainment pieces. I was constantly assigned to "wacky" live segments in the field -- like Jim Carrey's local news character in the first 20 minutes of Bruce Almighty. It was while meeting executive resistance at two different local news shows during the 1990s to my doing regular film reviews in the studio that I really began to notice the lack of racial diversity in the field of film critics on TV. I had not seen any black talent on TV regularly reviewing films or covering the theatre scene. In New York City, of all places. Full disclosure: I did weekly film reviews on ABC's Milwaukee affiliate, WISN, for four years before moving to New York. In fact, PBS Chicago contacted me to audition for Sneak Previews when Siskel & Ebert left PBS for Buena Vista syndication.
After VH1, I was never offered another national talk show host opportunity. And I tried to get one. I wanted to do a show like Inside the Actors Studio or Later with Bob Costas. Also, as you know, I could not land a broadcast agent -- even with my national credits. The agents turned me down. The usual response was "I wouldn't know what to do with you." One said that if I did weather, he could get me a TV news job in a heartbeat. And don't get me started on the "You're not black enough" opinion Every single TV executive who had that comment about me looked like he fell out of an Ingmar Bergman movie. They were all so white. That was another way of saying "You're too articulate." So... predominantly white executives had a fixed notion in their heads of how all black men should move, sound and behave. And what their level of knowledge should be. But, somehow, Dennis Miller had a season of work doing jokes about the Byzantine Empire as a color commentator on ABC's Monday Night Football in 2000. It took years before we could get a black actor -- Aisha Tyler -- on Friends, a sitcom about hip young adults living in downtown Manhattan. But also in 2000, NBC gave us a sitcom starring Emeril Lagasse. Yes, that Emeril. The chef who shouts "Bam!" when he makes a chuck roast. He had a sitcom. Emeril lasted from 2000 to early 2001. But a skilled black entertainer trying to get a late night host gig on NBC seemed to be about as easy as getting a permit to build a Hooters in Vatican City. Why?
Agents. There's another issue. From my VH1 days to 2008 when I was seen on Food Network, heard on national radio with Whoopi Goldberg and played a recurring satirical news character for The Onion, I met with agents in top shops in NYC. Never did I ever see a black agent. All the top broadcast agents were white. Did a black actor/actress ever play a high-powered A-list entertainment agent on HBO's Entourage? Think about it. In 2008 it hit me that if you're black, gay, have celebrity interviews to your credit, host a show on Food Network and do political comedy acting, you will be making holiday fondue with leftover government cheese. That's how broke you'll be from the lack of work. But if you're white, gay, have done celebrity interviews, host a national cooking channel show and have done some political comedy, you're Mo Rocca and will get your own office for work on the CBS Sunday Morning show. If you don't believe me, just ask Nancy Giles.
Eric Deggans did a fine segment. However, as one of the many black performers who knows that the playing field is not level and as one who knows that we're lucky if we can even get an audition let alone the job, I think sharper questions need to be shot at the people in charge. The people who do the hiring. We know that talents like Aisha Tyler, Samantha Bee, Kim Coles and D.L. Hughley would make fabulous talk show or game show hosts. We need to know if they're getting meetings for such opportunities. We need to know who is doing the hiring and have they seen or considered minority talents. If they haven't, ask them why. If they're unaware of our history, inform them.
Go in .... and go in deeper.
To follow Eric Deggans at NPR on Twitter, his handle is @Deggans.
If you want to see another of my retro VH1 talk show clips, go to my "Michael Caine & Me" post from a few days ago this month. It's quite festive.