Cable talk hosts loosen up

Jenny McCarthy (center) brings a party atmosphere to her VH1 show. Below (from left): David Alan Grier with W. Kamau Bell on FX’s “Totally Biased”; Carmen Electra, Johnny Weir, Margaret Cho, and Kathy Griffin on Griffin’s Bravo show.
Jenny McCarthy (center) brings a party atmosphere to her VH1 show.
SARA JAYE WEISS/STARTRAKSPHOTO.COM

The network’s late-night lads can be a bunch of drama queens. They’re like overtired boys at recess, ganging up and name-calling and bullying and pouting — except for little Jimmy Fallon, whose parents taught him to be nice. Slippery Jay and Grumpy Dave are on the seesaw, each considering a jump off, and there’s Sly Jimmy Kimmel lying in wait. Meanwhile, Brainy Conan O’Brien got shipped out to private school. Decades on, they still want to be crowned the next Johnny Carson (all rise).

But there’s another group of nighttime talk-show kids who are sitting on the playground steps, disconnected from the same old game-playing. They don’t particularly want to be the next Johnny, and they’re all on cable, away from the crushing Nielsen pressures that can turn a comic into a neurotic megalomaniac like Garry Shandling’s Larry Sanders. They have no connection to the endless media rumors about late-night jockeying — including, last week, buzz that had Jay Leno gone after next season, Fallon taking over “The Tonight Show,” and Howard Stern picking up Fallon’s slot. They don’t rate musical-chairs reports yet.

The nighttime talk-show alternatives have been building across the past decade, since Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and Bill Maher helped bring talk viewers across the psychological divide to cable. Chelsea Handler and Andy Cohen are the senior class, Handler on E!’s nightly “Chelsea Lately” at 11 with her unrepentant — and un-network-like — celebrity takedowns, and Cohen on Bravo’s nightly “Watch What Happens Live” at 11, playing the straight man to all manner of reality nonsense and celebrity games. He’s the straight man, the Merv Griffin of cable talk, but Cohen is openly gay, also an un-network-like factor.

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Interestingly, almost all of the new hosts are female, openly gay, or black, Russell Brand being the exception. They suggest the kind of demos that, as in the last presidential election, are not wisely ignored. Are they poised to overwhelm the networks’ late-night monopoly? No, or at least not right away; some of them — W. Kamau Bell and Jenny McCarthy, for example — run only once a week, not including re-airings. But they are appealing to young and alternative audiences who, as time passes, could accumulate into a force. At this point, they all behave like niche-market entertainment — Cohen will air this week from the SXSW festival — but it’s not hard to imagine one or two of them breaking through. In what could be a parallel, ordinary cable shows such as “The Walking Dead” and “Duck Dynasty” are beginning to seriously challenge the ratings of network programming.

The newest of the new talkers — Nikki Glaser and Sara Schaefer — host “Nikki & Sara LIVE” Tuesdays at 11 on MTV. The comics, hired on the basis of their popular podcast, “You Had to Be There,” are deeply ensconced in pop culture and irony. They report on One Direction, Rihanna, Beyoncé, and their crush, Justin Timberlake, with visual assistance from doctored photos and videos and fake commercials.

The opening segments of the show are a bit like “Weekend Update” on “Saturday Night Live,” with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler as their guiding spirits. In one featurette, they attend a ladies underwear convention, and you can easily imagine Fey and Poehler going after the same kind of laughs. Guests have included Phillip Phillips, Ke$ha, Alison Brie, and McCarthy, whose “The Jenny McCarthy Show” airs on VH1 on Fridays at 10:30. Yes, these backwoods hosts appear on one another’s shows; Handler was on Cohen’s show last week when, memorably, she called Angelina Jolie a “demon.”

Nikki and Sara are steeped in the minutiae of the entertainment world, as are all of these other hosts. They are obsessed with it, love it, and yet, like Sandra Bernhard before them, find it ridiculously funny and eminently mockable. They talk about movies and TV shows and their stars without seeming like cogs in the promotional machine, something that the network hosts are still hostage to. Kathy Griffin, on Bravo’s “Kathy,” which airs Thursdays at 11:30, is all about TV’s tabloid trash and scandal. Recently, she had guests Carmen Electra, Johnny Weir, and Margaret Cho do their “Maury Walk” — how they would walk if they were on “Maury.” Handler, though, is the queen of the knowledgeable pop takedown; she is polite Nancy O’Dell of “Entertainment Weekly” gone wrong — Nancy No’Dell.

Bell is a celebrity-centric thinker as well, on FX’s “Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell,” which returns to the air on May 9 (on Thursdays at 11). But he adds in political and racial elements, spending a good amount of time recently making fun of Mississippi for finally ratifying the 13th Amendment that outlaws slavery. Last month, in an episode featuring an interview with Nikki and Sara, he teased the Grammys for their “urban contemporary” category: “Oh Grammys, I’ve cracked your code. You know my daughters actually have urban contemporary.” He is intensely amiable, but with a sharp undercurrent, very much the inverse of his fellow FX host, the all-out-there Brand.

“Brand X With Russell Brand,” which is now airing live on Thursdays at 11, is what you would expect from the gonzo Brand. It’s an hour of madness, with Brand engaging in a lot of audience interaction as well as zany games on stage — to wit, his bra-unhooking contest with Ronnie West, a man who has no arms or hands. He is unhooked, and not for everyone, unlike Bell, who has great mainstream potential.

One thing you quickly notice about all these shows is that the settings are relatively intimate — in other words, desk-free. The hosts aren’t hemmed in, and neither are the guests. McCarthy, in particular, cultivates a party atmosphere, with everyone conspicuously holding drinks. Recently, she and guest Carson Kressley were seen sucking in helium and sucking on lollipops while lying on the floor. Handler will often put her feet up under her on her upholstered chair as she talks to a guest. It’s a more physically relaxed approach to the talk genre, with more room for outrageousness.

Rather than obsessing over the four or five big network slots, these hosts appear to enjoy their moment. Of course, the nighttime landscape is littered with failed alternative endeavors such as “Lopez Tonight,” “The Wanda Sykes Show,” “Love You, Mean It With Whitney Cummings,” and “The Mo’Nique Show.” But then there are more in the works, including a USA late-night show from Will Ferrell’s production company and a TBS companion show for “Conan” starring comic Pete Holmes. On the late night playground, there’s a lot more room to move freely.