Keenen Ivory Wayans has sprinted into the latenight talk wars this week like a bullet-train bound for funkytown, burning up the night with enough energy to overload circuit-breakers coast to coast. He's funny, he's smart, he's megacool, he's very easy on the eyes, and three nights into this gig he's already showing signs that he can do the talkshow-as-pep-rally shtick with more panache than Arsenio ever managed. As the early ratings are making clear, Wayans --- the enormously talented "In Living Color" alum and sometime film producer and director --- has the goods to pull this off. Out of the box, he's the best-looking face in latenight, as any woman watching will attest (often over and over). The suave silks, the shaved scalp, the sly smile ... it's all there.
You might say it’s the polar opposite of “Good evening, I’m Ted Koppel …”
There is also plenty of evidence that Wayans’ show will be the place where the cool people congregate. To have Jada Pinkett, Samuel L. Jackson, Salma Hayek, Nicollette Sheridan and red-hot rappers Bone Thugs-N-Harmony in the house during your first three nights ain’t too shabby.
That said, “The Keenen Ivory Wayans Show” occupies a fairly narrow niche. Though Arsenio proved that a hip, urban alternative to the middle-aged white guys could draw an audience, Wayans has a tendency to erect an ethnic wall that sometimes excludes those not attuned to certain urbanized quirks and colloquialisms.
The focus was particularly evident during the first night, when Wayans and a buffed-up, swaggering Jada Pinkett seemed to be trying to out-do one another in the jive talk. Part of it could have been due to Wayans’ nervousness and early lack of interview savvy, which had already begun to improve by night three.
What’s impossible to dispute is the fact that “Keenen Ivory Wayans” has more sheer manic zest than anything in the mainstream broadcast world.
As the show opens, we hear the driving rock beat of the all-female, all-sexy house band. An airborne dizzycam twirls overhead and finally zeroes in on the hyped-up crowd, on the fluorescent nightclub-y set and finally on a humanity-lined spiral staircase. Down the stairs bops Wayans to a deafening roar, slapping five to a gauntlet of adoring Keenenettes like a guy about to receive the opening kickoff for the Super Bowl.
All that’s missing are the pompom girls and drill team. And the scalpers.
Wayans then does five minutes of reasonably amusing, self-satisfied standup (“While I was gone from TV, Michael Jackson got married twice — and he’s still never had sex with a woman”). The monologue, too, had improved by Wednesday night, further underscoring the folly in reviewing a nightly show after its first night.
While his stuffed-chair chats with Pinkett and Brendan Fraser (on Monday) and Jackson and Sheridan (on Tuesday) were dull, strained affairs, Wayans found his stride Wednesday with animated, semi-probing discussions with the Hayek and “NYPD Blue’s” modest Nicholas Turturro.
The between-segment commercial parodies (a cancer-ravaged woman blowing air through the hole in her throat, a kung fu movie dubbed with a rap soundtrack, an ad for the Sexerciser) were generally more hit than miss, while a segment called “What’s licking you?” (in which an audience member was given a TV set for agreeing to be blindfolded and licked by an unidentified animal) proved bizarre.
A “Pulp Fiction” takeoff leading into Tuesday’s show was the best of the satire, finding Jackson reprising his role and imploring at gunpoint, “What does Keenen Ivory Wayans look like?! Does he look like a bitch?!”
The musical guests varied from a tuneful Babyface to an unintelligible Puff Daddy and the Family to a tight Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. The crowd literally danced in the aisles. Even Keenen got down off-camera.At the close of each show, the guests gather with loved ones on the stage for a quick and contrived goodnight, and then it’s all over, except for the promotional considerations.
The first-week consensus on “The Keenen Ivory Wayans Show” is that the host is likable enough that he doesn’t need quite as much of the pumped-up atmosphere and hyperactive trappings to recruit a devoted following, and that in fact the party-hearty pomp will ultimately cloy.
But the suspicion is that, as time goes on, Wayans will find a comfortable niche and discover that a guy need not stand out as the double-espresso in a decaf world to make his mark.