D.L. Hughley is a funny guy. But a king of comedy? At a time like this, when shows like Saturday Night Live and the Daily Show are comedic fixtures, that's up for debate.
Last weekend, I watched the premiere episode of CNN's new comedy show D.L. Hughley Breaks The News. Although many of his jokes fell flat, Hughley showed some potential. His hope for success is tied into his ability to relate to and engage the average American viewer who may not otherwise tune into CNN. For the most part, however, Hughley struggled to deal with his nervousness and his discomfort in delivering scripted material off the teleprompter.
After the first episode aired, Hughley was justifiably criticized. Some berated him for presenting a slew of jokes that seemed to only perpetuate stereotypes about black people. I believe that producers and executives were trying to capitalize on Hughley's comedic appeal as someone who speaks both casually and adeptly about racial issues. Perhaps they thought that these jokes and segments were tongue-in-cheek, satirical in nature. But for many viewers, there was nothing to laugh about.
The show was still, by my account, entirely watchable. So I requested tickets to attend a taping of this week's episode at the CNN studios. I wanted to see firsthand what Hughley was like behind the camera and to possibly learn more about what the show meant to him. Even from the first episode, you got the impression that Hughley was doing this show for more than just a paycheck.
The audience consisted of roughly 35 people seated in rows on the set floor to the rear of the cameras. Hughley came out from backstage just before the taping was to start, where he immediately began to crack jokes about audience members. This was a skill that he had clearly mastered from his time as a stand-up comedian. (He referred to one audience member as "Shaggy from Scooby Doo.") This was the Hughley I wished I had seen on television the week before, the one who could make us laugh without really trying. I feared, though, that when the tape began to roll, Hughley would deteriorate into that nervous stiff we met days earlier.
Evidently, producers had been paying attention to the media's criticism. The opening segment, which was a monologue the first week, was transformed into a seated segment at Hughley's desk. There, he delivered his take on the news, utilizing graphics over his shoulder for visual, comedic effect. This change worked for the better. Hughley appeared more calm and comfortable than he did the first time around. Sure, he still consistently laughed at his own jokes louder than the audience would, but at least we didn't feel we were both suffering through the monologue.
From there, Hughley seemed to get even better. Because of the draw of CNN, Hughley has the opportunity to interview famous and influential figures. This week's guests included Donna Brazile, ACORN's Bertha Lewis and Rev. Al Sharpton. Hughley asked intriguing and on point questions to each of his guests, showing that he had given thought and done research in preparation for the interviews.
There is a certain duality in which Hughley operates. It comes across most in relation to his interviews. Short, funny videos and graphics accompany the top or middle of many of the interviews, reinforcing the light-hearted side of the show. The videos help establish the familiar tone Hughley has always relied on for his punch lines. Whenever guests speak in complicated terms and language, Hughley reminds them that he never graduated from high school and holds a G.E.D. This effectively brings the conversation back to his level.
Thus, as an interviewer, Hughley is engaged and inquisitive. He listens to his guests, takes their opinions seriously, and responds with follow up questions and comments. It's Hughley's talent to balance the comedic with the serious that makes his show succeed. When done right, his guests follow the host's lead. They both laugh at appropriate times and answer Hughley's questions candidly and thoroughly.
Hughley's methods worked best this week in his interview with Rev. Sharpton. The two discussed how Barack Obama represents progress for blacks and for America. Hughley joked that there's "No better time to have a black President than when you're broke. Nobody does more with less than us." It's the type of comment that Hughley may have been criticized for a week ago, but one that Rev. Sharpton accepted in stride and with a smile.
Hughley continued by explaining that he and Rev. Sharpton are trying to get to the same place: to get people to care about ideas in American culture and politics. Hughley says that he performs his end as a comedian, while others can do it as civil rights leaders and politicians. Rev. Sharpton agreed, saying that everyone must perform when they are offered the chance. Hughley quickly followed with, "All of us have a role."
Hughley is quickly growing into his own.