CNN, which has assiduously weeded the fashion, entertainment and shout shows from its lineup in recent years, did an about turn last week and announced it is launching an “unconventional” weekend show hosted by D.L. Hughley, a comedian whose take on life and news makes The Insider think and laugh.
The wide-ranging show, tentatively titled “D.L. Hughley Breaks the News,” will debut at 10 p.m. this Saturday and will repeat at 10 p.m. Sundays. The program will tape before a live audience at CNN’s New York studio on Thursday or Friday afternoons.
Mitch Semel, who was hired to develop Campbell Brown’s prime-time show, will executive produce for CNN. Michael Rotenberg, Dave Becky and Mr. Hughley will serve as executive producers for 3 Arts Entertainment.
In an interview just hours after the announcement of the show, Mr. Hughley, an unabashed news junkie, talked about why he took the job after meeting only once with CNN/U.S. President Jon Klein, and what he hopes to do.
A star of “The Original Kings of Comedy,” and a finalist for the spot won by Craig Ferguson as host of “The Late Late Show” on CBS, the California native also confessed a certain socio-climatological misgiving about moving to New York.
The Insider: How are you?
D.L. Hughley: Well, I’ve got a job.
The Insider: I was rooting for both you and Craig Ferguson in the tryouts for “Late Late Show.” You made me laugh out loud.
Mr. Hughley: Thank you. We both got one, so I’m very excited.
The Insider: One of the monologues you did in your “Late Late” audition was about the Vibe Awards and the behavior. You’re not shy about stepping on toes or biting hands that feed you. What questions did CNN ask to assure themselves about hiring you?
Mr. Hughley: I’ve got to be absolutely honest. We were looking at offers from three other cable networks. I got a call from my manager—I was in Cleveland—and he said, “What do you think about CNN?” They hadn’t even been in the mix. No one had talked about it. I said, “I’m not a newscaster.” He said, “They want to do the show you want to do.”
I met with Jon one time. He made an offer where he would put us on the air for a year. I’ve never seen that happen. That just never happens. The first time I met the standards and practices guy was yesterday. It was in the hallway, just kind of passing by. I’ve never been told where the line is. … I’ve never had an interaction with a network president that didn’t have a “What I couldn’t do before we start” … so this has been a different experience for me.
The Insider: I’m not sure from the release exactly how much of it will be you just talking to me, the viewer.
Mr. Hughley: It’ll be more like the Letterman-Leno late-night tradition than it will be Jon Stewart-“Colbert Report.” We’re not going to parody the news. I’ll do a monologue. I’ll do comedy pieces and I’ll do interviews. The interviews will be less star-driven. A guy who I personally find very interesting is the sheriff in Cook County who won’t evict any more people whose homes are foreclosed. I think that’s a very brave thing because he is an elected official and four years from now, when everybody’s got their money back and he’s running for re-election, his opponent will run an ad that he scoffed at the law. So that to me is brave.
I’d like to talk to Ron Paul, who I think is bright, and quirky and funny. I remember being on “Bill Maher” and he talked about how he just doesn’t believe that the Civil War should have been fought, that we just basically could have paid for everybody’s freedom.
The Insider: The first bailout, as it were?
Mr. Hughley: [Laughs] All right. I think it’s interesting to talk to a guy like that. No matter what happens, part of the country and the other half devastated, and we’re going to do a comedy piece that addresses that. If Obama wins, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton and a lot of civil rights activists are going to be looking for jobs. We’re going to help them find one. All these things that I think comedically make sense to me, in terms of pieces and interviews.
The Insider: But with the interview it seems like you position yourself squarely between a comedic rock and hard place because it’s one thing to have fun about people and it’s a different thing to have fun with people sitting right there with you.
Mr. Hughley: That is going to be the ultimate challenge. Art, and I think comedy is art, is supposed to make people uncomfortable. It does. You’re doing it wrong if there’s no kind of turmoil going on. I think that people want to have conversations.
I’m never going to try to embarrass anybody. I’m never going to be afraid to listen. I’m never going to afraid. If you listen to people and you are respectful and understand that they have a right to their opinion, I don’t think that is conversationally tricky. When you already have the answer before you ask the question, that can be a little more tricky.
The Insider: You are clearly plugged into the news and what’s going on. You are clearly of opinions. Do the interviews necessarily have to be funny, as opposed to engaging?
Mr. Hughley: No, they don’t. No matter what you do, conversations take on a life of their own. We can plan all day long to have an interview be funny and it could turn serious, or we could have one we plan to be serious and it could turn funny. But I think what I’m prepared to do is at least be informed about who I’m talking to. I don’t want anybody to go through the pre-interview apparatus where the particular interviewee gets to tell me what stories they think are interesting and I get to ask them the questions they want me to ask. I hope to make it more like a conversation. I’m not going to pretend. I’m not a journalist. I don’t know the nuances of doing an interview. I do know how to have a conversation.
The Insider: You’ve named two people you’d be interested in interviewing. Those both seem like they’d be gettable. What would be your pie-in-the-sky interview.
Mr. Hughley: My get of all gets would be actually getting to have a conversation with George Bush. That would be interesting to me right now. You’ve got to be a pretty bad president when the whole country goes, “We’re going to try the black guy next.”
Every time he comes out on television to quell our fears about the economic downturn, the stock market drops. I actually feel bad for this guy. I’d like to talk to him. I don’t know that that’ll ever happen, but to me he seems like an interesting guy.
The Insider: How has your portfolio fared in the market of late?
Mr. Hughley: Oh, man, like everybody else’s. You know what I find interesting just from a comedic vantage point is we’ve had times like this. Everybody talks about the Great Depression. There was World War I and II. At every turn, America got better because of it. We sacrificed and got better. There are a lot of things that wouldn’t have ever happened if we had not been going through hard times, like Social Security wouldn’t have happened and welfare wouldn’t have happened had we not had that downturn.
Look at the Sixties and all the war and civil upheaval. Obama wouldn’t have been able to run for president had those things not happened, had we not been that uncomfortable as a country.
What is going to be our response to this downturn and war and uncertainty and all those kind of things? So far our only response is shopping.
The Insider: That self-same President Bush urged us to go shopping after 9/11.
Mr. Hughley: We’re not as tough as our parents and grandparents were. They rose when they were faced with adversity, and we don’t. We haven’t as to date. There will be a comedic event or interview that services that. That’s my particular point of view. I don’t know if we’ll do it in a bit or a conversation but we’ll address that. That is, to me, a reality. All you can do is have an unvarnished look at things from your perspective. That is what we’ll be doing every Saturday.
The Insider: Are you restricted in any way as to whose reporters you interview?
Mr. Hughley: No. This is a great situation, because I’ve done these shows before where you kind of, who can you get? Let’s be real. Only three or four people in the entire world move the needle when they come on. So what you have is a collection of people who are accessible and interesting. If they want to come and we can work them in, I’d love to have them.
The Insider: The sketches. Will you have an ensemble of performers you can call on?
Mr. Hughley: It’ll be more of a hybrid. I will be able to talk, for instance, to international correspondents. If something happens internationally, I will have access to a correspondent that will cover that. It may be a kind of serious issue or an issue that is more weighty. I would trust that to a reporter more than I would to a comedy performer. I’m going to use all aspects of what we have available.
I may find somebody in Kuala Lumpur—I’ve always wanted to say that in an interview.
The Insider: Would you like to repeat it?
Mr. Hughley: And I’m going to. In Kuala Lumpur. But if there was a guy I had a rapport with who I thought explained stuff to me better than people I think are funny, I’ll use him.
Like I would like somebody to explain to me—no one knows where our money went. This will be a chance for me to learn along with whoever’s watching, because I’m not afraid to admit I don’t know anything. So I’ll be learning about things just like everybody else. Things interest me that seem mundane to people. Like the World Series is coming up and the fact that two people schedule all the events in baseball and two other sports. That’s interesting to me.
We’re not beholden to an entertainment agenda or a news agenda. We are beholden to an interesting agenda. We get to do what’s interesting, I think, until we don’t get to do it anymore.
The Insider: What is the most overworked, newsy pop-cultural comedic topic these days?
Mr. Hughley: Right now it would be the Sarah Palin phenomenon.
The Insider: Do you do a Sarah Palin impersonation?
Mr. Hughley: Not at all, but I find this interesting, and I think she’s very compelling for whatever reason. But I think she tended to do better before—every time I hear, and this is no knock, but I remember my mother saying that it’s better to be silent and thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt. I’m not by any means calling her a fool, but what I am saying is the more she talks … like when she said, “I am an expert on foreign affairs because I can see Russia from Alaska.” Well, I can see the moon from my house. That don’t make me an astronaut.
And all the winking. When somebody is winking and all that stuff … . Every time I see somebody act like that, they want a tip, you know what I mean? It’s either a waitress or a doorman or a stripper.
The Insider: I have no familiarity with the latter.
Mr. Hughley: Oh, me neither.
The Insider: You only recently met with Jon Klein. You only recently met with the standards and practices person. Did you know Mitch Semel?
Mr. Hughley: I recently met Mitch.
The Insider: So you’re working amongst strangers.
Mr. Hughley: Absolutely. And living amongst them in New York. I didn’t know you had to pay a broker to find an apartment that you found. I lived in L.A. my whole life. And that’s very specific. Rich people live with rich people and poor people live with poor people. In New York, that’s from building to building. I asked a broker, “What is a good building?” A good building has a doorman. A bad building has just got a man in the door.
The Insider: It’s a really good city to live in.
Mr. Hughley: I can’t tell you how excited my family is. I’m used to California. Anywhere white people get cold I’m nervous about.