FX looks to Jones to add fizz to its late-night schedule

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Special to The Times

Maybe it was the mounds of free chocolate bars that were handed out, or the pulsating mixes of Jay-Z and “Sweet Home Alabama” that DJs Raucous and Dallas Austin were spinning on the turntables. Either way, the crowd at last week’s taping of “The Orlando Jones Show” was pumped up even before its host hit center stage, before Oscar-winner Adrien Brody showed up cuddling an adorable black baby, before an unknown Southern rocker, Brooks Buford, brought down the house with his “Trailer Fabulous” rhymes.

It was a wildly good time, and what a debut for the former commercial pitchman.

From its luxurious set (complete with dozens of miniature pseudo-suede couches) to the variety show attitude boasting the tagline “No white guy, no desk, no band,” “The Orlando Jones Show” aims to be the late-night “alternative.”

The show, which premiered Monday, airs weeknights at 11 on cable’s FX channel. A packed half-hour, it’s brimming with an array of comic sketches and animated shorts, shown to the studio audience on three big screens; at center stage, the show features breakout musical acts and an array of talent the show claims “you won’t see on Leno or Letterman.”


On Jones’ lipstick-red couch in the coming weeks will be actors Aisha Tyler, Guy Pearce and George Lopez, champion female boxer Laila Ali, “def poet” Saul Williams, singer Terence Trent D’Arby and football player Warren Sapp. Plugging projects will be kept to a minimum, the host says.

“Show the clip first, get that business out of the way first, then let’s just vibe,” says Jones, who wants to “go back when late night used to have a whole different vibe.

“[Johnny] Carson was the height of cool -- breaking the acts, having a good time. And he was saying stuff you couldn’t imagine he would say.”

It’s a mixed bag, says executive producer Eddie Feldman, combining “the edginess of Chris Rock to the lounge feel of ‘Playboy After Dark.’ If anything, the show is really based on Orlando’s personality, who he is. If you go to his house, it’s a very open house, you never know who’s going to come in. Vin Diesel will come by. Brody.

“It’s cool being at Orlando’s house.”

“I think [that red] couch came from Orlando’s house,” jokes Austin, who joined Raucous and Jones backstage after last week’s taping of Monday’s opening-night show, which repeats Thursday.

When asked to critique his first night, Jones is matter-of-fact. “I don’t know if I pay attention to all that,” says Jones, the epitome of ease in his tinted-aqua glasses, a black denim jacket stitched with Chinese characters symbolizing truth, love and happiness, and M-O-M spelled out on the right sleeve covering his white tank top and jeans.


“I’ve been in so many crazy positions where I’d have like 9,000 representatives saying, ‘Hey, you could be huge!’ It’s never been about that for me, and it’s always funny when you operate in an environment where that’s what everybody else wants.”

What FX wants is to broaden its appeal after-hours, having established a prime-time lineup of original programming with “The Shield” and “Lucky.”

“The show is being developed to give FX a foothold in late night,” says FX vice-president of development Nick Grad. The cable cousin of the Fox network has ordered 26 weeks of the show, and clearly hopes to extend far beyond that. “We want to play with the form a little bit ... to break the mold, and Orlando breaks the mold of the guys you see doing late-night shows.”

After an impressive performance as the uncompromising band instructor in “Drumline,” Jones, a South Carolina native, surprised some by curtailing his movie career to do a cable television late-night talk show. But he’s regularly taken unexpected turns.

Since launching his career as a 20-year-old writer-producer on “A Different World,” the 35-year-old has ricocheted all over the place, from “Mad TV” and comedy films (“Double Take,” “Say It Isn’t So”) to heavy-hitting projects (“Liberty Heights,” “Magnolia”). So why not tackle a talk show next?

To Jones, everything he does, from movies to TV, is all about expression.

“You want to look back when you’re like 70 or 80 at your body of work and go, ‘I really got to explore a lot of different characters and avenues.’ In theory, I probably should have left ‘Mad TV’ and gone right to the big, broad comedy the way Jim Carrey and Eddie Murphy did. But it’s always been something completely different [for me] than what I think is on everyone else’s mind.”


Even so, the last thing on his mind was television. Not only was Jones surprised when FX approached him about the show, he wasn’t particularly interested in it.

“It wasn’t like I was struggling to get feature jobs,” says the actor, who’s appeared in 14 films since 1999, and just wrapped production on John Grisham’s “The Runaway Jury.”

Austin convinced Jones that “this could be an outlet for us to talk about all the stuff that we do,” says the Atlanta-based music producer, the show’s musical director. “We know everybody in the industry, so the people that come on the show are our friends, so the conversations could be different.”

The vibe, says Jones, is definitely “urban,” but that’s not meant to be a deterrent. “We’re all about inclusiveness,” he says. “There’s no question that we’re all black kids from the South [Raucous is from Miami], so there’s no question that we’re pro-black. But there’s absolutely no doubt that we’re not anti-white.”

But there’s no denying the dives that African Americans have made in the late-night pool. Though “The Arsenio Hall Show” and “The Chris Rock Show” flipped the script on post-prime-time conventions, other black performers have done little to keep viewers tuned in during the wee hours. Whoopi Goldberg tried and failed in 1992. Keenan Ivory Wayans, Magic Johnson and “Vibe,” based on the music magazine, all launched in the 1997-98 season and quickly fizzled.

Failure is not something Jones fears. Of his fallen late-night predecessors, Jones laughs, rolling his eyes.


“That’s like going ... a lot of kids have gotten on bikes and fallen off and scraped their knee, so I’m not supposed to get on a bike?” he questions. “I don’t think you can ever look at life through the failures, but through trying to explore new avenues. If, in fact, you fail, you just get up and try it over again. At this point I’m doing it.”