Queen Latifah: Clearing some space between Oprah and Ellen

Queen Latifah on the set of the new "The Queen Latifah Show."
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times

It’s important to remember that Oprah wasn’t Oprah until, you know, she was an event that occurred only after years working as a host for a variety of shows.

I say this because Queen Latifah debuted her daytime talk show, “The Queen Latifah Show,” Monday. Every new daytime host is rated on a scale of 1 to Oprah, but if you are a curvy black woman who is also an actress seeking to create “a safe space” in which people will feel comfortable enough to share things with you, well, that comparison has to be intense.

So perhaps Latifah will be forgiven for swinging more toward that other queen of daytime Ellen DeGeneres.

Latifah showed up for her first day of work in a white suit with a black blouse, and yes, yes, it was obviously a testament to John Travolta, who was the show’s first guest. But honestly, didn’t she look just like Ellen?


And about that first guest. I’m as big a fan of Travolta’s as the next middle-aged female viewer who learned how to dance to the Bee Gees, but when Latifah said she had chosen him because he “embodied” everything she hoped her show would be, I found myself at something of a loss. Certainly Travolta is a durable, even multi-talented performer, but no one could accuse him of generating anything like heat these days.

He falls more into the mildly beloved category, mainly because he seems to be such a genuinely nice guy, always ready to help out a friend. (He showed up on Kirstie Alley’s short-lived reality series as well as her longer-lived “Fat Actress” and her upcoming sitcom “Kirstie.”)

All of which may personify that safe space Latifah hopes to create. But as a way of promoting her show, well, watching stars smile and thank each other for being fabulous is not exactly riveting television. The smallest noise in the next room — a dust mite settling, a dog scratching fleas could — could, and did, prove a distraction.

A pre-taped segment in which Latifah honored a local music teacher by taking him and his students to Sony Studios, introducing them to Alicia Keys, and giving their rehearsal room a much-needed makeover, was far more interesting if unabashedly emotionally manipulative. (Which is to say, yes, I cried a little.)

A life could be lived quite fully without ever seeing 12-year-old Willow Smith sing as she did toward the end of the hour (thereby giving my children one more reason to hate me for not being Will Smith, who by coincidence produces this show). But you know what? She was fine and apparently blowing up YouTube.

Her deejay was another iconic female rapper: MC Lyte.

This is Latifah’s second shot at a daytime talk show — the first, debuting in 1999, focused on the music world and lasted two years. This time, an “older and wiser” mood is definitely in play, and Latifah’s career guarantees A-list guests including Smith, Jamie Foxx and Jake Gyllenhaal.

Still, it’s hard to tell from the premiere precisely what Latifah is going for here, besides the truly fabulous set that was, apparently, designed by Lenny Kravitz.


Not surprisingly, the best bits revolved around her — a brief, amusing song spoof of “Stayin’ Alive,” a funnier series of her promoting her show via scenes from various Emmy contenders. (I wish Queen Latifah would show up in Don Draper’s office and read him the riot act — seriously, how great would that be?)

As previously noted, Oprah wasn’t built in a day. Latifah could wind up with a new sort of hybrid of variety/talk show and that would be great. She too is talented, versatile and charismatic. Though she is always at her most attractive when she’s back-talking (or singing) the sense into someone.

Nice may be the new snark, and who would argue with that trend? Unfortunately, nice isn’t a new gig, “Ellen” has built an empire on it already.

But you can be fair-minded and good-hearted and retain some edge. At least you can if you’re Queen Latifah and keep an open mind while figuring this whole talk show thing out.