White Guy Talk Show, Fuse’s new late-night show, is not quite as advertised: Saurin Choksi and Grace Parra, its two hosts, are decidedly not white guys.
Parra is the youngest child of Mexican parents who immigrated to the United States. She grew up outside of Houston where she attended Catholic school and started an all-girl rock band. After graduating from Columbia, she worked as an assistant at Late Night With Conan O’Brien before moving to L.A., where she wrote for several shows (like Glory Days and Work It).
Her biggest coup was selling a pilot to MTV that was developed by Jennifer Lopez’s production company. That show was never produced — but when Lopez’s NUVOtv network acquired Fuse, Parra was tapped to co-host their late-night talk show. It airs weeknights at 11 p.m.
Parra sat down with the Cut to discuss the slowly changing landscape of late night and her comedic inspirations.
What’s the origin of the name, White Guy Talk Show? It sounds like a joke or the title of a think piece.
We [writers and executives] were kind of working backwards from what the vibe of the show was and then title it after that. We started thinking, “What is it that late night doesn’t have? What is it that late night does have?” … And at some point, we’d bring up that every single late-night show is hosted by a white man.
And there have been women — Chelsea Handler, Joan Rivers — but it’s a much smaller circle of women who have hosted shows. It’s just so dominated by white guys, I was just like, “What if we just called it White Guy Talk Show, knowing that there will never be a white guy who’s hosting the show? … Why not be tongue in cheek about it?
There are so many articles written about the fact that there are no women, there are no diverse people. There are occasionally. Kamau Bell had a show called Totally Biased.
Speaking of Totally Biased, which was a great show and was canceled far too soon — how do you think you can avoid a similar fate?
One of the big things that Fuse is doing brilliantly is soft-launching the show. There hasn’t been a ton of advertising about the show. There aren’t big billboards. We haven’t been going out to a million different shows promoting it. The reason is, they want us to find our footing on air. We’re doing it. We have a show and it is on air, but it is very much, like, we’re aware of the fact that we’re building what the show is, what the show can be.
What I loved about Totally Biased was that it was real fucking smart. It was really funny and very in touch with what was going on politically and culturally. But I think that our show is a little goofier. We have a character called Stoned Rabbit … there’s a goofiness and lightheartedness that I hope people will take to.
Are you going to bring some of your musical talent [to the show] the way Jimmy Fallon has?
Oh, totally. We’ve done a few segments. We did a song that was written by Phoebe Robinson, one of our writers, that was an ode to Jared Leto’s hair. He just cut off all of his hair. So she wrote the lyrics to this song that I then did the music for [it].
I have my acoustic guitar in the office ready to go. I write theme songs for bits … There’s a segment called “No, No, No,” which is sort of like my ode to Maya Rudolph, who is a big inspiration to me. If I could be some combination of Maya Rudolph and Conan, that would be a dream.
Remember how Conan did “If They Mated”? So it would be Maya Rudolph plus Conan equals a little picture of you.
And a little bit of Speedy Gonzales, because my energy level is pretty crazy.
What is it about this moment when everyone seems to be focused on the diversity of late-night TV?
I don’t think it’s all of a sudden. I remember watching Joan Rivers’s first episode of her Fox show when she left as guest host of The Tonight Show. That moment when she walks out as host for the very first time and the audience gives her a standing-O. Her monologue wasn’t a monologue. She even says, “I’m not going to tell any jokes.” You can tell she was soaking in the moment of being the first woman in late night. And this was 20 years ago and even then people were aware of the fact that being the first woman in late night was something momentous and wanted, that people were craving.
The crazy thing is that we’re in 2015 and that isn’t the norm. Chelsea Handler has done a lot for women in late night, for sure, but the fact that it’s still so uncommon to find a woman in late night. And certainly no Latinas in late night.
I just did this piece for a company called ATTN. It’s about the fact that there’s this whole hullaballoo over why the Oscars recently had this big lack of diversity … My point in that argument, and I think it’s applicable here, is that it’s not just the performers themselves that need to be diverse, but the fact that diversity needs to exist in directors, in writers and in studio executives. And I think we haven’t seen a lot of [diverse] people in late night because all of those categories are still filled with white men. As long as those categories are still filled with white men, we’re still going to be seeing white men on television … When we see diverse studio execs, diverse writers, those people are going to cry out for people in front of the camera who are diverse.
I guess you should rename the show “White Guy Studio Exec.”
The cool thing about Fuse is that we do have diversity in our studio.
Do you think it’s easier for a woman or minority to originate a new show on a fledgling network as opposed to stepping into a preexisting show?
I’m so thrilled to be where I am and on a network that is what it is right now, which is very much in transition and very much hoping for the hit that’s going to transition them into the next phase. I feel like my voice gets heard a lot more than maybe it would if I was stepping into someone else’s world. To that extent, as a creator, as a writer, as an originator of content, I think it’s a lot better to be on a smaller network that’s finding its footing — and then you find your footing along with them. That’s what happened with The Daily Show when it first started on Comedy Central. It was very new, the network was very new.
With [one of your recent guests, Iranian actor and comedian] Maz Jobrani, you spoke about how you used to pretend to be Italian—
For years! I did not come into myself as a Mexican, as a Latina, until I was in high school. Many years I was surrounded by all white people. I just didn’t think it was okay; I felt like an anomaly. I remember being the one Hispanic kid in school … I was the only Mexican doing theater, having an all-girl rock back band. My interests felt “white” growing up.
The writing staff, judging from the website, seems like a pretty diverse group. What has it been like for you going from being the only one in the room to one of many?
I think it’s amazing. I love the fact the network has such a focus on not just making the people in front of the camera diverse but also being aware that if you’re actually going to do a show that’s commenting on the fact that in late night, there are only white guys hosting, also be cognizant of the fact that behind the scenes, it’s only white guys too. The fact that they’re so focused on changing it is amazing. They get it. They get the fact that isn’t just about giving on-air people this opportunity, but it’s about writers, PAs, producers — making the whole family diverse.