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Hoping to Breathe New Life Into Late Night

With all the attention paid to Jay Leno's ratings at 10 and David Letterman's off-air escapades, the talk-show world has hardly been devoid of excitement in recent weeks. But as he gets set to launch George Lopez's new TBS talker, Lopez Tonight, on Nov. 9, executive producer Mike Gibbons is more concerned with what will happen once the cameras roll.

“The late-night genre is very stale,” Gibbons says. “I don't think anyone is trying to do anything different. There is too much money at stake to take big risks; it's really color by numbers.”

Gibbons has a diverse background that should help him and Lopez shake things up in the late-night scene. Gibbons not only didn't grow up looking to get into comedy, but his goal out of college was to get a job working in public relations for the New York City Parks Department.

While NBC apparently thought that vocation was interesting and funny enough to build an Amy Poehler sitcom around it, Gibbons was less enthused when he actually landed that gig and quickly soured on it.

Fortunately, a chance encounter with a friend at a concert led in 1992 to a production-assistant job at VH1, where he began writing on-air promos for comedy shows. From there, he jumped to HBO as a senior writer and producer of promos, working with comedians from Ray Romano to Dave Attell.

Gibbons realized he wanted to work on a show, so in 1997 he moved to Los Angeles and landed a job writing jokes that Bill Maher read during promos for Politically Incorrect.

In 1999, Craig Kilborn's CBS show was looking for a writer with production experience and Gibbons fit the bill. A five-year stint there saw him rise to head writer and producer.

“Late night five nights a week is such a different animal than anything else,” he says. “You just churn out the best stuff you can, and then you have to start from zero the next day. But I did fall in love with it.”

When Kilborn departed and the show did a chorus line of auditions for his replacement, Gibbons actually got his shot. Not that appearing on-air was anything new; he'd been a mainstay on-camera during the Kilborn era.

Though Craig Ferguson landed the gig, Gibbons went on to stints with shows hosted by Ellen DeGeneres and then David Spade. He then jumped to Fox as executive producer of Talk Show With SpikeFeresten.

He calls that three-year run of Saturday night shows one of the biggest challenges of his career. Budget restrictions meant they'd double-tape shows on Thursdays, with one episode airing the following Saturday night and the other airing months later. “That show was handicapped from the start, but we did some good things,” he says.

After a stop at Mind of Mencia and then the successful creation of Tosh 2.0 for Comedy Central, Gibbons accepted an offer to launch Lopez. And now he is out to rewrite the late-night playbook. He hopes Lopez's talent and connections, as well as a party-like atmosphere featuring an audience of 400 people, will help.

“Other hosts suffer from being too cool for school or going understated,” Gibbons says. “While Conan perfected the awkward moment and Letterman is smart and absurdist and heavily ironic, this will be going for more energy.”

And Gibbons knows he is entering a talk-show arena that is being heavily scrutinized right now because of Leno's move to 10 (“I'm still shocked they did that; no one has ever even held a meeting about taking off the number-one show,” he says) and the Conan vs. Letterman battle. But he believes that in Lopez, he has a trump card.

“Late night has gotten a little boring,” Gibbons says. “We're going to try to make it less boring.”