This week, NBC announced David Letterman’s successor to The Late Show will be Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report, but before NBC announced the final decision, the Internet was abuzz about the lack of diversity in Late Night’s line-up. This past Wednesday, in an interview with Huff Post Live, comedian Kathy Griffith discussed the many options NBC had for potential female Late Night hosts, and said it is high time that a female host is let into the Late Night boys’ club which currently only features (white) men. She went on to point out the comedic diversity of the male hosts in NBC’s line-up, saying that a female host should not have to prove herself in order to gain a spot. She had a point. Women comedians have had a tough time getting ahead on major networks for decades, and while Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are often touted as proof that late night entertainment is an equal opportunity industry, evidence suggests that the major networks are far from trailblazers in the endeavor for equal representation in mainstream entertainment.
All but one of the late night line-up hosts have been men, with the exception of Joan Rivers who appeared on The Tonight Show as a permanent guest host for three years in the 80s. When asked about the women in late night, Rivers gave a very bleak account of what it takes to succeed as a woman, saying, “You have to be in total command, but you still have to be feminine … it’s a very tough thing, and it’s tough for women.” Rivers’ account of what it is like to be a woman on the late night line-up certainly echoes the kind of barriers for women in Late Night that Griffith spoke out about. While networks and audiences have embraced a variety of male host personalities, the common response to questions about potential female hosts is that only the right woman could fill the shoes of her masculine predecessors.
Back in March, during a Skype interview with Huff Post Live, comedian Adam Corolla said Ellen would probably do well as a late night host, bizarrely adding, that it may be confusing for audiences to see a woman delivering a late night monologue, saying “We’re used to certain genders in certain roles, and I know we’re trying to do away with all that but I don’t know.” The short interview ended with Huff Post Live host Alyona Minkovski kindly reassuring Corolla that the audience would most likely be able to handle a female host behind a late night desk.
Before any final decisions had been made, Chelsea Handler of Chelsea Lately also opened up about the buzz the news was causing. Back in February of this year, she discussed the hype and the rumors that she was in the running to host the Late Show in a post that addressed some of the difficulties women face attaining recognition in late night television hosting across all networks. Chandler wrote that while the press has acknowledged her contribution to late night entertainment, “several media outlets have marginalized [her] presence in the late-night game,” going on to say that not speaking out would be a disservice to all hard working women in entertainment. Chelsea Lately remains the only late night show hosted by a woman, and it is not aired on one of the three major networks.
NBC’s decision to stick with their longstanding tradition of male Late Night hosts demonstrates a larger network mindset that routinely allows male hosts the space and time to flourish in late night in a way that it rarely does for female hosts. As Joan Rivers astutely pointed out, Jimmy Fallon was given a chance to grow as a host, and that had he been a woman the networks would have most likely been “less generous in the time allotted to him to totally come into his own.” Several women in late night television have agreed that there are unwritten rules a woman must follow in order to be successful in late night entertainment, that a woman on late night has to prove she is the right woman and pander to network executives and audiences, whereas their male counterparts are more free to explore their television personas and evolve as hosts.
This is certainly not the first time that NBC has been accused of being a hostile environment for women. In April 2011, Jane Curtin spoke about her experiences with NBC on Oprah, describing the misogynistic environment of SNL in the 70s, and recounting how John Belushi repeatedly vocalized that “women [were] just fundamentally not funny,” and would routinely sabotage pieces written by women.
For now, at least, it seems it will be a while before audiences see a woman host on NBC’s late night line-up. Colbert will join the late night boys’ club alongside Fallon, Myers and Kimmel as the host of The Late Show sometime in 2015.
Commentary By Sandra Pugliese