We know we're certainly not the first people to ask this question. And, we hope we won't be the last. But, today, as Jimmy Fallon readies himself to make history by hosting his first-ever episode of The Tonight Show, we found an old issue bubbling up inside us once again. Why are there no women in late night? Or, rather, why is there basically only one woman in late night?
It's probably worth noting right off the bat that when Johnny Carson and his peers got their start way back in the sixties, this question was a much less divisive one. Not that it was okay for women to be treated differently during that era, but casting a woman as a late-night host would certainly have been much less of a no-brainer. Now, however, when there is no question whatsoever about the fact that women have as much to offer in the workplace as men, the after-hours comedy scene is riddled with males. Jimmy Kimmel, David Letterman, Jimmy Fallon, Craig Ferguson, Carson Daly, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and now Seth Meyers are all qualified candidates, sure. But, are they that much more qualified than, say, Tina Fey? Not necessarily.
We should of course mention the glaringly obvious exception here: Chelsea Handler. The no-holds-barred comedian has been holding court on Chelsea Lately for years now, so we decided to get her two cents on the matter. Coincidentally, Handler happened to be speaking at The Makers Conference, an AOL-sponsored forum that brought together innovators and leaders to celebrate game-changing women and discuss ways to right the gender wrongs in the workplace. She spoke at length about the challenges she faced trying to get herself a late-night show.
"No one wanted to give a lady — well, I wouldn't call myself a lady — no one wanted to give a female a late-night talk show," she said. "People said no, late-night shows [hosted by a woman] don't work. And, you know, I had one person who said they did work. And it was a man. He said they're gonna work; she's gonna work; she has a different point of view. And, I think the most important thing in whatever your profession is, if you do something really well people will recognize it. Even if it's as silly as what I do."
Of course, now that Handler has proven her chops as a host, it doesn't mean that her struggle is over. Now, the problem is that many in the business don't see her as just another host among the ranks of the Kimmels and the Fallons — instead, she is the token woman of late night. Sure, one could argue that her show isn't as prestigious as the rest of the genre because it airs on E! instead of network television, but the same could be said for Comedy Central — and, let's be honest, Colbert and Stewart don't have any problems commanding respect. "People ask me, 'what's it like being a female comedian,'" she groaned. "Tina Fey gets the same question, and Amy Poehler and Sarah Silverman. It's just like being a regular comedian!"
Handler also pointed out something important: When we start to focus too much on gender bias or diversity it begins to dilute the value of each individual person. A female comedian or host shouldn't be given special treatment just because she's a woman, but rather simply given the same treatment as her male counterparts. "I think I have a responsibility to take care of other women," Handler said when asked about hiring comedians and writers for her show. "I'm looking for the funniest people — and first I'm looking for the funniest woman. But, I'm not gonna not hire a guy just because he's a guy. Then we're just starting over in the other direction."
In that vein, we're not asking for television networks to run out and replace half of the late-night hosts with women. Asking for special treatment or an equal split in programming would be both a detrimental and a completely unrealistic demand. Rather, we're simply bringing the conversation back to this problem and asking what can be done about it. And, sure, maybe it's on us (the women). Maybe more comedians like Handler need to keep knocking on doors until someone says yes. Or, maybe the (mostly male) network execs need to stand up for the issue a little more. Or, maybe we need to stop giving ratings to male-centered shows just because they're on and we're procrastinating going to sleep. Either way, we hope this isn't a discussion that fades away as fast as Jay Leno's memory.