It's a truth universally accepted that the late night comedy scene is inhabited largely by men. Ask any passerby — as one does — what hosts they can recall, and they might rattle off names like Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, or the newly minted host James Corden. A particularly political passerby might mention Samantha Bee, the former Daily Show correspondent currently dishing truth on TBS. Headlines about the fabled “late night wars” dissect the status of various white men in comedy; is Seth Meyers gaining on Jimmy Fallon? And how did Stephen Colbert suddenly come into his own? And let us not forget the 2015 Vanity Fair comedy spread that featured men, men, and more men.
We are under no illusion that the comedy scene, or at least the late night version of it, can’t escape its masculine reality. But in one far-flung corner of the world, things are actually looking up despite appearances. Late Night with Seth Meyers is helmed by a man. (His name is Seth Meyers, in case you couldn’t tell.) But the show is filled with women and comedy that supports women, proving that a man at the helm does not necessarily beget a sausage-filled show.
When Seth Meyers first started his run as late night host in February, he was largely seen as too quiet for late night. Whereas former Late Night host Jimmy Fallon commanded the stage with larger-than-life goofs, Meyers took a back seat. Critics seemed to agree that Meyers, who emerged from that comedy petri dish called Saturday Night Live, was stuck in his SNL persona. The Hollywood Reporter commented at the time that “his monologue was staccato and hit and miss — sounding more like his ‘Weekend Update’ bits rather than a real monologue.” The same review notes that Meyers looked “lost a bit in the spotlight as expected.” Meyers’ seeming ability to disappear was seen as a disadvantage. He wasn’t a big personality, which meant he couldn’t steer this late night ship. This ailment, though, proved to be the show’s greatest strength. When Meyers takes a back seat on his own show, he allows the rest of the staff to shine — which means the women have a platform.
It’s not just about hiring more women in the writers’ room — it’s about lending women a platform, no matter how many of them they are.
When the show first started in 2014, three of the 12 writers were women. The writing staff has shifted in the years since, but the ratio remains the same. Today, the show counts three women among its writers: Jenny Hagel, Amber Ruffin, and Allison Hord. In terms of the late night comedy scene, this is fairly standard. Of the 21 writers involved in The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon, five are women. Some shows lag behind this average: The Late Show With Stephen Colbert began its run with two women and 17 men in the writer’s room. (It should also be noted that Colbert’s show fumbled for ratings for its first year and a half.) In terms of hiring, the show is on par with the rest of the comedy scene. This seems to be an unshakeable status quo for now: Male writers greatly outweigh women writers. Let me say first that late night comedy absolutely needs to make it a mission to hire more women writers. Late Night With Seth Meyers should have more than three women in its talent bucket. However, this show in particular showcases its female writers in a way that proves an intent to support women. It’s not just about hiring more women in the writers’ room — it’s about lending women a platform, no matter how many of them they are.
This is where Late Night With Seth Meyers truly succeeds. Meyers is great at blending into the scenery, which means his women writers can take the lead. Case in point: The recurring bit titled “Jokes Seth Can’t Tell.” The monologue-style bit is just as it sounds: a round-up of jokes about people of color, women, and LGBTQI issues. There’s humor to be mined in these communities, but Seth Meyers is not the guy to tell these jokes. Instead, writers Jenny Hagel and Amber Ruffin take the lead. The bit begins the same way every time:
“I’m Black,” Ruffin says by way of introduction.
“And I’m gay,” Hagel adds.
“And we’re both women,” Ruffin points out. (At this point, Meyers usually add helpfully: “And I’m not.”)
Meyers then lobs the duo a premise, and they provide the punchlines. (An example from the show’s February 28th episode involved ABC’s introduction of the first Black Bachelorette. “If I wanted to watch a Black woman who can choose between any white man she wants, I’d just look in the mirror,” Ruffin said.) The segment has proved to be incredibly popular. Scroll through the wasteland that is the YouTube comments section and you’ll find almost universal adoration of the series. One commenter noted rather plaintively on the most recent segment, “It's always nice to get 4 minutes and 42 seconds where you can just laugh and completely forget that the country is falling apart.”
“Jokes Seth Can’t Tell” aside, Meyers regularly features his female writers in a non-tokenized capacity. Ruffins has a bit devoted to pop culture called “Amber Says What?” In January when the Women’s March loomed, the three female writers performed a segment titled “Late Night Writers Can’t Agree On The Women’s March.” Hagel and Ruffins were joined by Hord, the other female writer, in a discussion of the March and its intentions. The result: Comedy that focused only on the female viewpoint.
This isn’t to say that other late night shows haven’t made efforts toward similar bits. James Corden aired a sketch on International Women’s Day in which his show couldn’t begin because the women who worked on it were all striking. In this bit, though, Corden is delivering the lines and delivering the women-focused comedy. Corden’s show is also largely about the guests. His most famous segment, “Carpool Karaoke,” relies entirely on the celebrity guest. Other shows rarely highlight the writer at all — in these shows, the host owns the spotlight. Jimmy Fallon reads thank you notes and plays games like “pup quiz,” which involves fluffy puppies and a celebrity guest. Stephen Colbert relies on his astute political commentary — much as he did in his long-running show The Colbert Report.
If these late night hosts want to be allies to women in the comedy community, they’ll give the women around them a megaphone.
To be fair, this is how late night shows operate. The host is a one-man band, playing both straight man and crazy man, hitting punchlines and providing set ups. Meyers has his fair share of these bits as well — his series “A Closer Look” receives the most views on the show’s YouTube channel. The issue with this formula is that it allows for only one perspective: the host’s.
As we like to say at Refinery29, the “woke bae” should come to the party, but he can’t host the party. R29’s Elizabeth Kiefer noted that “a good guest — a good ally — amplifies the concerns of the people to whom a cause actually belongs.” If these late night hosts want to be allies to women in the comedy community, they’ll give the women around them a megaphone.
Late Night With Seth Meyers has done just this. The host gives way to women writers so that they can elaborate on the issues that matter to women. Moreover, if the late night community wants to someday have a woman at the helm of one of these long-standing shows, it needs to give women a chance to prove their hosting chops. Amber Ruffins’s segment “Amber Says What?” could someday earns her a late night television show of her own.
Already, Late Night With Seth Meyers has proved to be a launching pad for women. Comedian Michelle Wolf started as a writer on the show in 2014. During her tenure, she performed in several recurring bits, one of which involved a lascivious grown-up Orphan Annie. In 2016, she left the show to be a correspondent on The Daily Show With Trevor Noah. At this rate, her career is heading towards a show of her own. (She already has a streaming series on Comedy Central called Now Hiring With Michelle Wolf.) The show may not have a bevy of women in its writers room, but it knows what it has to do to fight the good fight: get those women out in public. Prove that women can galvanize an audience’s interest.
Late Night With Seth Meyers is these days one of the more well-regarded late night shows. The proof is in the numbers. The New York Times noted that the show had more than 1.6 million nightly viewers at the end of 2016 — the profile attributed this success to Meyers’s take on the 2016 election. Yes, Meyers performed, and still performs, excellent coverage of the current political morass. In part, he was able to do so because he gave women a voice. The 2016 election was a vision of intersectional politics. A white, cisgendered male cannot fully comment on the election. Late Night With Seth Meyers is a win for political commentary. It’s a win for comedy. But most importantly — at least to me — it’s a win for women in comedy.