Photo: REX USA.
In 1986, Joan Rivers quietly accepted a deal for her own Late Show on FOX. For years, she'd been a fill-in for Johnny Carson on his show, but when she got her own gig, her comedy mentor ended their friendship. Later, Rivers penned an essay for People, in which she shared her disappointment in the network brass. “The industry does not take me seriously,” she wrote.
Just a year later, she was off the air.
Fast forward 30 years, and a woman still hasn't graced the late-night stage. Alessandra Stanley calls this problem the "crass ceiling," arguing women can only climb so high up the comedy ladder. "Late-night talk shows, from The Tonight Show to The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, all have male hosts and huge writing staffs that, when gathered onstage at awards shows, are startlingly white and male," she writes, comparing them to Vladimir Putin's Kremlin.
Photo: Courtesy of NBC; Courtesy of Comedy Central; Courtesy of ABC.
"Women are still largely relegated to daytime television because [the networks] need to have a mom-sy humor. That's why Ellen became so huge. She cares about people, she cares about animals," a former late-night producer tells us. "Those audiences like a softer side."
Sure, Chelsea Handler's carved a small space for herself on E!, but she'll be leaving her show at the end of the season due to contract negotiations. "Handler did well because she's raunchy, she can hang with the guys," says the former producer.
It's easy to point fingers at the networks and say there's a lingering sexism in the television industry. But, it's not simply a group of men refusing to put women behind the desk — especially when you consider that, increasingly, women are running things behind the scenes. According to Adweek, women are “in programming, sales, and executive suites, rising faster than men. And, arguably, they are having a disproportionate, and even subversive, effect on television’s business culture — its style, its processes, its sense of itself, its management feng shui, if you will.”
Photo: Courtesy of NBC; Courtesy of CBS.
As TV executives continue to shuffle their late-night decks, a woman's name has yet to come up — not even as a rumor. That's because, on top of a network bias favoring male hosts, we, as an audience, aren't showing them we want it any other way.
“They had surveys at NBC, and the surveys were that women would rather watch a man at night, which is what they’re always throwing up in your face," Rivers told the Associated Press. And, since women make up most of the late-night audience (Kimmel has 1.4 million female viewers to just 770,000 male), the networks are arguably playing to our demands. Rick Ludwin, former head of NBC's late-night programming, told Bloomberg reporters that networks consider other factors above gender when taking on a host: namely, talent and work ethic. Plus, there's an industry-insider argument that "women want to hear their pre-bedtime monologue jokes from a man."
The late-night genre was once a mighty institution. Now, it's become so formulaic and saturated a genre that Fallon and Meyers make the same Donald Sterling joke in one evening, and the world keeps spinning. The current cast of late night is a group of safe choices — reliable characters who look and feel like the Letterman, Leno, and Carson personas who withstood the test of time. Now that late night's such a defanged art form, what female comedian would want to be behind the desk?
Grantland's Ken Tucker writes, “The late-night genre is the only one whose legacy means more to the on-camera talents than it does to the audience, at least on a conscious level." Even the most viral late-night video fades out of memory after a few days. The ground that female comedians are breaking outside of late night is arguably more important and more permanent.
Photo: Courtesy of NBC.
Tina Fey and Amy Poehler pulled in 19.7 million viewers for the 2014 Golden Globes broadcast, the largest audience in six years. Maya Rudolph’s new variety show at 10 p.m. had ratings that beat The Bachelorette on its May 19 debut. In that primetime slot, she had 7.23 million viewers and 2.2 rating among adults 18 to 49. Yep — more viewers, a higher rating, and just an hour before Fallon's show.
Fey is writing, producing, and starring in movies. Amy Schumer's got her own cult following on Comedy Central. Poehler, too, is writing and producing. It's her we have to thank for the likes of Broad City.
Slate’s Amanda Hess writes, “I want Amy Poehler to star in my favorite sitcoms, produce my favorite sketch shows, and show up in my favorite movies, not sit around sipping coffee with celebrities. If Amy Schumer were relegated to a network-hosting gig, we’d lose her bluest jokes about handjobs and hardcore porn, and likely the sly feminist commentary that undercuts all of them." Essentially, having a woman or minority as late-night host would tokenize them. They don't need late night to have their own footing in comedy — an advantage Rivers never had in the '80s.
Photo: Courtesy of E!.
"Men are always going to have late night," argues the former producer. And, that's just fine. As author and analyst Keli Goff says, "If Chelsea Handler is the best women can do in late night, then we are better of not being represented there."