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August 28, 2015

In the Late Night Wars, Where Are the Women?

by Gary Susman, posted Jan 21st 2010 2:00PM
PeahenIn 2004, NBC took a look at the aging Jay Leno and decided that late night's future was... another middle-aged white guy from Boston.

What if NBC had done something truly groundbreaking and given 'The Tonight Show' to a woman -- perhaps turning the proud Peacock logo into a female Peahen (as seen to the right)? Would the Great Late Night War of 2010 even happened?

The late-night field has been a notorious boys' club for decades (a situation underlined in recent months by the David Letterman scandal and the battle between Leno and Conan O'Brien over 'Tonight'). Now that women late-night hosts such as Wanda Sykes, Chelsea Handler and Mo'Nique are flourishing off the network weeknight grid, doesn't it seem like NBC could have avoided its current late-night disaster if it had decided, back in the day, to groom a woman for the job?

It's not like this is a new idea. Joan Rivers had her own late-night show on the fledgling Fox network back in 1986, after spending years as a frequent guest host on Johnny Carson's 'Tonight Show.' Joy Behar co-hosted a late-late-night show on CBS in the early 1990s called 'The Midnight Hour.' Whoopi Goldberg had a syndicated late-night show in 1992-93. Since then, however, the networks have, curiously, avoided letting women get a toehold in late night.

Joan Rivers Interviews Pee-wee Herman During her Fox Debut, 1986

When David Letterman left NBC for CBS in 1993, and it fell to 'Saturday Night Live' honcho Lorne Michaels to find his replacement, he could have picked a woman from the 'SNL' performing stable at the time (say, Jan Hooks or Nora Dunn) instead of a comedy writer with no on-camera performing experience.

And again, in 2008, when it came time to pick Conan's replacement, Michaels could also have gone with an 'SNL' alumna, like Maya Rudolph, instead of Jimmy Fallon, another white guy from the Northeast who comes off like a younger Conan clone. And it's the same at other networks. Since 1999, CBS' late-late-night hosts have been guys named Craig. ABC's late-night stalwart for seven years has been Jimmy Kimmel, another middle-aged white guy from the Northeast.

Fox, after failing at the talk show game with such hosts as Chevy Chase and Spike Feresten (like O'Brien, a respected comedy writer with little on-camera experience), finally gave a berth to a woman this year, Wanda Sykes -- but only on Saturday nights.

George Lopez, Lopez TonightIt would be easy to blame the dearth of women in late-night on ingrained sexism at the networks, though it could just be lazy thinking and lack of imagination, both common attributes in networks' executive suites. (After all, the networks haven't really taken a chance on a host who's a person of color either; there's been little movement in that direction between the early '90s, when Arsenio Hall held his own against Carson, and today, when George Lopez on TBS still seems like a novelty.)

The thinking probably goes something like this: for generations, since Carson built the template, the late-night network talk show host has been a representative of mainstream American values, so much so that even his political jokes -- calculated to make the broadest possible swath of America laugh in agreement -- are interpreted as mainstream public opinion.

The host is the nation's comforter-in-chief, someone to lull masses of people to sleep without agitating them by challenging their shared assumptions. So, naturally, the only people mainstream enough to qualify for that job are middle-aged white guys, right? Women may have the comedic skills to host a late-night talk show, but they appeal to a niche audience (don't you love how half the population is a niche?), which is why those female hosts who are flourishing -- Handler on E!, Mo'Nique on BET, Sykes on Saturday nights -- are doing so in niche slots, away from 11:35-1:35 on weeknights on network TV.

Chelsea Handler, Chelsea LatelyAnd maybe that's the best thing for those hosts. On cable (or on Saturdays on Fox), Handler, Mo'Nique, and Sykes are free to do as they please, without apparent interference by the suits. If any of them were hired for weeknight spots on the big three networks, they might be asked to lose their edginess -- which would be a shame.

If the late-night job on a network weeknight show calls for someone who's funny but not too in-your-face, and who already has a fan base (because no one will be granted months to build an audience anymore), which showbiz women would qualify? Maybe Ellen DeGeneres (if she weren't already over-committed), maybe Bonnie Hunt. Maybe Jennifer Lopez, who was surprisingly funny and effective as a guest monologuist on 'Lopez Tonight' Monday (though she'd have to put her acting and singing careers on hold).

Jennfer Lopez Stands In for George Lopez

Other than that, who else? Funny women like Whoopi, Behar and Rosie O'Donnell, who've succeeded in daytime talk, are probably considered by the suits to be too polarizing or abrasive for a mainstream gig. Oprah Winfrey, who'll soon have plenty of time on her hands, is certainly mainstream enough, but she's not a comic, and she's not about to go work for someone else.

In the meantime, if the hosts remain men, do their writing staffs have to be all-male as well? Currently, neither Jay nor Dave nor Conan have a single woman writing for them; given the portrait of the workplace that emerged with the Letterman scandal, it's no surprise women writers don't feel comfortable working in late-night. One way to make women writers feel more comfortable: hire some of them! And more than one per show, so that each woman doesn't feel the pressure of being the only one on staff. It's not about quotas, it's about broadening the show's humor; maybe if women were writing jokes that other women would laugh at, ratings would go up.

One advantage for the networks in hiring a woman host (at least, someone who's not as well-established as Ellen or Whoopi): she'd probably come a lot cheaper than the men in the field. So come on, network executives: somewhere out there is a woman comic who can pander and toss softballs to make the nation laugh like a man. Next time a vacancy opens up, summon up some imaginative vision along with your inherent cheapness, and find her.

Sound off: Does late night need more women?

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