Why We Need More Diversity in Late-Night TV

Last week, it was announced that James Corden will replace Craig Ferguson on The Late Late Show when he leaves this December. The spot was coveted by some big players in comedy, and Corden was a somewhat unexpected choice: while totally capable and talented enough to carry the show, he’s not particularly well-known in the US. That left some people wondering who else was in the running.

“I was interested in the Ferguson spot long before it was announced because I had a feeling things might shift,” Kathy Griffin told Page Six last Friday. But in response to her queries after the job, she claims she was told, “They’re not considering females at this time.”

Sigh. Late-night TV—for all its wonderful, viral gifts and gifs—still feels like a relic of the past.

Based on this list of American late-night shows currently on air, only three of the 21 programs feature a host who isn’t a white, heterosexual, able-bodied, cisgendered male. Those three programs:Watch What Happens: Live (Andy Cohen), Tavis Smiley (Tavis Smiley), and The Eric André Show (Eric André and co-host, Hannibal Buress). Now that Chelsea Lately has ended, there aren’t any women left hosting late-night.

Let me repeat that: there is not a single woman hosting late-night TV at the moment. (Commenters of the world, I would love for you to prove me wrong on this one!) Television diversity is definitely on the upswing, but when it comes to late-night talk shows, it seems very little has changed. In fact, it’s actually gotten worse. In an 2009 NPR segment on the issue (yes this has been an issue for THAT long), media critic Eric Deggans talks about how for a short period of time there were actually a lot of late-night talk shows hosted by people of color (Arsenio Hall, Keenan Ivory Wayans, and Byron Allen, to name a few), but they were mostly syndicated and created as competition for the more established shows. Women, on the other hand, have always been underrepresented in late-night.

This isn’t to say that race, gender, sexuality, and ability are the only qualities that should define a person. Far from it. But how we identify ourselves (along with a plethora of other things, like class, education, and religion) does affect our perspectives and experiences in life, and there’s very little variety in this when it comes to late-night TV.

Women do some kick-ass stuff on daytime TV. Ellen, for example, is a goddess. And, anyone heard of a woman named Oprah? Women have proved themselves very capable of carrying a talk show, so what makes them so much less appealing later in the day?

According to Deggans the reason women are invisible on late night TV has a lot to do with advertisers, who want hosts to “look like the target audience.” While advertisers (and possibly everyone else) assume that the predominant audience for late-night are young males, that’s actually not the case: According to Associated Press, “women make up a majority of the audience for every network late-night show.” Yet the landscape continuously fails to reflect this.

There is no shortage of incredibly gifted, diverse comedians, so it’s certainly not because of a lack of talent. Saturday Night Live has completely stepped up the diversity of its cast and The Daily Show’s Jessica Williams is a gift on earth. As for female late-night hosts, I would personally pay to see Aisha Tyler, Kate McKinnon, Maya Rudolph, Amy Poehler, Retta, and so many other ladies take a stab at the job, but it seems like the opportunity just isn’t there.

I, by no means, think that we should pick our late-night hosts by fulfilling some non-existent diversity quota, but why is it that when there is a new opening in the late-night time slot, it feels like people who don’t fit the straight-white-male mold aren’t given a shot? I find it very hard to accept the argument that whenever there’s been a late-night vacancy that, by chance, a straight white male has always been the best person for the job.

This isn’t to say that male hosts are never the right pick. I thought Jimmy Fallon was the obvious choice for The Tonight Show, I was thrilled to hear John Oliver was going to start Last Week Tonight, and I am sure that Stephen Colbert will do great things with The Late Show. These men are all uniquely entertaining and incredibly worthy of their positions for many reasons. But there are people who identify differently that are equally worthy of our consideration. If every single time, someone of a very specific demographic wins out as the “most qualified” (the funniest, the wittiest, the most whatever else) for a position, it’s a sign of a larger, systemic problem. It suggests doors are closed for a large group of talented people, and that’s depressing—and a missed opportunity for audiences.

In The Unbearable Whiteness of Late Night, Buzzfeed’sW. Kamau Bell argues that those seeking diverse perspectives “have to stop turning to mainstream late-night TV to service our need” and instead create our own, new “boxes” to innovate. I totally agree, but it seems like a temporary solution to a recurring problem. I’m holding out hope that late-night TV will evolve and start embracing diversity. It would be a welcome change that’s long overdue.

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