Monday, February 24, 2014

Women and Late Night Television

A reprint of my article published in Levo League. For the original publication, click here
With Jay Leno leaving the Tonight Show and Jimmy Fallon stepping in to fill his shoes, there was much speculation about who would replace Fallon in his slot on Late Night. After the round of late night musical chairs, NBC will bring in Seth Meyers to host Late Night while Fallon will move over to host The Tonight Show. 

According to Nielsen Co. ratings, women make up the majority of the audiences for most major late night shows leading inquiring minds to wonder why women are not hosting the shows. 

The failure of major networks to crown a queen of late night is not for a lack of candidates. Names that have been thrown around for the crown include Maya Rudolph, Amy Poehler, Aisha Tyler, Tina Fey, Sarah Silverman, Amy Sedaris, and Samantha Bee. However, despite these women possessing what many perceive to be the elements for late night success, it seems like we might even get a female president before we see a woman host a late night talk show on a major network since Joan Rivers got nixed from the spot years ago after a short stint deemed a failure by the network. Sadly, women are not the only losers in the game, minorities such as George Lopez, Wanda Sykes and Monique were also handed pink slips by their respective networks. 

Late night talk show hosts wield a revered place in popular culture. They bring to the table a passive-aggressive sort of charm and they not only define pop culture, but also become the epitomes of pop culture themselves.

At first glance, the required ingredients to dominate the late night spot seems to be a mix of approach, unique quirks and personal style of delivery. 

However, it has been argued that the bottom line to getting hired for a late night talk show slot is having a comedic bone and the contention then follows that having two X chromosomes does not make for the snarky grit required of late night talk show hosts.  

The typical television show host is the quirky white male, reminiscent of the class clown, a role that some argue doesn’t fit the female persona quite seamlessly. The late night talk show host is supposed to be the unapologetic potty mouth whose jokes might be cringe worthy on daytime television but lauded past 11:30PM. Thus, the slapstick humor, wise cracks and fun poking seem like skills guys hone on the playground and in the locker room as they prepare to navigate a world where they go for the verbal kill with their wit. The claim is that these are skills females do not perfect at slumber parties or at ballet recitals and are certainly not encouraged to hone. 

There is a difference when compared to daytime television where there is the need for more wholesome family friendly programming, where audience members might get cars and hidden treasures under their seats. Late night television does not bother with being politically correct or swaying audiences to sample new treats but is about the funny guy who is brash and witty at the same time and can get quick laughs in a matter of seconds.

Besides the argument that women lack the comedic skills to thrive, another claim is that the networks are delivering the personalities that audiences want. 

Late night talk shows often rely on one-liners that seemingly have no plot and get quick laughs from the audience, and it seems as though this genre of comedy may come more easily to men. Daytime talk shows that have been dominated by women like Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres, and lately Queen Latifah and Bethenny Frankel rely on topical plots and in depth conversations with guests on the show. Audiences flock to these shows because the hosts have a persona that becomes a cult of sorts, just ask Oprah adherents. 

In that regard, Chelsea Handler seems to be getting the job done as her appeal and sense of humor is similar to that of the boys, resting on one-liners and the same wise cracking jokes that male hosts deliver. Thus, Handler shows that women can thrive on a late night slot debunking the idea that a female cannot rock the late night spot just like Steve Harvey is thriving on daytime television in a role that has been dominated previously by women. 

However, the biggest game changer that will catapult women to the frontlines [and is often overlooked] is what goes on behind the scenes. 

Late night talk show hosts are just one part of the well-oiled late night machine whose role is to deliver the punch lines that teams behind the scenes spend grueling hours fitting together. At the end of the day there is a need that the joke when delivered sounds like it is coming from the mouth of the writer. So, when male writers dominate, the tendency is to write jokes for other males to deliver and the battle to see a woman delivering these jokes may not be successful until there is a change in the gender of the writers behind the scenes. Women still struggle to get the jobs behind the scenes and the fact that Amber Ruffin just became the first ever black female writer for a late night talk show gives a glimpse of the magnitude of the challenge.

So, since women have proven that they have the comedic skills, personalities with mass appeal, and excellent writing skills why are they still not hosting the shows and why the glass ceiling? Seriously, networks have to be more honest about why they are building the late night circuit as another old boys’ association because really finding the right host should be about someone with the proper work ethic who is the right fit for the show and can hold the audience’s attention irrespective of gender.

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