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Top ten signs that late-night comedy is all about the straight white men

By Victoria Kallsen
On April 14, 2014

10) The Announcement: Earlier this month, David Letterman, host of the "Late Show with David Letterman," announced his retirement. Swiftly following this, Stephen Colbert announced his official replacement, closing the conversation on hiring a person who differed in any way from the heterosexual able-bodied white male (HeABWM) model that Late Night TV currently offers.
9) The Current Situation: How does the American late-night talk show scene look right now? With the exception of Nightline (which we will exclude to focus on comedy), every single late- night talk show host on ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, Comedy Central and TBS fits the HeABWM model. When only considering major networks or the "big names" in late-night comedy, 100 percent are of the majority group.
8) The Fringe Networks: In contrast, there are three standouts currently on the air: Chelsea Handler on E!, Tavis Smiley on PBS and a revived Arsenio Hall in syndication. Considering the 17 late-night comedy talk show programs on any network, only 3 diverge from the mold. If you think only 17.6 percent of America is a female or racial minority, please stop reading my article.
7) The forgotten saga of Joan Rivers: In late 1983, Joan Rivers was named the permanent guest host for "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" after previously guest-hosting 93. However, after numerous slights from NBC, culminating in a contract renewal for only a year (when typically she was renewed for two years along with Carson) and discovering she was not among the 10 suggested successors to Carson should he retire in 1987 for his 25th anniversary, she signed a deal with Fox for her own late night program competing against Carson. Her relationship with Fox would deteriorate, and in 1987, Carson was still the unchallenged King of Late Night.
6) The Experience Clause: A common defense of the Colbert choice is that he's the most experienced candidate. Let's accept this for now. However, let's take a real look at the career progressions of many to behind the desk.
5) Career progression: Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers follow the same trajectory: post-SNL, Fallon is the host of "Late Night" for 5 years and when he leaves for "The Tonight Show," Seth Meyers takes over. This had previously happened with Conan, who moved from writer on SNL, to "Late Night" to "The Tonight Show, then down to his own "Conan" on TBS (but you probably already know about that.)

4) Career progression exclusion: Experience is a catch-all for excluding certain groups without acknowledging that it's hard to get in the door to those groups in the first place. As Jerry Senfield was happy to point out, comedy isn't a census, which is good because if it was it would be very inaccurate. This year, Meyers hired the first ever women of color to ever be on the writing staff for a late-night comedy series. Since the 1950s, not a single one had been behind the jokes. Let's also not forget in its nearly 40 years, SNL has only hired five women of color for its cast. Basically, if minorities can't get in the door as writers or SNL players, how are they going to be on late-night?

3) When the clause doesn't apply: Colbert has nine seasons of late-night as a different person under his belt. Handler has 7 seasons as herself and Hall has 6. Meanwhile Tavis Smiley has 16 years of experience on late-night TV. Remember, Conan was hired to do "Late Night" as a relative unknown in 1993. Fallon was also given "The Tonight Show" after only 5 years on "Late Night." But hey, if you're not a white dude, better have a fleshed out resume.
2) Relatability & Comedy: Ultimately, the reason most minorities will barely make it out the door is that they only appeal to a niche market and one that doesn't pay well. Advertisers are far more interested in the money white straight men can bring in, particularly in the 18-49 demo. Much of comedy is derived from relatability and American media consider the HeABWM model to be the standard. A HeABWM is square one and all must defer to him for media, comedy, and entertainment. For thirty years, people trusted their All-American Johnny Carson to give them their late-night entertainment and we haven't deviated. Lest we forget, if we didn't accept and promote change, we wouldn't be watching moving pictures off a rectangular box anyway.
1) Number One is always the worst joke anyway.  


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