The Absence Of Women In Late-Night Television And Why It Remains An Issue

Curator's Note

When I think of late-night time slots I picture late-night television as a dinky plastic puzzle from the 90s with the square pieces that slide into different corners until arriving at the proper spots to complete the picture. As Larry Wilmore fills for Stephen Colbert, Stephen Colbert fills for David Letterman, Jimmy Fallon fills for Jay Leno, etc., many viewers and I sigh at another non-inclusive, male-saturated picture of late-night television. In fact, there hasn’t been a female host in late-night for the past year.

When Chelsea Handler began Chelsea Lately she carved out a small place, not only for herself, but for other female comedians to be recognized (i.e. Jen Kirkman, Loni Love, Heather McDonald, etc.). After the listed comedians (along with many others) went on to successful comedy tours and Netflix stand up segments, Handler’s absence somehow only led to less female comedians performing in late-night. To the various comical and witty women featured on the first episode of The Hollywood Reporter’s roundtable series, this rarely questioned pattern of the male dominated hosting position in late-night is a deliberate marketing decision and a socially constructed (not necessarily conscious) hatred towards women. Amy Schumer of Inside Amy Schumer makes a statement on the way women are perceived and how this works against them. 

“I think people hate women,” she states, “I think people hear women talk too long and project their mom yelling at them.” She goes on to talk about “tricking people into listening." Since Schumer collaborated with Judd Apatow to direct her debut full-length screenplay Trainwreck, making over $30 million within the opening week, maybe she has a point. Does this mean women must prove themselves as valuable investments for late-night host positions by collaborating with respected men of the entertainment industry? If so, why is Trevor Noah tapped for Jon Stewart’s slot instead of Jessica Williams?

If women continue to only dominate hosting positions in daytime, our culture suggests that female audiences can only enjoy watching female hosts if they don’t have 9-5 jobs. And if the only recent female host was on the E! network, limiting the content to tabloid topics, women are left with the message that if they want to be entertained/learn from women on late-night TV the subject material should only cover superficial news, like celebrity gossip.



Excellent critique, Brooke, that strikes an important note of dissatisfaction with media in general but especially the Late Night Boys Club. Schumer isn't alone, since female writers and actors since the legendary Joan Rivers have long complained about a hostile, sexually-charged environment in these Late Night programs. Problem is, as you astutely point out, even in 2015 things have barely improved if at all. As Nneka Samuel notes in her article at Madame Noire: "Diversity not only reflects the country in which we live, but having diverse voices (both in front of and behind the camera) promotes the telling of new and untold stories. Including some very funny ones." Chelsea Handler surely demonstrated that Late Night comedy benefits from diverse viewpoints and perspectives, which can be funny as all get out. I can't help but wonder if this glass ceiling is the last gasp of a dinosaur old guard in Hollywood that needs to just give up the sexist ghost already? Great post! "Letterman and Me" "Whay aren't there more women in Late Night TV?"

Thanks for the reply Shaun! After Colbert's ratings from his debut night came back (doubling Fallon and tripling Kimmel's ratings), the question is not only when networks will "give up the sexist ghost," but also how can prospective female comedians market themselves for these late night positions when they are rarely given the platform to even compete with each other in the same late night time slots? An interesting experiment would be to see how female daytime talk show hosts ratings would change if they were, even temporarily, given the chance to have their shows transferred to late night time slots.

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