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Andrew Rose: All of These Things Look Just Like the Others

April 15, 2014

The more late night talk shows stick with white, male hosts, the more obsolete they become in today’s America.

Image from Flickr via Paige Henderson

By Andrew Rose

“I’m thrilled and grateful that CBS chose me. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go grind a gap in my front teeth.”
—Stephen Colbert

Following quickly on the heels of David Letterman’s surprise announcement that he would retire from the CBS Late Show that he has hosted for more than twenty years came news that he would be replaced in 2015 by Stephen Colbert. Colbert, who has hosted his own half hour Colbert Report on Comedy Central since 2005, is a genial, charismatic, and incredibly funny man who will no doubt do a fine job hosting the Late Show.

But Colbert won’t have to file down his teeth to fit in with the late night network hosts—his primary competitor, Jimmy Fallon, who took the reins of NBC’s Tonight Show from Jay Leno once the latter finally and reluctantly relinquished them, is also a white, straight male. And that’s just the two biggest names. Jimmy Kimmel, whose show competes with Fallon and Letterman, fits the late night profile, as does Craig Ferguson whose Late Late Show follows Letterman.

We have been here before. In February when Fallon assumed the 11:35 throne, Chelsea Handler (star of her own late night show on E!) wrote in the Huffington Post to decry not only the networks’ galling lack of interest in women hosts, but also the fact that the New York Times relegated her to a mere parenthesis in its coverage of Fallon’s promotion. As Handler wrote: “Depending upon whose research you look at, I share the distinction of having the youngest average viewership with Colbert, The Daily Show and Conan. So from a purely statistical standpoint how, in this paragraph, could I only be mentioned as an aside? Was it because I’m a woman?”

This marginalization of women by the press as well as television networks is no longer merely troubling, it’s downright baffling. What’s the rationale here? What’s the “Slate pitch” to explain why Colbert is the best man (ahem) for the job? He is certainly qualified for the position, yet so, too, is Handler, having broadcast her talk show for eight years. E! “Entertainment Television” may not be a three-letter broadcast network, but neither is Comedy Central.

And we have seen experience fail before. Conan O’Brien was contractually set to replace Leno in 2009, and he did rise from late-late night to the big desk that year. Yet Leno (and his Brobdingnagian ego) was not at all content to while away his golden years tinkering with his beloved classic cars; Leno demanded a return to NBC and it came in the form of a pre-evening-news talk show and, in 2010, a return to the Tonight Show.

What is it about late night that makes network executives land on the first white man who seems to have, like a federal employee passing a test to rise from a G-6 to G-7 pay grade, “earned” the position?

The man with the epic, shelf-like chin protruding from the bottom of a smirking, affable, and destructively indecisive face stole Conan’s thunder, ate his would-be successor’s lunch. Leno took 11:35 back and bestowed it on Fallon earlier this year. O’Brien, meanwhile, now languishes in the same basic cable purgatory that Colbert will soon leave behind,

Experience, then, is no guarantee of success when so many volatile factors are involved. CBS’s decision to hire Colbert was arguably the “safe” one; Colbert was road-tested and would bring with him a substantial audience. One doesn’t anticipate a Leno-like cranky change of heart from Letterman, either.

But what of the women like Tina Fey, or Amy Poehler, or Handler, or the numinous, acid host of the How Was Your Week podcast, Julie Klausner? The eminent viability of these people speaks volumes in regard to CBS’s unwarranted timidity. Another equally qualified possibility, the actor Neil Patrick Harris, who is gay, was also discarded.

What is it about late night that makes network executives, in their search for a completely “safe” choice, rashly land on the first white man who seems to have, like a federal employee passing a test to rise from a G-6 to G-7 pay grade, “earned” the position? This is not how great television is made but evidently it is how network executives think. It is a disgrace that a woman or a gay man is seen as a long shot for the role of gentle, goofy pre-bedtime entertainment, and more so that we are so utterly unsurprised when another white guy gets the late night nod.

As the racial and cultural composition of the US moves steadily away from a Carson-like pallor, the idea of a Stephen Colbert or a Jimmy Fallon representing Mr. and Mrs. America becomes more and more incongruous.

Letterman’s Late Show has been an irreverent, sometimes deliberately obtuse (see: Will It Float?) funhouse since 1993. Will Colbert be a worthy successor to the delightfully loony and caustic Letterman? He has proven himself in his reliably entertaining, if comfortable, 11:30 time slot. But Colbert will be going onstage five nights per week (the Report is only broadcast Monday through Thursday) for ninety minutes and, critically, he will not be in character as the lovable, jingoistic pundit he plays on the Report.

Colbert’s individual success or failure—or some Conan-like liminal abjection—is immaterial to the topic at hand: The decades ahead of white/straight/cisgender hegemony over late night represent a retrenchment from an America that is ditching its once widely held prejudices in favor of an increasingly broad understanding of LGBT people as ordinary individuals deserving of respect and tolerance. But judging by the composition of late night network TV you would not know that such progress has taken place in the past years.

Johnny Carson is frequently invoked as shorthand for the kind of mass appeal over which networks salivate. This attitude is puzzling in a nation where a candidate who takes a commanding majority of the white male vote—as Mitt Romney did in 2012—can still lose by a substantial margin. As the racial and cultural composition of the US moves steadily away from a Carson-like pallor, the idea of a Stephen Colbert or a Jimmy Fallon representing Mr. and Mrs. America becomes more and more incongruous. Mr. and Mr. America, Ms. and Ms. America, and so many other emerging exemplars of the “real” United States need to be represented on TV not for reasons of shallow political correctness, but for the simple fact that all Americans deserve to identify with their entertainers.

Andrew Rose is a student in NYU’s Cultural Reporting and Criticism program. He tweets @signandsight and lives in Brooklyn.

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