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Why Is Late Night Television So Afraid of Diversity?

By Vivian Kane | Think Pieces | September 15, 2014 |

By Vivian Kane | Think Pieces | September 15, 2014 |

Kathy Griffin came out last week as saying that a while back, she took a meeting to express interest in replacing Craig Ferguson on The Late Late Show. So much interest, in fact, that her go-to line was “I can start Monday.” She was told, however, in no uncertain terms, that they were “not considering females at this time.” She reminded that specific executive that that statement is not only totally assholic, but highly illegal to say during a job interview. Another executive called that exchange “embarrassing.” Not a mistake. No apology. Just more of an oopsie.

In related news, the incredible W. Kamau Bell wrote a piece for Buzzfeed last week titled The Unbearable Whiteness of Late Night in which he argues that late-night TV is what it is now because it mined the influences of black trailblazers: people like Arsenio Hall who “put people on his show that literally (yes, I do mean literally) nobody was putting on their shows.”

But Arsenio proved that the brown-faced actors, comedians, bands, singers, and (GULP!) rappers that he put on his show made money for late-night TV. Then the networks took them, their disciples, and their audience and assimilated them all into The Borg that is late-night television.
Late-night got to be cool and stay relevant because it looked to black pioneers in the field. It then unceremoniously discarded those very influences, keeping the parts it wanted.
But the people who run late night don’t need us blacks to host anymore. Once Arsenio left, late night picked the bones of his show. They picked them so clean that when he came back there wasn’t enough to make it feel as different as it had been the first time. Late night didn’t need a black host because it had all the black host’s guests.
Bell points out that we, the audience, actually crave diversity. We cry out for it.
Every time a late-night job becomes available, people on social media and websites like this one get to play Fantasy TV Exec! And we toss around overqualified, non-white guy candidates like Aisha Tyler, Maya Rudolph, Wayne Brady, Tina Fey, Margaret Cho, Ellen DeGeneres, and Chris Rock. Occasionally, I even get thrown into the mix. And for a little while it is exciting to think of the possibility of these shows… until we actually hear the announcement.
At some point in the history of television, a bunch of old dudes got together to divide their assets, and decided that daytime was anyone’s game. Oprah, Ellen, Wayne Brady, Queen Latifah, The Talk, The View: daytime TV is a playground of diversity. But late-night? Late-night is where the “real” comedy happens, and that is strictly reserved for the white guys. But why? I mean, the obvious answer is money. We all know that network executives are, generally speaking, not looking to take chances. They’re looking to secure guaranteed ratings, and to shake things up is to risk the possibility that people wouldn’t watch. Late night TV is not a niche market. It’s for everyone. And the execs in charge seem to think that a wide swath of that “everyone” would hurl their televisions out their windows if a woman or a person of color tried to interview Julia Roberts after dark.

But why is that a risk? Do the people in charge really have that little faith in their viewers that white America would board up their windows and climb into their bunkers if Chris Rock took over for Letterman? It’s also hard to believe that the lack of women in late-night isn’t rooted in that still-prevalent notion that women just aren’t funny. (And if you don’t think that belief is still widely held, then you have done a marvelous job at avoiding internet comment boards and I envy you.) And if a woman is hired to be funny, being sexy is still required to be her first priority. It’s no coincidence that the one woman to get even close to getting what Joan Rivers so briefly held 30 years ago, had a show based in talking about sex.

We are constantly being shown reminders of how big a risk anything outside the white guy norm is considered to be. When Craig Ferguson’s replacement is announced to be a man who is incredibly talented but has zero recognition cachet, we know that the people in charge saw more dollar signs in an unknown white man than in any number of known and respected minority comedians. While it’s not technically part of the late-night community we’re talking about here, Saturday Night Live reminded us of an already well-ingrained lesson: By replacing Cecily Strong with Michael Che as news anchor, and keeping the widely-disliked Colin Jost, it’s clear that anyone who thought we might get to see both a woman and a black man behind that desk together was kidding themselves.

As much as we would like to see late-night television broaden its scope, it doesn’t look like that’s going to be happening any time soon. But that doesn’t mean change isn’t coming. It’s just probably not going to come from within. Instead, we’re seeing it elsewhere. Chelsea Handler is moving to Netflix. FXX had W. Kamau Bell’s Totally Biased. And pretty much everyone has (or at least has the potential to have) their own personal talk show in podcast form. In his piece, Bell holds Aisha Tyler’s Girl on Guy as a great alternative to the stagnant late-night model. No, late-night television isn’t likely to embrace change until it’s been proven profitable by the internet. At which point network TV will dissect, adopt, and bastardize what they can. That’s the beautiful circle straight line of appropriation.

Vivian Kane thinks heaven is ‘The Tina & Amy Show’ in 24/7 syndication.

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