Johnny Carson was the host of the Tonight Show for 30 years. Jay Leno took over for the next couple of decades (with a brief break in which Conan O'Brien hosted), and now Jimmy Fallon is likely to sit behind the desk for another several decades. Recently, David Letterman announced that he would be leaving the Late Show after more than 30 years.
The major networks have yet to place a woman behind the desk of a late night show. With the exception of Chelsea Lately who is not aired on one of the three major networks, late night television is absent of women, which means that the highest mainstream platforms of political, social, and popular humor will likely be delivered through a male perspective for several more decades to come -- maintaining a tradition of single-sided gender narrative. Iconic entertainment platforms inform our cultural perspective about power, equity, and access. Who we see and hear tells us who matters and who we should listen to and follow. Today, CBS announced that Stephen Colbert would replace David Letterman. This means we are more likely to see a woman president than a woman late night host in the coming decades.
Each late night host has groomed and stewarded the careers of rising comics, consistently delivering male heirs to the late night throne, one after the other in true patriarchal form. To be sure, there have been far fewer female comedians in decades past. When a rare candidate like Joan Rivers came along and dared to attempt to host her own late night show, after subbing for Johnny Carson for years, she was blackballed by Carson who presumably expected her to maintain her substitute role and never rise to be his equal. Although Carson claimed Rivers never told him she was leaving, Rivers vehemently denies this and submits that Carson was the first call she made. Carson's punitive shunning would extend beyond the grave. For unknown reasons, Leno upheld Carson's ban and never invited Rivers to the Tonight Show.
There are plenty of funny, smart female comedians who would have been viable candidates to take Letterman's place: Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Mindy Kaling or Rebel Wilson to name a few. If a network chose to place a woman behind the desk of a late night show, there would be an opportunity to do something both historic and radical -- suggest that the voice of a female comedian is as relevant as that of her male counterpart. Limiting late night television to male ringleaders suggests that the male perspective is the universal perspective, and that it speaks for all humans. If we continue to be excluded, it suggests that women should be marginalized and can't reach an audience or have an impact.
Late night talk shows creep into morning shows that highlight snippets of pithy monologues lauding the humor of late night male hosts. It's easy to imagine that late night talk shows are inconsequential -- so who really cares if women aren't represented? Why does it matter? But in fact our culture reveres late night hosts, they are well-paid and given a stage to commentate about the current state of affairs. These are not inconsequential things. Access, money, and a voice are pillars of power, and when women aren't represented, the power is unequally distributed.
I hope that I see a woman hosting a late night show produced by a major network before I'm 75. By then, who knows if we'll even have network television? Imagine that! Women may never host a late night talk show. As online entertainment becomes more robust and expansive, perhaps it will unseat traditional networks. Online platforms may really be a democratic frontier providing equal access. Of course, the access will not have the reach of a major network -- at least not yet. Stay tuned.
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