Attorney General Eric Holder says we're all cowards when it comes to race, and he believes we should have more "frank conversations" about racial issues. I think Holder's overdoing it, but given that Conan O'Brien just took his last bow on NBC's Late Night, let 's have a frank conversation: Why are evening talk-show hosts almost all white guys?
Conan O'Brien (a white guy) is off to Los Angeles to replace Jay Leno (a white guy) and compete against David Letterman (a white guy), Jimmy Kimmel (a white guy), and Stephen Colbert (a white guy), who comes on right after Jon Stewart (a white guy). Jimmy Fallon (a white guy) will replace Conan (still a white guy), compete against Craig Ferguson (a white guy), and then, at 1:35 a.m., pass the baton to Carson Daly (yep, a white guy).
That's a lot of white guys. True, D.L. Hughley's got something going on at CNN and Tavis Smiley is soldiering away on PBS. Plus, Comedy Central tried out Chocolate News last fall and in the early 90s, Arsenio Hall had a pretty good run. But Hughley and Smiley are the only black late-night hosts with mainstream shows on the air right now, and neither one has anywhere near the audience of a Leno or a Letterman. The other obvious point, of course, is that every last one of the hosts, white or black, is a man. The only major late show hosted by a woman is Chelsea Lately on E!, and this extraordinary lack of gender diversity demands its own consideration. But sticking with the original question for now: Why must someone be white to do a monologue, sit behind a desk, and chat up movie stars?
It's pretty astonishing. We have a black president, a black attorney general, a black Supreme Court justice, a black chairman of the Republican National Committee, black governors, black CEOs at American Express and Aetna, a black NFL coach who just won the Super Bowl -- and the most powerful person in television (Oprah Winfrey) and last year's best-paid movie star (Will Smith, according to Forbes) are both black. Plus, late-night talk-show hosts are almost all comedians, and in case you hadn't noticed, many of the biggest names in comedy are black. And yet on late-night TV, it's . . . white guy, white guy, white guy.
Perhaps some insight into the Late Night White Guy Syndrome can be found in Attorney General Holder's "coward" speech. During his remarks, Holder said that while the American workplace is largely integrated, the nation remains self-segregated in private life. We mix at the office, but not at home.
Home, of course, is where we watch television, and Americans often watch late-night shows in the most private part of their home -- the bedroom. That's no surprise. With a loosely scripted mix of casual banter and light laughs, the Tonight Show and its ilk aim to provide viewers a sense of comfort and assurance just before they go to sleep. However bad the day has been, Leno, Letterman and company are there to give the audience at home a few grins and let them know that things are going to be all right. Even with dwindling ratings, then, late-night shows play an important role in the national psychology. They're the television viewing equivalent of being tucked into bed. Might that suggest that at least until now, some Americans unfortunately expected a certain kind of person -- a white guy -- to play the role?
This sort of cultural critique invariably draws grouchy (or outraged) charges of psycho-babble, and if I'm out in left field on this one, then by all means, offer some other explanation for Late Night White Guy Syndrome. One obvious problem with the critique is that especially among the younger demographic, Tivo and the internet mean that people are watching whatever they want when they want. The Colbert Report no doubt gets plenty of college viewers who are on their laptops in a 10:00 a.m. biology class. Still, the fact remains that millions of Americans watch late-night shows as a TV tuck-in.
Is white America prepared to have a black guy host more of these programs? If not, why not? After all, we've proved ourselves willing to trust an African American man to keep watch over the entire country. Perhaps we're finally ready for one to sit at a desk and interview Joaquin Phoenix before we turn out the lights.