Ok, quiz time. Who was the first female comedian to host “The Tonight Show“? If you’re racking your brain thinking that no woman has ever hosted The Tonight Show, you’d be wrong. It was Joan Rivers. She actually was one of Johnny Carson’s permanent fill-in hosts when he was out sick.
Which raises the question: If Johnny trusted Joan to pull off the hosting duties of his iconic show over 30 years ago, why aren’t more women today being trusted with late-night TV?
From David Letterman and Conan O’Brien to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, it’s quite clear that, when it comes to late-night TV show hosting duties, network executives don’t want women in late-night. Scratch that. They don’t think women are capable of succeeding in late-night.
In fact, the only recent late-night female host is E!’s Chelsea Handler, whose last show with E! will be in August. She is taking her talents to Netflix, where I’m sure she’ll be a smash. By then, unless there are some new developments, the grand total for women with their own late-night network show will be back down to zero.
For shame, networks! In a crowded field of funnymen in the 11 p.m. slot, Handler was a breath of fresh air. She was zany, inappropriate and irreverent. E!’s loss will surely be Netflix’s gain. Funny is funny, guys. The gender of the host shouldn’t matter.
And yet, somehow in 2014, funny female talk show hosts are virtually non-existent. Ellen Degeneres could be a possible exception — except her show airs in the daytime. But I know she would hit it out of the park if she were given a late-night slot. After all, for years she’s had a successful stand-up career and an enormous fan base that would follow her anywhere. Not to mention, her talk show ratings have been through the roof since she started her show back in 2003. She’s also had her pick of A-list celebs as her guests.
The only thing I can think of that keeps her from being seriously considered is that her humor is not edgy and is considered more family-friendly. And ladies, if you’re going to be a ratings success and play with the big boys in late night, you’ve got to be edgy.
But that “has to be edgy” theory goes right out of the window when you take into account Jimmy Fallon’s success. To me, Fallon is not edgy. Silly? Yes. But edgy? No. I also find his timing and skills as a comedian and TV host leaving a lot to be desired. I don’t find him a particularly good interviewer either. He’s nowhere near the same level as Conan or Letterman when it comes to witty banter with his guests. Fallon is really a slightly less funny and clever version of Ellen.
Obviously, I’m in the minority: His ratings are killing the competition right now.
But I keep wondering — if this guy can take over the reins of “The Tonight Show” from Jay Leno (who I never found amusing) and be successful, who’s to say that Ellen, or any other female comedian for that matter, can’t find similar success?
The people in charge at CBS, apparently. When the network announced back in April that Stephen Colbert was picked as Letterman’s replacement, I felt conflicted. I’m a huge fan of Colbert’s. I was thrilled he would be getting the chance to show off his comedic chops outside of the character he plays on “The Colbert Report“, but at the same time, I was annoyed. I couldn’t help but echo Lena Dunham’s sentiment that it’s just not fair to have another white guy taking over another late-night show when there are so many qualified women who are more than up for the challenge.
CBS still has a chance to redeem itself in the next couple of months when they select Craig Ferguson’s replacement after he announced he will be leaving his show in December. As for rumors of the network possibly picking a female host to take his place, I’m keeping my fingers crossed.
What these networks fail to realize is that female comedians and writers are hot commodities these days. For proof that women are not only hilarious but are capable hosts, look no further than Melissa McCarthy. She’s hosted SNL several times, is an Emmy winner, and has been starring in hit after hit at the box office. Sarah Silverman and Amy Schumer are two other prime examples of comediennes in top form. Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Mindy Kaling both star in their own successful sitcoms. And of course, there are Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, who have made hosting the Golden Globes the past two years look effortless.
Why can’t these women get a chance to sit at the desk for once? Because the truth is, men are still the ones making most of these decisions, and they still think that a woman is too huge a gamble for too little payoff. I believe that some men in the industry have an outdated idea that women in comedy aren’t on the same level as men. It makes them uncomfortable to see Chelsea Handler or Sarah Silverman use crass language when joking about topics like sex in the same manner that their male counterparts do. Networks think viewers want to see only funny white men when most people want more diversity. That includes having more women and minorities being thrown into the mix.
It’s been over 30 years since Joan Rivers hosted “The Tonight Show,” and then for a time, her own show. I’m hoping it won’t take quite as long for another female host to get her shot.