“Women aren’t funny”: what late night talk shows are missing

Marie Straquadine

Have you ever wondered why all late night talk show hosts are men? This never crossed my mind until I saw a commercial for late night programming one day. Suddenly, I needed to know why there aren’t any women hosting late night talk shows on major networks. Instead, we see all men: David Letterman, Jay Leno, Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon, Craig Ferguson, etc.
Audiences clearly find these talks show hosts entertaining, so why does it matter that they all happen to be men? I would argue that it is more than a coincidence that we only see men on major network late night television and that it has the potential to perpetuate stereotypes.
Late night talk shows have a long tradition of male hosts, beginning with Steve Allen, Jack Paar, and Johnny Carson in the 1950s. Since these talk shows began, no woman has ever hosted her own major network show. Joan Rivers often filled in for Carson on “The Tonight Show” and began “The Tonight Show Starring Joan Rivers” in 1986, but it was aired on FOX cable rather than a major network.
The trend of airing women’s late night talk shows only on cable still exists today. Women comedians have had successful late night talk shows, but strangely, they are all shown on cable. “The Wanda Sykes Show” airs on FOX, “The Mo’Nique Show” airs on BET, and “Chelsea Lately” airs on E!.
Although these shows are popular, the fact that they are shown on cable channels limits their potential audience to people with cable, while the men hosting late night on major networks can be seen by anyone with a television.
Women have had successful daytime talk shows on both major networks and cable channels. “The Oprah Winfrey Show” on ABC and “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” on NBC are two of the highest rated daytime talk shows. Why is it that major networks allow women to host daytime talk shows but not late night ones? There does not seem to be a logical reason for this exclusion. Clearly, women have the ability to host highly successful talk shows, whether they are serious or humorous in tone. Late night talk shows on major networks focus on comedy, and many women comedians exist.
Disturbingly, some of the comments made on online articles addressing this issue include statements like “women aren’t funny”. While this is a ridiculous idea, it brings up the fact that comedy is a field dominated by men. Although there is no logical support behind the idea that women comedians are not as funny as men, major networks seem to be ascribing to it. These networks have never aired a late night talk show hosted by a woman and are therefore supporting an exclusive good ol’ boys club of comedy. Their unwavering support for the tradition of men talk show hosts persists despite the fact that nearly 55% of Letterman’s and about 53% of Leno’s viewers are women.
It is impossible to deny the absence of women talk show hosts on major network late night TV. Although men have traditionally hosted these shows, there is no reason why this cannot and should not change. Continuing the tradition of late night talk shows hosted by men reinforces the idea that women can’t be funny – which is no joking matter.