I had a couple of immediate reactions to this recent article in The Daily Beast: “With Arsenio Hall Out, Late Night Becomes All White and Male—and So What?”
1. I didn’t even know Arsenio Hall had a show, much less that people were even thinking about renewing it for a second season.
2. Was that horrible photo of Chelsea Handler really necessary?
3. More all-white-maleness? Sigh.
To recap, last week news broke that Arsenio Hall’s late-night talk show had been cancelled, and Chelsea Handler’s talk show ends this summer, which means that late night is going to be all white and all male all the time. And, provocatively, the premise behind this article is — “So What?”
Late night television, Keli Goff argues, isn’t influential anymore:
“According to a recent Vanity Fair profile of Jimmy Fallon, while Johnny Carson once averaged 15 million viewers for The Tonight Show, Jay Leno averaged just over 6 million during his peak in 1997 and just 3.7 million last year. His new replacement Jimmy Fallon’s show Late Night averaged 1.8 million viewers. To put these numbers in context, unlike The Ed Sullivan Show, The Tonight Show is nowhere to be found on the 100 most watched television episodes list of all time.”
This is the crux of her argument. That late night doesn’t really matter — so why wasting time pushing for diversity for diversity’s sake, putting half-assed, not-so-talented people in those late night chairs, when no one is really watching, anyway?
I only half agree.
After all, this is the treacherous slippery slope of affirmative action. While I totally agree that affirmative action just for the sake of forcing multiculturalism can be problematic (supporting mediocre candidates in order to forcefully diversify), I do not agree that late night’s white maleness is NBD. I also do not agree that affirmative action is always just about pushing mediocre candidates forward.
I especially do not agree that we should abandon fights that “only” 1.8 million people are watching. I also do not agree that Chelsea Handler is the only female option. The fact that Goff says Handler is the only option is a pretty damning indictment of how screwed up things are. Really? She’s the only female candidate? I’ve got a Pandora station devoted to Women in Comedy, and let me tell you, there are a lot of good ones out there.
But still, the rumor still persists that female comediennes are few and far between. it’s still news when Saturday Night Live hires their first female black comic in six years. Their first female black comic in SIX years.
The problem with giving up the fight is that it is basically synonymous with losing the fight.
If we let white men rule late night it is as if we agree to stop fighting. Because 1.8 million viewers don’t matter. Because white men are there, so they should just stay there.
Goff agrees that the fact that Handler “seemed to be considered the only viable female candidate is a sad commentary on the state of late-night television, and perhaps the dearth of female comediennes,” and that if “Chelsea Handler is the best women can do in late night, then we are better off not being represented there. Maybe it’s time women and racial minorities began prioritizing where our diversity efforts really matter instead of feeling forced to support subpar candidates in mediums where it doesn’t.”
I’m fine with Chelsea not being on late night, but giving up the fight because she’s the “only” female candidate seems shortsighted, reckless, and, well, lazy. Because see here’s the thing, there are LOTS of great female comediennes, and you can figure that out pretty quickly if you don’t already know that. And I don’t believe that the only other candidates are subpar.
This is how I see it: if only 1.8 million people are watching late night, maybe it’s precisely because they are just as bored with white men as I am? Maybe rather than giving up the fight, we should work a little harder to own it?