Joan Rivers, Whoopi Goldberg, Wanda Sykes, Mo’Nique, Robin Thede — each name is another note in the long, sad dirge of canceled female late-night talk show hosts. And now, as of last month, add Samantha Bee to that sorry list. TBS nixed her show, “Full Frontal,” after seven seasons, as ratings dwindled to just 2.9 million viewers a night in 2021. Her exit leaves only two women left hosting late-night shows: Amber Ruffin on Peacock and Ziwe on HBO.
All of which raises an obvious question: Does the industry have a built-in bias against women? While late-night has chewed up and spit out a number of shows hosted by men — including Chevy Chase, whose show famously ended after only five weeks — the industry seems to be particularly difficult for women to break into and even harder to survive.
Rivers’ ’80s show on Fox didn’t even last a full year, while subsequent late-night forays from Goldberg, Sykes, Mo’Nique and Thede also failed to score a second season. YouTuber Lilly Singh’s “A Little Late,” which ended in 2021 after two years in the late-late slot on NBC, was the last show with a female host on a major network.
“Women are wildly successful in daytime and on TikTok and Instagram, so why can’t women succeed in late night? What’s the disconnect? It doesn’t make sense,” Caissie St. Onge, who was the showrunner for Busy Philipps’ short-lived 2018 show “Busy Tonight,” told TheWrap.
During the seven-month run of “Busy Tonight,” St. Onge said E! executives continually gave Philipps notes on what she wore, how she talked and how she should enter. “Busy really got attention by doing Instagram stories. That’s how she got pulled back onto television,” said St. Onge of the actress who first broke out as part of the cast of cult favorite “Freaks and Geeks.”
“Executives said, ‘Oh, we love what you’re doing on Instagram.’ But then everything that she was doing on Instagram seemed like it wasn’t what they wanted,” St. Onge said. “So it was a conundrum. I’ve worked for a lot of men and I have never heard anyone tell a man to calibrate the tone of their voice or to change the way that they move their body.”
That kind of micromanagement, though, was not the case for Chelsea Handler, who hosted E!’s “The Chelsea Show” in 2006. “Chelsea and I were the two creative forces and we were really given free rein. It’s one of the few shows that I’ve worked on where I was shocked at the lack of supervision. [The network]’s attitude was, ‘Let her do what she wants to do.’ And in that freedom, she was a success,” said Freeman, noting that, as any Google search will tell you, E! President Ted Harbert and Handler were romantically involved from 2006 to 2010. (Handler went on to host “Chelsea Lately” on E! from 2007 to 2014.)
Is the industry biased or is it the audience?
Many in the industry believe there is a bias against women — on both sides.
“Most of the hiring and development is done by men,” Freeman said. “As much as people like to think that they’re breaking new ground and they’re trying new things, they still fall into certain traditions and late-night, those have traditionally been male roles. So when a spot opens up, certain people’s brains just automatically go towards that archetype. They’re not open to cast a wider net.”
But the audience can be just as close-minded. “The bias that I see in the comedy community, from comedians and from audiences, is just a reflection of the perception that female comedians are not as funny, which is incredibly unfair,” he said. “That carries over into being given late-night slots or being the leads of their own sitcoms. I don’t know if it’s indigenous to late night, but late night is an example of a microcosm of society at large.”
Stand-up comedian and retired comedy writer Ned Rice agrees that some audiences are “not comfortable” with a woman leading a show, whether it’s on a soundstage or at a comedy club.
“My theory is, it’s difficult for women, because when someone’s on stage talking, and not just telling jokes, but presenting a point of view, that person is, in a sense, an authority figure,” he said. “Think of a comedy show as a bus — they’re the bus driver. And just because of the way we are raised, many audiences are not comfortable with having a woman in that role.”
Aside from Handler and Bee, “I don’t know if any woman has ever been given a fair shot” with a late-night gig,” Rice said.
Has anything changed since Joan Rivers lost her show in 1987?
Joan Rivers, the first woman to host a late-night show in 1986, had only an eight-month run on Fox with “The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers.” Her slot ended up going to Arsenio Hall, the first Black late-night host, who became a mainstay of ’90s late-night. It was an enormous landmark for the Black community, but a major setback for women.
Rivers was done dirty by two networks: She long served as Johnny Carson’s favorite substitute host on “The Tonight Show,” but after learning she had been left off NBC’s list of his 10 potential successors, she accepted an offer to host a rival solo show on the fledgling Fox network. Carson, who learned about the move before she had a chance to tell him, never forgave her and several affiliates refused to carry her show.
“Despite being a major star of the 1980s, Joan Rivers didn’t have the sort of career support or structure that her male colleagues enjoyed,” Shawn Levy, author of “In on the Joke: The Original Queens of Standup Comedy,” told TheWrap. “Few, if any, female comedians did, in fact.”
He added that Rivers and her husband, Edgar Rosenberg, who was also her manager and producer, “were more or less a team of two against the world — and no match, on paper or in reality, for [Fox network founders] Rupert Murdoch and Barry Diller.” When the show’s ratings dropped, “Diller and Murdoch were happy to dump her… And because she didn’t have the backing of a powerful Hollywood agency or manager, she had to walk away looking like a loser. I just don’t think it would’ve played the same way if she had been a man,” Levy said.
Broken doorbells: The snubs of top female talent have continued
Nell Scovell, who was the second woman to write for “Late Night With David Letterman,” told the L.A. Times in 2019 that the industry has “a broken doorbell problem. There are plenty of women with the talent and the ability and nobody’s opening the door for them.”
As Scovell wrote in her 2018 memoir, “Just the Funny Parts: … And a Few Hard Truths About Sneaking Into the Hollywood Boys’ Club,” Rivers’ firing was “pure sexism.” In 2021, she told Bill Carter, author of “The Late Shift,” that Rivers being canceled “hurt women in late night for years,” and left the impression that they just couldn’t cut it as hosts.
The snubs of top women have continued for decades. When Jon Stewart left “The Daily Show” in 2015, the show’s longest-running correspondent, Samantha Bee, was never in the running to take over. Even worse, Comedy Central didn’t tell her for several weeks that Stewart had instead tapped Trevor Noah, a South African comic who had joined the show as a recurring contributor only four months before.
“I mean, literally, no one called or even emailed from the network — at all. It was awful. It was really awful,” Bee said on The Daily Beast’s “Last Laugh” podcast in 2019. “I want to say it was a full month or six weeks after Jon had announced that he was leaving [that they told me]. I was never in contention and I very much knew that. I don’t know that people in the outside world knew how much I was not being considered for the job.”
“Someday it won’t seem weird”
Amber Ruffin, who became the first Black woman to write for a late-night network show when she was hired by Seth Meyers for NBC’s “Late Night” in 2014, told Bill Carter on his “Behind the Desk: The Story of Late Night” podcast: “There are these tiny opportunities for people of color, and then they are gone as quickly as they arrived. But lots of bigger networks give a lot more money and a lot more time to young white men finding their footing, whereas people of color are rarely granted that opportunity. You just have to come ready-made and it is harder and it is unfair, but it is not impossible.”
As Jenny Hagel, who also writes for Meyers and is head writer on “The Amber Ruffin Show,” told the L.A. Times, “Even being able to find out about jobs is so difficult and relies so much on systems that inherently have gender bias built into them, because the whole field is so male-dominated.”
St. Onge suggested networks and streamers give women room and time, like NBC did for Conan O’Brien, whose first NBC late-night show famously took a long time to find its creative groove (and its audience). “It’s just leaving it alone and letting people get used to the idea,” she said. “And then someday, it won’t seem weird. The presidency and late night are the two things that [women] haven’t cracked yet. It’s just wild.”
She now has a podcast with Phillipps, “Busy Philipps Is Doing Her Best,” largely because there’s “zero gatekeeping” involved.
Robert Smigel shared similar thoughts with Carter in 2021. “There’s no woman that anyone’s willing to take a chance on the way they’ve taken a chance on James Corden or Conan O’Brien or Craig Ferguson. I mean, none of these people have the cachet that they would have said, ‘Oh, of course, Craig Ferguson, the guy who played Drew Carey’s boss. Why hasn’t he had his show already?'”
Sharing the spotlight – and having each other’s back
Meyers gave both Ruffin and Hagel their first big breaks and their work at “Late Night” has proven to be an advantageous launching pad. In 2020, Ruffin got her own show on Peacock, with Hagel serving as head writer. (The show will be back for a third season, Ruffin promised.) Both continue to write for Meyers, where they share the desk in the “Jokes Seth Can’t Tell” segment and deliver the punchlines he can’t.
Hagel, who’s gay and Puerto Rican, came up with the segment after realizing that Meyers could not be a good fit to deliver the lesbian jokes she was writing. As she told Northwestern Magazine in March, “I pulled aside Amber and said, ‘What if we did a sketch where we told jokes about our respective identities?’ We both kind of laughed, like, nobody will ever let us do that on television… And then to our great surprise, they chose it. We thought they’d let us do it one time — and then to our even larger surprise, they thought we should do it again. And I think now we’ve done almost 50.”
Many women have benefited not only from powerful allies and mentors, but also from the support of each other. While BET’s “The Rundown With Robin Thede” only lasted one season, Thede advised Ruffin when the latter was negotiating a contract with Peacock for her own show. (Thede now stars in and executive produces “A Black Lady Sketch Show” on HBO Max.)
“If it wasn’t for Robin, I don’t know what I would have done,” Ruffin told WrapWomen in May, adding that a number of Black women working in the tricky timeslot have each others’ back. “Forty percent of all Black women in late-night television are on a text chain. If I found out that another Black lady who had a late-night show, and they were doing it wrong, I’d be there.”