TPM Cafe: Opinion

So Long, Letterman ... What’ll It Take For a Late-Night Lady?

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Speculation as to Letterman’s successor is, naturally, rampant. With a first right of refusal built into his contract, Craig Ferguson, host of Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, is the heir apparent; however, Hollywood is legend at treating contracts in much the same way it treats marriages: celebrated with great pomp at first, stoically endured for a while, but always existing against the background of understanding that, really, how can anyone know how they’ll feel in the future? It’s the biz, baby! Which is to say Ferguson is hardly a sure thing. Outlets are reporting that Stephen Colbert is a contender, as are Drew Carey, Louis C.K., Jon Stewart, Conan O’Brien, Jerry Seinfeld, and Chelsea Handler.

Oh, and Jay Leno. (Dear sirs: Know when to say when.)

Perhaps you sense where I’m going with this already, but allow me to spell it out: Is it really so radical to entertain the thought of a woman helming a high profile, network, late-night talk show? Before you answer that, consider the two most recent changes in the landscape of late-night: Jimmy Fallon’s takeover of Tonight, and, subsequently, Seth Myers’ sliding into Fallon’s former slot as host of Late Night. (Both of which, incidentally, were hailed as hugely revolutionary moves, though it’s hard to say why. Perhaps because they are under the age of 50?) If we remove the white male factor, one noticeable commonality is their time on SNL: if CBS wants a game-changer with solid comedic chops who is also recognizable enough to be a safe, bankable bet, why not tap Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, or Kristin Wiig?

But… scary! Can’t you just picture the old white men in charge, scratching their heads, trying with all their might to conjure this strange image? Getting almost there before, oh I don’t know, a big-chinned, white-skinned, floppy-haired, suited man invades their thought bubbles, and whispers in their ears, The American People just aren’t ready for that!

Really, though, aren’t we? While the numbers obviously skew male, some women do have shows of their own, and carry them handily. There’s Chelsea Handler; there’s Amy Schumer and Mindy Kaling, Lena Dunham and Tina Fey and Amy Poehler… all of whom have shows that are hugely successful among both male and female audiences.

Wait a minute. Could it be? Maybe there are plenty of funny women out there!

And for executives who have heartburn over the viewership, they should find comfort in a recent analysis out this week by FiveThirtyEight (eerily similar to an analysis by Vocativ), women-driven entertainment actually has a better return on investment. (Pause while heads explode.)

Oddest of all, of course, is that, in the face of the above, the list of contenders for Letterman’s prime slot is so staunchly male—and, frankly, rather stale.

Clearly it’s not that women-driven projects can’t make money, nor is it that audiences don’t like women. Which leaves the men long-ensconced at the top (Judd Apatow, after all, can’t be expected to serve as the benefactor for an entire gender), and what would seem the only possible explanation: they’ve had success for years doing things as they’ve always been done, and judging solely on the evidence, lack the imagination to consider any other way to go. Or maybe they’re afraid it’ll be all scary vagina jokes all the time. (Relax fellas, Schumer’s got that market cornered.) And who will advertise, Tampax?

But you know, all those glorious men somehow managed to make careers built of jokes about things other than penises (and on the backs of ad bucks not exclusive to Viagra)—even Jimmy Kimmel, who has made a fine host despite being plucked from that sterling piece of theater known as The Man Show.

To be fair, Letterman is indeed an institution: the only host in Late Show’s lifetime, he has filmed more than 4,000 episodes, and, when you include his time on NBC’s Late Night, Letterman has had the longest tenure as a late-night host in television history, breaking even Johnny Carson’s formidable record. But he seems happy with his legacy, and attuned to the fact that it’s time for something new. Let’s hope he’s not the only one.

Shannon Kelley is a writer and author based in California who writes frequently on the intersection of feminism, pop culture and politics. Follow her on Twitter @Shannon_BKelley.