I really don’t want to have to write this. I don’t want to say that The Daily Show “needs to,” “has to,” “would be wise to, “must,” “will hopefully” hire a female comedian to replace the irreplaceable Jon Stewart.
I’m not reluctant because I don’t want a female host. I know that the argument that women just aren’t as funny as men is absurd. As a female comedian, I get to spend time with lots of funny and smart ladies and I am confident that The Daily Show could find a hilarious woman to host the show. But I wish I didn’t have to urge them to.
Why the schpiel, you may ask about women’s place in comedy? After all, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler hosted the Golden Globes thrice! And look at the success of Broad City! And Inside Amy Schumer! And The Daily Show female correspondents Samantha Bee, Kristen Schaal, and the leading “black female correspondent” Jessica Williams!
Yet, despite the progress, not only has The Daily Show—which was, incidentally, co-created by Hilarious Woman Lizz Winstead—never had a female host, but there currently is not a single female host on any late night talk show. Granted, it’s not like Comedy Central executives are sitting behind closed doors, scheming about how to keep women from becoming The Daily Show host. The sexism here is much more subtle. Not a glass ceiling, perhaps, but rather a slightly porous, fairly uncomfortable, messy and barrier-maintaining maxi pad.
Sure, The Daily Show has also been simultaneously vigilant and hysterical in its reporting on the neverending war on women. But it’s not like it’s been immune to sexism. How else, for example, might we explain its decision to make its first permanent female correspondent in seven years Olivia Munn, whose comedic background pales in comparison to female comedic geniuses?
In fairness, The Daily Show exists in a world which assumes that women are less funny. We see this, for example, in a University of California, San Diego Division of Social Sciences study from 2011 which had a group of men and women individually write captions for New Yorker cartoons, encouraging them to be as funny as possible. They then had the men and women rate how funny they thought the captions were. The captions created by women were judged to be more or less as funny as those created by men, with men scoring on average only 0.11 higher. In a second related experiment, men attributed the less funny captions to women and the more funny captions to men. And when the male and female captioners were asked to rate themselves, men gave themselves an average score of 2.3, while women scored themselves at 1.5. In other words, the men saw themselves as funnier than the experiment detected.
Research has also shown that while both men and women say they look for a “sense of humor” in a partner, women want a humor “generator,” while men seek a humor “appreciator.” In other words, for a woman, a good sense of humor means someone who is funny. For a man, it’s someone who gets how funny he is. Humor is sanctioned, fostered and appreciated more in men than women.
So having a female comedian anchoring a high-profile late-night show will give women the chance to show—and the world to see—just how funny women are. It will also, hopefully, have a ripple effect.
Back to why I wish I didn’t have to write this. (I know, Katie. Don’t flatter yourself. It’s not like The Daily Show is reading this… but if you are… hi Jon!) First of all, when you have to tell someone to do something they should do, it becomes less meaningful and less genuine. It’s like having to tell your partner to remember your anniversary, or asking your kid to make you a Mother’s Day card. It’s much better when they think of it and you don’t.
But the larger issue is that in calling for an increased representation of women in comedy and urging a show to hire a woman, we may, unintentionally and ironically, feed the idea that women must rely on outside intervention to get comedy jobs. Some people will look at the woman and say “she only got hired because she’s a woman.” But what’s the alternative? We could just not say anything, and shows would continue to not hire women and that would perpetuate the myth, too.
There is a similar dynamic that goes on with race-based affirmative action. Some people will point to affirmative action as proof that without outside help, people of color would not get into the schools they are admitted to or get the jobs for which they are hired. This thinking, based on the lie that people of color are inherently less capable and less talented, conveniently ignores the truth, which is that they have faced and continue to face institutional, formal and informal, de facto and de jure barriers to education and jobs.
Yet, there’s no doubt in mind that affirmative action is the right thing to do. Not every racist will go home from school or work and say, “Wow, was I wrong. Now that I’ve met John, I realize that black people really are good at trigonometry or futures trading and I really was a racist turd.” But that’s OK. Affirmative action is still worth it, and it will remain that way until the personal prejudices and systemic roadblocks are eroded. Ironically, the very people who oppose affirmative action are proof of why it’s still so needed.
So we can do nothing and sit back as Comedy Central hires a male comedian. And people can point to the absence of female comedians and hosts to prove just how unfunny women are. Or we can urge Comedy Central to hire a woman, and, if they do, we will know that some people will roll their eyes and look at the female host as a charity case and not as a deserving and funny person. But that’s their loss. Other people will realize that they were wrong about women and comedy. And, most importantly, we will have a female host who will open doors for more female hosts until, one day, people look back in shock at the era when people thought women weren’t funny.
So what am I advocating? People have speculated that The Daily Show may replace Stewart with anyone from Chris Rock, to Rob Riggle, to Aasif Mandvi, John Hodgman, to Rob Corddry. But I’d urge Comedy Central to hire a woman like Jessica Williams, Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Amy Schumer or Sarah Silverman, all of whom have also been floated around. Like affirmative action, hiring a female comedian is not and should not be seen as an act of charity and a burden. Though affirmative action is the right and just thing to do, it’s not some selfless altruistic act on the part of white people. It’s in everyone’s best interest because it brings in qualified people, helps level the playing field (somewhat) and brings out talent.
Just as people watch Larry Wilmore’s The Nightly Show to laugh, people who watch Inside Amy Schumer, Broad City, The Golden Globes, Ellen DeGeneres or Sarah Silverman do not, contrary to popular belief, roll back their eyes in boredom or seek a blunt object with which to relieve the unfunny pain. As Eliana Dockterman from Time notes, Inside Amy Schumer was the most-watched series premiere in 2013. The audience? Half male, half female. Broad City drew in 1.3 million viewers on average per episode in its first season, while FX’s Louie, which stars a more famous comedian and is in its fourth season, gets just over 1 million. HEYO! Guess what! Female comedians aren’t just funny. They bring the ratings.
OK. I feel less conflicted now.
Comedy Central, you really need to hire a female host for The Daily Show. If you want any suggestions, let me know.
Katie Halper is a writer, comedian, and filmmaker born, raised and still living in New York City. Katie is the co-founder of Laughing Liberally, and the co-host of Morning Jew podcast. Learn more about her at katiehalper.com and follow her at @kthalps.