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Late Show Producer Meredith Scardino’s Great Cameos Are a Walking Argument for Diversity in Late Night

Meredith Scardino on The Late Show.

CBS

On February 22, Stephen Colbert opened the The Late Show with a bit about the intimate connection between cowboys and their horses that featured a tight shot of the comedian confiding in the stuffed head of a hobby horse. Then, in a moment that somehow felt completely improvised, Colbert asked someone just outside of the frame, “How’re you doing over there?” The camera panned to the woman in a headset holding the other end of the hobby horse and the world met Meredith, The Late Show’s newest breakout star. “I’m good, I’m good…It’s not heavy. It’s just the head,” she said. At Colbert’s request, she galloped off stage. Meredith reprised her role as stick-holder the following night, this time with a stuffed elephant head. After Colbert pelted both the elephant and Meredith with peanuts, Meredith countered, “Elephants don’t even like [peanuts]…I read it on the internet…for research. This is a North Eastern Pachyderm—not real,” she clarified. Last night, in their developing buddy routine, Meredith and Colbert mused about the childhood acne caused by her Irish heritage.

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“Meredith” is actually Meredith Scardino, a Late Show producer and comedy writer whose credits include The Late Show with David Letterman and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. She also happens to be that one woman writer from The Colbert Report. And now Scardino has become a reliably clever, charming guest star and—most significantly—a sharp female perspective on a show that’s had a tepid start in keeping its promise to correct the gender bias in late night.

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In his transition from cable parody pundit to standup network man, Colbert’s style has undergone a kind of creative glasnost—a loosening of the ties that bound Colbert and his team of writers to his outsized persona on the Report. “It’s based more on curiosity,” he said of his new interviewing approach to Slate’s John Dickerson. “I learned that I like discovery more than invention.” This shift toward spontaneity surely helped produce segments like Colbert’s emotional and instantly iconic interview with Joe Biden. And the host has also earnestly shared the process of show-building with his audience—often at the expense of joke density. In one opening monologue, Colbert played an iPhone video of a mysterious street noise to explain why it was so hard to concentrate in the writer’s room that morning, and during an early episode, he took an actual production meeting on air with his longtime producer, Liz Levin. Scardino’s increasing presence has come about in this same man-behind-the-curtain spirit of conversational openness: This is the real Colbert, these are the real people who make his show run.

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A Colbert more willing to be “real” is a Colbert less willing to nail a rising demagogue, it turns out. And his newfound sincerity has also revealed that well-meaning feminism is harder to implement in practice than ironic misogyny. Colbert’s Late Show is at least a light subscriber to the rigid gender code entrenched in late night culture. Despite surely good intentions, Colbert often hews to gender stereotypes in his interviews. Talking to Bruce Willis, a father of three daughters, Colbert asked the actor if having girls turned him “soft.” This week, while talking about the theme of friendship in Lord of the Rings, Colbert asked Anna Kendrick if she agreed that men and women approach friendship in different ways: “You guys seem to work at it harder than we do.” And while interviewing Helen Mirren last week about her role as a Colonel in Eye in the Sky, he pressed, “In America, we don’t think of female military leaders as being hawkish and ready to kill.” Naturally, Mirren dismissed the implication of the statement, saying simply that military leaders of either sex are hawkish by definition. That’s their job.

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None of this is lost on Meredith Scardino. In just her few on-air moments, Colbert’s budding de facto sidekick has managed to skewer the status quo with guileless precision. Last week, Colbert asked Scardino what she thought of his kisses with Helen Mirren and Sally Field. “If the reverse had happened—” she offered, “like if an actor of a certain age…went on and kissed one of the many female late night talk show hosts—yeah, I don’t know how it would have gone over.” The line killed with the studio audience; Colbert’s target market is still made up of young progressives who value gender equality. But many of Colbert’s fans are also women, and given the comically short distance between Scardino’s pointed joke and her own workplace reality, her appearance onscreen alone is a rare gift to cling to. In one gloriously uncensored chat, Colbert asked Scardino why she loves cold weather, and she answered honestly: “I’m Italian. I come from a sweaty people. And [the sweat] shoots out of my face.” Colbert’s lame comeback that he hopes she doesn’t put that on her Match.com profile could barely dampen the mood. It’s a strange climate that allows the uninhibited wit of a woman being herself to feel like a revelation—and thankfully Samantha Bee has carved out her own space to deliver this revelation weekly. But watching Scardino drive the dialogue from inside  TV’s most notorious boys’ club is proof of what even greater diversity could bring to the late-night format.

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