Next year, David Letterman will retire from the Late Show after more than 30 years behind the desk. Commentators have been quick to seize on Letterman’s departure as an opportunity to inject some much-needed diversity into the slate of straight white males who have dominated late night talk shows for decades.
Consider the current spread: Letterman and Craig Ferguson are installed at CBS; new Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon kicks off NBC late-night, followed by Seth Meyers and Carson Daly; Conan O’Brien reigns on TBS, Jimmy Kimmel on ABC, and Bill Maher on HBO. Comedy Central just topped off its longstanding Jon Stewart-Stephen Colbert line-up with another white dude, @midnight’s Chris Hardwick. (Update, April 4: Mashable is now reporting that Colbert is CBS’s first choice to replace Letterman.) Joining their ranks are one white woman, E!’s Chelsea Handler, who is poised to leave her show when her contract goes up at the end of the year; one gay man, Bravo’s Andy Cohen, the first openly gay late night host; and one black man, Arsenio Hall, whose new syndicated program rebooted his talk show career last year. As the Washington Post’s Alexandra Petri put it, white men named Jimmy are historically better represented at major late-night talk shows than are women and people of color.
So when Letterman announced his imminent retirement yesterday, the Internet began crowdsourcing its favorite non-Jimmies. New Yorker television critic Emily Nussbaum threw out some names on Twitter: Billy Eichner, Amy Schumer, Eric Andre. Jezebel is repping Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Retta, and Wanda Sykes. The New Republic suggests Tig Notaro and Aisha Tyler. W. Kamau Bell, formerly of the FX show Totally Biased, is another favorite. Jezebel’s Erin Gloria Ryan admits that a woman taking the reins at the Late Show is a long shot—likelier inheritors are (straight, white, male) hosts who have already been tested on smaller platforms, like Stewart and Colbert. “But what could happen, and what I hope happens is that in the old guard shift, a woman at least gets in line,” Ryan writes. “If Kimmel moves up, maybe a woman who has proven an able host will be handed the reins of a network late night show.”
As a “lady blogger,” I understand the impulse to call for more diversity in late-night talk. But as a fan of comedy, I don’t care who fills David Letterman’s chair, because I don’t watch that stuff. Why would I, when a diverse group of comics are already doing much more exciting work in essentially every other medium?
The white male dominance of late-night talk is likely one reason why I prefer to spend my evenings streaming Broad City and The Eric Andre Show instead of checking in on Fallon’s monologue or Letterman’s Top 10 list. But the host demographics aren’t the only thing stuck in the past. Late night talk shows are celebrity self-promotion vehicles packaged with broad, sanitized humor that is highly topical but rarely actually relevant. They’re designed to be funny to everyone, and hilarious to no one. Letterman was the notable exception to this rule, but even he got worn down after three decades, according to what I’ve read, because, again, I don’t watch this stuff. And I’m not alone! Letterman and Leno have been hemorrhaging viewers for years, and even Jimmy Fallon’s ratings bump can’t return the Tonight Show to its previous glory.
I would hate to curse any of my favorite comics to a career stuck behind that desk. I want Amy Poehler to star in my favorite sitcoms, produce my favorite sketch shows, and show up in my favorite movies, not sit around sipping coffee with celebrities. If Amy Schumer were relegated to a network-hosting gig, we’d lose her bluest jokes about handjobs and hardcore porn, and likely the sly feminist commentary that undercuts all of them. Eric Andre’s Adult Swim show is so hilarious because it is an unflinching parody of talk shows; he traditionally opens the show by literally smashing the late night desk to smithereens. Sticking a comedian like Andre with a ho-hum hosting gig would bolster the diversity of late night talk, but it would rob humanity of a great talent with the freedom to perform at the height of his game. Andre might change network late night a tiny bit, but network late night would change him a lot. Retta, Parks and Recreation’s breakout star, absolutely deserves her own show, and nothing so traditional as Late Night. Middle-aged white dudes are, in fact, the appropriate face for this type of bore.