How CBS Missed The Opportunity To Change Late Night When It Hired Stephen Colbert

Comedy Central has an opportunity to change the late-night game where CBS opted for a safe choice. This is why hiring a woman or person of color would change the late-night landscape for the better.

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Krystie Lee Yandoli: There’s been a fair amount of turnaround in the world of late-night shows and in such a short period of time. Just recently, Jay Leno was replaced by Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show, and Jimmy Fallon was replaced by Seth Meyers on Late Night. Now Colbert is replacing Letterman. In regard to CBS’s decision to replace Letterman with Colbert, another white male was not the way to go. Sure, he’s pretty funny and he does a decent job at calling people out on their nonsense and unpacking privilege from time to time — but late-night TV is so white and so male, which is something I’ve always been aware of. After making this “Which Late Night TV Talk Show Host Are You?” quiz for BuzzFeed and trying to find a diverse range of results, though, it became even more apparent.

Erin La Rosa: I hate to say this, but it’s not at all surprising that Stephen Colbert was picked. There’s nothing exceptional about it, and nothing risky. It’s totally safe and boring, which is what’s expected in late night and a large part of why you don’t hear anyone talking about late-night TV anymore. Stephen Colbert himself is an incredible performer, and I’ve interviewed him for BuzzFeed and found him downright charming and humble. He’s a good person, and it’s a fantastic opportunity for him. He’s earned it, because he’s proved to be a charismatic and hilarious host on The Colbert Report. But that’s just the thing, isn’t it? He was given the opportunity to do that — to prove himself. It would’ve been smart if CBS gave a woman or POC that same opportunity to prove themselves. Women are funny. People of color are funny. That’s something that shouldn’t have to be mentioned, but sadly it does, based on people’s reactions.

Adrian Carrasquillo: To get to the point where you are even considered for something amazing like this, it becomes about your body of work. And so the people that are seen as possible replacements are often the handful of white dudes already in the space. In terms of late-night television hosts, I don’t come from a place where I personally believe Colbert is bad, in a vacuum. He’s funny and talented. But as long as white guys are given the opportunities early on, they will be the ones who are able to showcase their talent, and get some of the most influential positions in television. That’s why I turn my attention to Comedy Central, which should work hard to find amazing women and people of color who are doing great work. Off the bat, Comedy Central already has Al Madrigal and Wyatt Cenac — hilarious guys they know can do a great job. Al Madrigal is jokingly the Latino correspondent, but imagine how much that could change the kinds of conversations normally had during Colbert’s time slot? Diversity is not bullshit, and diversity is not about being like, “OK, we have a black person, please don’t bring up this issue ever again.”

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Tracy Clayton: Whenever you have a chance to do something different but you stick with the same old same old, it always feels like a loss. I’ve seen people say that they consider this a bold, forward-thinking move for CBS because of Colbert’s status as a radical thinker, a leftist, a voice that will really call people to task and shake things up. And sure. I don’t dislike Colbert; he’s actually one of my favorite white guys, right up there with Tom Hanks (call me!). But to say that it would have been awesome for a person of color or a woman (or a woman of color, OMG!) to have that seat isn’t slighting him or his abilities. I want to echo the importance of giving opportunities to people previously and generally shut out of certain industries. It’s like refusing to teach left-handed people how to juggle, and then saying, “But there are no qualified left-handed jugglers!” You can’t blame someone for not being prepared or qualified and simultaneously deny them chances to become prepared or qualified. It’s very, very privileged rhetoric; you can’t consider a current situation that is so influenced by history, especially a troubled history, and strip of it its context. It’s not just about picking a name from a pile of résumés; there are lots of different moving parts at work here, and in picking another white guy for this seat, liberal and conscious-minded as he may be, so many of those parts were ignored. Also, we can’t erase those prepared and qualified people who do exist! There are veritable tons of smart, creative, hilarious personalities working and thriving in smaller circles; just because folks refuse to see them doesn’t mean they aren’t there. People with low visibility are often blamed for not being seen or heard, when seeing and hearing people is a choice that we make, purposely or otherwise.

AC: Tracy is so right that diversity is usually equated to “not in the same stratosphere of quality” when the real calculation here is, are the people in power willing to do the work to find the women and people of color who are killing it?

TC: And as Adrian said, it doesn’t stop by adding one or two women or people of color to a roster. If that person/those people aren’t then fully integrated in and involved in the culture of the institution that they’re added to, it’s still a step backward. Don’t just put a woman or a person of color in front of a camera and think that you’ve done your job. One of the great things about Jimmy Fallon’s show is that so much of himself is weaved into the program. His guests, his band, the things he has his guests do (they play beer pong, for goodness’ sake!) — he’s splayed open and, like, his humanity is on display for everyone to see. And for marginalized people, that reality of humanity — of being human — is denied them. This would have been a great chance to help normalize the lives of marginalized people in a similar way, to help sew us into the fabric of this ideal American life that late-night TV has kind of come to represent.

KLY: The fact that people need to be reminded that “women are funny, people of color are funny” is so ridiculous and disheartening. How is it even necessary that people need to be reminded that there are funny, capable human beings who can perfectly host TV shows that don’t exist in white male bodies? Everyone seems to be settled in their late-night host positions and it won’t be shifting around for a while, which is exactly why I’m so disappointed — this is the kind of status quo we have to settle for and are stuck with for a long time. That’s a seriously missed opportunity on CBS’s part, because their lack of vision and their clearly lacking the desire to improve diversity in late-night TV isn’t just going to hurt our society for this week, or this year. It’ll affect us for many seasons and years to come.

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Al Madrigal, Eric Andre, and Vanessa Ramos.

AC: But with diversity conversations, what pisses me off is no one ever brings up the representation of Latinos. You know, the group becoming a larger part of the American population? The Latino vote matters, and Latino spending power ($1.2 trillion can be found on Hispanic market power points from sea to shining sea), but the representation at a place like SNL is zero — as in none. Comedy Central has Al Madrigal doing smart work, and it has people behind the scenes the network needs to value. Vanessa Ramos, a Comedy Central writer, is hilarious (check her Twitter) and she’s a writer on Fox’s upcoming show Bordertown. Why not bring her on to The Daily Show as a correspondent to make her part of this conversation in the future? Does Comedy Central realize its opportunity here or does it play it safe like CBS? The funniest (saddest) part of this is that if you take a chance, you will very likely be rewarded. Young people are Latino, black, gay, and — wait for it — women. They’re also not as uneasy about change, as loads of major institutions have been flipped in our generation. I just hate this idea, prevalent in comedy, and really in many places where a certain skill is prized, that only the most deserving get gigs and minorities and women don’t because they’re not qualified.

KLY: It’s definitely one thing to talk about all the change you want to see and another to take action into your own hands and do something about it. This isn’t just about how CBS and television networks interpret diversity, it’s also about this dominant logic that comes along with white privilege and allows viewers to think things like, Is it actually important to select a woman or POC even if there wasn’t anyone who could pull off the job/get the ratings as well as Colbert? It’s really frustrating on a lot of levels to try to have these conversations, but what’s even more frustrating to me is the fact that some people just don’t get it. The vast majority of Americans who watch these TV shows aren’t represented by people who look like them, and if you think about it, the logical next step wouldn’t be to hire a straight white male even for rating and profit purposes, especially because of the Latino population and spending power, and everything that would mean for advertising dollars. So even if you don’t want to look at this from a practical and ethical perspective and want to focus on good old American capitalism dollars and cents, hiring another straight white guy isn’t necessarily to CBS’s benefit. More importantly, Americans deserve to see people who look like them and accurately represent them and their experiences when they watch late-night television.

EL: I also think that in terms of comedy, simply sticking to the the norm and continuing to cater to the same old jokes that will hit home with the same old folks isn’t what will keep comedy fresh, new, and funny. I keep thinking of when Seth MacFarlane hosted the Oscars, and how all of his gross jokes catered to what he thought the majority would find funny: boob jokes, sexism, and racism. It was actually really fantastic to see the internet respond immediately to that and call him out for it. Instead of funny, he sounded pathetic. Like some guy who didn’t know what funny was, so he literally just opened a joke book from the ’50s and phoned them all in. As Adrian said, risks pay off. And when you’re simply catering to what you THINK the majority want, you’re going to end up looking sad and out of touch. Also, I think Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Ellen DeGeneres are all funny women who successfully hosted award shows and would’ve been phenomenal options as late-night hosts.

CBS / Via AP

TC: The best comedy, in my opinion, comes from lived, real-life experiences, not recycled tropes or stereotypes, and that’s all you get when the pool you’re picking from is shallow — you’re bound to get stuck trying to think of new ways to do the same things. Comedy Central picking up CBS’s slack and adding a diverse host or hostess could really do some great things for them. I think that Comedy Central has more room to do things like that, because I think that comedy and other artsy mediums are kind of a space for alternative things. But stations like CBS exist at least half in a world where they need to balance their comedy offerings with “serious” things like news and “reality.” Take Eric Andre, for example. That dude is weird. It’s a good weird, I really like him, but the chances that you’d find him on CBS doing what he does on Comedy Central are slim to none. So the arts are almost expected to do “radical” things like — gasp — put a marginalized person at the forefront of a late-night talk show. I’m really, really hoping they’ll do something different. The thought of a minority being given the chance to work publicly in predominantly white spaces like this also makes me nervous, because there’s always the thought of, what if he or she DOESN’T kill it, and what if they don’t kill it because audiences don’t take to them because they can’t get past the visible/cultural differences? I was SO nervous for Sasheer Zamata during her first show on SNL (and I’m nervous for her each time I watch, actually), because I knew that if she faltered or if the writing was still stagnant or if the audience didn’t love her, it would be seen as validation for the people who said that there wasn’t a black woman who was ready or that women aren’t funny or whatever else. And the blame for it would most likely fall squarely on her shoulders, because people wouldn’t realize or acknowledge that there are a multitude of factors that go into the success of a woman/person of color in such a white world.

EL: This isn’t a minority issue or a white issue; diversity is something that everyone should be concerned about. Because when we’re representing only one side and one set of ideals and one set of thinking, whether it be in comedy or politics, nothing is going to change. And as a country, when we don’t change, it doesn’t make us stronger, it just makes us the people who don’t know how to grow in a world that’s becoming increasingly more diverse by the day.

TC: It definitely is great that this has opened a dialogue about the hegemony of late-night TV, but what happens after that? I’m so tired of talking about stuff, and opening dialogues about things and starting conversations about stuff that never lead anywhere. Talking is cool, but making some actual change is cooler.

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