Latenight’s backstage diversity fights onstage adversity

Women's Impact Report 2012

Latenight has been dominated by men since the dawn of the genre in the 1950s, and now, in the second decade of a new century not much has changed.

With the exception of Chelsea Handler, all the latenight talkfests are hosted by men. Behind the camera, although they’re still fairly sparse, women often occupy top-tier positions, such as Jill Leiderman, who is exec producer of “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” Vikki Ernst, who produces “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” and Debbie Vickers, a non-writing exec producer on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.”

All this begs the question: Why aren’t there more women in front of the cameras?

Handler’s show has been on E! since 2007, and the net intends to air weekly talker, “Love You, Mean It With Whitney Cummings” this fall, but it’s a lesser-watched, lower-profile slot these women have fallen into.

Don’t expect Handler to make waves for women, though. She says the gender divide on her show is “pretty much 50/50” then adds there may not be more women hosting latenight shows because, well, they’re women.

“The nature of stand-up comedy, which leads to a latenight show, isn’t necessarily a path women aspire to,” she says. “You spend years on the road and you have to pay more for your gas and hotel than you make earning money that night. It’s really a male gig.”

She does note that it might be changing: “You’re starting to see more women coming to this side of things, now that there are more women being successful at (stand-up).”

Daytime remains a largely safe haven for female-led talkers, which makes sense, says Donna Halper, media analyst and associate professor in communications at Lesley U.

She notes that the softer approach of programming in the daylight hours has always been female territory, all the way back to radio days. The later, edgier hours are considered male territory. “It sounds awful in 2012, but in daytime, we’re comfortable having a woman host those shows. Nighttime, not so much,” she says.

E! is heading up the vanguard of change, though president Suzanne Kolb says that wasn’t the intention originally. She believes other networks should consider women.

“I don’t want to think that the industry is afraid to put a woman in that time period,” she says. “But it’s about finding the right people, and finding female talent that appeals to both women and men — that can be difficult.”

And, as Kolb notes, it’s not as though slots for the big shows open all that frequently. “The question right now is, are these shows actively going for female hosts, or are just no slots opening up?”

Still, at some point, someone will retire from a network latenight show. With E! and NBC now sisters under Comcast’s banner, could Handler be a natural successor? She doesn’t think so: “I’m not a network girl,” she says. “I don’t want to have to answer to standards and practices and toe the line.”

But maybe in five or 10 years, new faces will take over latenight. Will one be a woman?

Madeleine Smithberg co-created “The Daily Show” in 1996 and stayed on board as an executive producer until 2007. More recently she has been hiring for BET’s “Don’t Sleep,” a latenight talker with T.J. Holmes. She has her fingers crossed for more women in the biz but her hopes modulated.

“I would hope there would be some room,” she says. “It’s long, long overdue. Here I was in a position where I could have fixed it, but it’s so systemic that it goes beyond the channel or the medium.

“Women just got the chance to play golf at Augusta — how could we possibly expect to host a talkshow?”