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A New Day in Late Night: Women Make Their Mark in Competitive Field

Robin Thede remembers everything about the afternoon last October when she taped the first episode of her BET late-night series “The Rundown With Robin Thede.”

Wearing a velvet-green suit and black pumps, she strode out onto the stage at CBS Broadcast Center on 57th Street in Manhattan with fierce determination to add the voice of an African-American woman to the late-night TV landscape.

“People kept asking me if I felt nervous or felt pressure,” Thede recalls. “I kept saying, ‘No, I’m ready.’ ”

As momentous as that first taping was for Thede, an equally important moment came months earlier at the “Rundown” production offices across the street from the stage, when her core team of writers and producers assembled for the first full day of work. Thede, a seasoned comedy scribe who was head writer for Comedy Central’s “The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore,” looked around at a staff largely composed of women and people of color. For a few minutes she was overcome with emotion.

Tina Fey Variety Power of Women NY Cover 2018
CREDIT: Brigitte Lacombe for Variety

“I told my staff on the first day, ‘A lot of you have been underestimated in your positions at your old jobs. That stops today,’ ” Thede says.

The diversity and strong show of women among the staffers of “The Rundown” is indicative of the sea change that has come to the late-night TV arena. The expansion in the number of shows in the genre over the past five years has opened the door to a broader array of perspectives in a field long dominated by white guys in suits on camera and white guys in sneakers behind the scenes.

The array of opportunities available to women working in New York, where the number of late-night shows has tripled in the past five years, has been pronounced, industry veterans say. Many women have made the transition from traditional TV news production posts, bringing editorial skills desperately needed as late-night programs grow ever more news driven.

“It’s a really exciting time to be in late night. We’re really moving the dial,” says Denise Rehrig, senior supervising producer of CBS’ “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.” “There are so many shows, and they’re making an impact. We have a big opportunity every day to make people laugh about important issues.”

Women are also leveraging their experience as stand-up comics and in sketch comedy, training that has long been a stepping-stone to late-night writing and producing jobs for men.

Amber Ruffin made history in 2014 when she became the first African-American woman hired as a writer for a late-night show on broadcast TV when she was recruited for NBC’s “Late Night With Seth Meyers.” After paying her dues in sketch comedy, Ruffin crossed Meyers’ radar when she auditioned as a performer for “Saturday Night Live.” Not long afterward, when Meyers was transitioning from “SNL” to hosting “Late Night,” to her surprise she got a call. She has since become a regular on-air presence on “Late Night” in addition to her work as a writer.

“I always loved late-night comedy, but I never in a million years imagined myself writing for a show like this,” Ruffin says. “I feel so lucky.”

Late-night veterans say there also seems to be a shift away from traditional gender roles in the mind-set of millennials and post-millennials who are seeking entry-level work in TV. Young women with the drive to take on the grind of being an intern or a production assistant often don’t seem to feel as hemmed in by gender stereotypes as previous generations. Industry insiders expressed concern that the spate of #MeToo revelations regarding sexual harassment and misconduct in the entertainment industry could discourage up-and-comers from pursuing careers in TV.

Robin Thede sets the late-night comedy tone on BET with “The Rundown.”
Courtesy of BET

Jennifer Flanz, an executive producer of “The Daily Show With Trevor Noah,” has been working for “Daily Show” for more than 20 years, since the Craig Kilborn era. “Daily Show” was created by two women — Lizz Winstead and Madeleine Smithberg — but both exited shortly after Flanz arrived.

“There were many, many times when we’d be in a conference room reading scripts and I’d realize I was the only woman in the room,” Flanz says.

Years ago when Flanz oversaw the show’s internship program, more than 90% of the résumés came from white males. “We had to search out female candidates. We’d call around and try to get names,” Flanz says. “We don’t have to do that anymore. Late night is appealing to more people. It’s a great place for women to work now.”

More than a dozen women interviewed for this story described working environments that were welcoming. But there’s no doubt that a heavily male-dominated culture can create challenges for women in day-to-day work and in advancement through the ranks. The solution cited by many women in late night is simple: greater gender, racial and ethnic diversity across the board.

“There has been a noticeable increase in women on staffs. At ‘The Daily Show’ when I started, there was one female writer. Now if you look around that room it’s dramatically different,” says Kristen Everman, an alum of several late-night series who is now co-executive producer of “The Rundown.”

In New York, the late-night TV shows have long fostered a tight-knit community of writers and producers, despite the heated competition among programs. Today, within that world is a growing sense of sisterhood.

“There’s a camaraderie and a bond,” says Tanya Michnevich Bracco, supervising producer and the executive in charge of production for “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.” Bracco worked on sitcoms and in entertainment news before she joined Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report” in 2005. She has seen the tide turn. Even on the other side of the country, the head writer for ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live” is Molly McNearney — a woman who led the writers room for five years before she married Kimmel.

“There are a lot of wonderful strong women working in late night. It feels like there just isn’t resistance,” Bracco says. “It used to be that as a woman you had to be stronger and work harder than everyone else. Now you can be yourself. You don’t have to fit a certain mold.”

Bracco says the growth in the number of shows and the variety of formats has also made a difference. Weekly offerings such as TBS’ “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee,” HBO’s “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” and “The Rundown” have raised the stakes in a good way for the traditional nightly programs. “It used to be there were two [late-night] shows in New York. Now there are, like, eight, and we have Michelle Wolf coming soon” with a show for Netflix, Bracco notes.

Emily Gertler came to “Late Show” as supervising producer and lead talent booker after 10 years at ABC’s “Good Morning America.” Like Bracco, she is one of several female department heads on the program. In her view, a team that includes a broad mix of personalities and backgrounds makes for a better final product.

“You don’t hear people saying, ‘We need a woman to weigh in on this story.’ That’s every story.”
Kim Gamble

“It’s all about us bringing different points of view and relationships to the massive ever-changing endeavor where the goal is to make the best television possible,” Gertler says. “Everybody has to bring something to the table.”

Kim Gamble, co-executive producer on Comedy Central’s “The Opposition With Jordan Klepper,” got her start on the cabler’s “Tough Crowd With Colin Quinn,” which predated “The Colbert Report” in the post-“Daily Show” time slot from 2002-4. Attitudes and behaviors have definitely changed over the years, Gamble says, particularly in just the past few years.

“It’s so baked in now that there isn’t a real [gender] divide,” Gamble says. “You don’t hear people saying, ‘We need a woman to weigh in on this story.’ That’s every story. Having a variety of different voices in those [writers] rooms has changed the way we approach stories and the seriousness with which they get discussed.”

On “The Rundown,” which draws a largely young black female audience, the diversity behind the scenes has a big influence on how the show is produced and what makes it on air.

“So much of the way I exist in the world is about making sure people understand me. I have to spend 30% of my energy saying, ‘You know how when black people do this …,’ ” says Lauren Ashley Smith, head writer for “The Rundown,” who is African-American and identifies as queer. “I don’t mean to say that every black person or every queer person thinks the same way, but I don’t have to expend that 30% of energy explaining why it could be funny.”

It’s no coincidence that the growing ranks of women and people of color working in late night have coincided with the increased focus on many shows on politics, social movements and other thorny issues.

Late-night programs have become an arbiter of the public mood in the wake of national tragedies and on controversial or divisive subjects such as healthcare policy and gun control — and of course, the Trump presidency.

Jasmine Pierce had been on the writing staff of NBC’s “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” for less than six weeks when the room was asked to develop material for Hillary Clinton’s visit to the show on Oct. 4. Pierce was recruited by “The Tonight Show” after producers noticed her work with the Upright Citizens Brigade and her writing for the humor website Reductress.

From brainstorming sessions, Pierce and other writers hit on the idea of doing a special edition of the show’s running “Thank You Notes” segment. But rather than Fallon interacting with the guest, the segment would feature heartfelt expressions of appreciation for Clinton delivered by seven female “Tonight Show” writers and guest Miley Cyrus.

“I don’t even know how to put into words how special that moment was,” Pierce says. (Pierce’s note to Clinton: “Call me day or night and I will be there with a gallon of ice cream and two spoons to tell you, ‘Girl, you are so much better than him.’”) Pierce says that Fallon understood the weight of the moment for the writers by taking himself out of the frame entirely.

“I’m very lucky,” Pierce says. “It’s a good time to be on a show like this, especially with all the women’s issues coming forward. We work with a lot of men on our staff who have really encouraged us. It’s obviously a weird political time, but socially there’s been a lot of growth.”

Ruffin of “Late Night” has been wildly surprised at the show’s willingness to broach such touchy subjects as race or embrace humor rooted in the African-American experience.

Ruffin made a mark on “Late Night” in the days after the 2016 presidential election with her “Join the Fun” segment. It sprang from her real-life interactions with her “Late Night” co-workers. When many on the staff were shell-shocked by Trump’s upset victory, Ruffin used humor to inform her co-workers that the feeling of dismay and disbelief was nothing new for African-Americans. In the segment, she invited anti-Trump viewers to “join the fun.”

“I didn’t think people would be receptive to things that were very, very black,” Ruffin says. “I can basically talk about things [on the show] that I’m passionate about — that really shocked me.”

Hillary Clinton reacts to Jasmine Pierce’s thank-you letter in a writer-hosted segment on “The Tonight Show.”
Courtesy of NBC

BET’s “Rundown” looks at issues through Thede’s lens in what producers call “doc pieces” — short documentary segments that spotlight a topic. They’re a mix of funny and serious with an effort to enlighten. In March, a six-and-a-half-minute segment titled “Hidden Fighters” examined the role that African-American women have played in battling sexual harassment.

“We get to touch on things other shows wouldn’t be able to tackle,” says Brittany Scott Smith, co-executive producer of “The Rundown.” “We did a doc piece about how black women have led the charge on fighting sexual harassment for the last 100 years. I don’t know many other shows that could do something about 100 years of sexual harassment in a comedic tone. That would be a very strange thing for Jimmy Fallon to do.”

Thede more or less willed “The Rundown” into existence through her own gumption. Two weeks after “Nightly Show” was canceled in August 2016, she partnered with the scrappy New York-based production company Jax Media to produce an independently financed pilot for a weekly show that would blend her comedic riffs on headlines with comedic sketches, musical performances and documentary-style segments. With a little help from her mentor, Chris Rock, she got the pilot produced and then quickly sold it to BET.

When she got her shot, Thede was “very intentional” about staffing the show with a rainbow mix of fresh voices, women, people of color and those representing LGBTQ communities. Her four top lieutenants are female. Head writer Smith had never worked in late night, but she had stand-up experience, and her writing samples shone, according to Thede.

“The Rundown With Robin Thede” braintrust (clockwise from left): Brittany Scott Smith, Jo Honig, Kristen Everman, Lauren Ashley Smith, and Robin Thede. Photo credit: Sophy Holland

As the team worked night and day in preparation for the launch of “The Rundown” last fall, Thede was struck by the difference in the working environment compared with other series and specials she’d worked on.

“I’ve been referred to as the ‘girl writer.’ I’ve been in rooms where they only speak to me if they want lines for one of the girl characters,” Thede recalls. “Being able to strip the thinly veiled air of sexism out of a job situation only makes you realize how much that latent hostility affected you on other jobs.”

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