Women Find Late-Night TV Is a Male-Dominated World

By Elizabeth Kolbert 1993, New York Times News Service | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), August 22, 1993 | Go to article overview

Women Find Late-Night TV Is a Male-Dominated World


Elizabeth Kolbert 1993, New York Times News Service, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


IT'S a male, male, male, male world. Later this month, late-night comedy will undergo perhaps its biggest shake-up since Ed McMahon first hollered "Here's Johnny" back in 1962. On Aug. 30, David Letterman will make his much-discussed, intensely analyzed and heavily promoted move to CBS. Two weeks later, Conan O'Brien, the nation's most famous "virtually unknown" comic, will replace him on NBC, following Jay Leno.

In between, on Sept. 7, Fox will introduce a new late-night show starring Chevy Chase. Bumped from several stations, Arsenio Hall will try to hold his own in syndication. When all the commotion is over, there will be three new late-night shows, two new late-night hosts and plenty of rattling of Nielsen ratings. But through it all, one thing will remain constant: Nobody on a late-night network talk show will be a woman.

The hosts, of course, are only the most visible part of the complex machine that makes late-night work. They deliver the lines that whole teams of comedy writers spend all day composing. Here, too, behind the scenes, men dominate.

The "Tonight" show, which has about 15 writers, just hired the first female writer in its 39-year history. The number of women who have written for "Late Night With David Letterman" during the 11 years it has been on the air can be counted on one hand, give or take a few digits. (This is the case even though Letterman's head writer for several years was his then-companion, Merrill Markoe.) And out of nine writers recently hired for "The Chevy Chase Show," only one is a woman.

To be sure, women do occupy several high-level production positions. Both Leno's and Hall's top producers are women. But when it comes to the creative side, women just aren't a factor.

Like Roger Clinton jokes, theories explaining the male hold on late-night talk shows abound. Some say that as long as the hosts are male, the writers will be, too. Others say that the type of comedy one tends to hear after 11 o'clock - broad, topical and fast-paced - is just not the type women tend to write. And still others say that it all goes back to childhood.

Late-night hosts are usually the kind "who have a comment for everything, who treat the guest in a snotty way," said Robert J. Thompson, a communications professor at Syracuse University who studies television.

When one leaves the late-night time slot, the sex of comedy changes abruptly. In prime time, women are, if not the dominant force, then major players. Between them, the writer-producers Diane English and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason have probably developed as many successful sitcoms as any two men working in Hollywood today. …

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