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
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. …