This week Stephen Colbert joined a legacy of funny men helming late night television dating back nearly sixty years. I loved The Colbert Report and already miss Colbert's self-righteous ridiculousness and arrogant indignation that outfitted his Colbert Report character, making him one of our most important and necessary media and political critics. Watching Colbert charm the studio audience and win over a potentially stuffy guest like Jeb Bush (who smartly went along with Colbert's ribbing) I had two thoughts: This is going to be a great show. We're going to have a woman in the oval office before we have one behind the late night desk.
There's no disputing that the men of late night are immensely talented comics and hosts. They work punishing hours in a savage industry that might favor you for more than thirty years or might send you through the grinder in six months. No one can realistically dispute that Jimmy Fallon, Seth Myers, Jimmy Kimmel, Conan O'Brien and now Stephen Colbert have not earned their gigs. At the same time, no one has offered up a sound reason against having any number of talented, skilled, hard-working funny females in the late night studio. Maybe producers fear a female comic will host for three months, get pregnant, and then decide to move to Amish country to raise her child off the grid. Maybe television executives worry that a woman host will cry whenever a guest talks about their dog or she won't be able to control herself around celebrities like Mark Wahlberg and Ansel Elgort because EMOTIONS. Maybe America's resistance to seeing funny women share network late night stages is more deeply seeded than we know. (Spoiler alert: It's that one, it's the third thing).
"Women's Sense of Humor Is Steadily Developing!" "Have Women A Sense of Humor?," and "Found: A Feminine Sense of Humor." These are not headlines lifted from The Onion, but ones that ran in newspapers across the country in the early 1900s. Speculating about the existence of a woman's sense of humor was pretty much a national past time around the turn of the century. A large faction of the country was not convinced that women and humor could be a thing, and they spent an inordinate amount of time debating this in news and magazine articles. Apparently the invention of the radio and the airplane did not provide enough water cooler conversation for Americans. Some argued that women's brains were too small and delicate to understand jokes. Some felt it was more about shielding women from the coarseness of comedy. As moral centers of the family and the nation, women were not ethically equipped to handle the one about the Rabbi, the chicken, and the farmer's daughter. Others believed that women simply had no practical use for comedy, their sense of humor shed like some kind of useless exoskeleton. "Oh really?" said many of the nation's women. "You stay home with eight kids and a husband who's out every night and we'll see who really needs that sense of humor."
What the debate over the woman and humor "question" in the 1900s makes clear is that it had less to do with biology and everything to do with a cultural anxiety about what it means for women to have access to the power that comes with comedy. A woman who gets the joke is only a short chuckle away from joking about you (husband, brother, father, boss, dominant-male-figure-of-choice). This apprehension has shifted over the century, reappearing in the misogynistic attitudes and practices that made it difficult for women to have the same success as men in stand-up comedy in the 1970s and 1980s and making itself felt when a female ensemble film like Bridesmaids is a revelation and an anomaly instead of simply another strong comedy. But it has never quite left us.
Speaking recently with The Hollywood Reporter, comedian Ellie Kemper (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) remarked: "The circles in which we run, there's an understanding that there's no difference in what women can bring to comedy. But there's a huge portion of the country that this is still news to. There are a lot of men who fly business class still rooted in the idea that women aren't funny."
A lady ruling late night. Can you imagine? Our small brains are up to the challenge, are yours?