The unbearable whiteness of late night

With the end of Jon Stewart’s run on The Daily Show came an intense round of speculation over his replacement — the programme had risen, unexpectedly, to become not just an entertaining show for those up in the evenings, but an actual source of news and commentary. People trusted Stewart more than conventional journalists and the show had a tremendous effect on politics and pop culture, as illustrated by the dismay over the thought that he wouldn’t be on air commenting about the state of the 2016 circus — er, election.

Stewart had a lot of things in common with other hosts, including charisma, a great sense of humour and timing, and the ability to connect with audiences. He was also white and male, putting him in line with the majority of people keeping us company late at night, despite the fact that the United State isn’t entirely white and male — especially in the case of those who work late shifts, come home, and flick on the television to relax and catch up with the news and events of the day. People like Stewart made and make for powerful commentators with an entertaining zest for television, but they don’t necessarily represent the experiences and views of all their fans.

It’s something that Stewart slowly pushed to change in response to criticism over the course of his tenure, hiring more women and people of colour in the writing room and for his staff of correspondents. But I was still struck by the makeup of his correspondents during his final show, when viewers had a chance to get a retrospective and farewell — and most of the people they saw were white and male.

This takes place in the context of the feud between Jezebel and Stewart’s writing staff, in which the site accused the show of sexism and underrepresentation and the women of the show fired back with an open letter discussing their role on the show. Notably, The Daily Show also hired several people of colour as correspondents when the whiteness of the staff was observed, some with tongue-in-cheek titles like ‘Chief Black Correspondent,’ but one Black writer, Wyatt Cenac, discussed his discomfort while working in the writing room during an interview about the twilight days of Jon Stewart’s era. He returned for the finale in an awkward, stilted field report in which he and Stewart exchanged stiff lines suggestive of reconciliation, but then again, he was put in an awkward position — did he pointedly want to be one of the few correspondents who didn’t make it back for the celebration of Stewart’s tenure?

The show, in other words, had its problems when it comes to representation, and possibly when it came to the treatment of writers and correspondents behind the scenes, even if Stewart and producers did respond to criticism and try to improve in response to critique. It’s certainly reasonable to assume that Stewart and the gang operated with strong intentions, wanting to build a great show that appealed to a wide audience, and also wanting to produce television that spoke to both race and gender issues in contemporary US politics, which it frequently did. The fact that Stewart was often the one making this commentary could at times be cause for celebration — a white man standing in solidarity with marginalised communities — but also at times frustrating, as I was curious about the voices of people within these communities.

It’s unfair to pick on The Daily Show, though, complete with its new host Trevor Noah — and it’s worth ruminating on the fact that the Black comedian was attacked almost immediately after his appointment on the basis of old Tweets which may well have reflected outdated views on what’s amusing. I couldn’t help but notice the internet’s dedication to combing through ancient Tweets — given the extremely frustrating structure of Twitter, going back that far in the timeline of someone who Tweets even casually requires considerable effort — to find something to pin on Noah.

Late night television in the US in general is a sea of white, male faces. I certainly wasn’t alone in hoping that The Daily Show would pick a female head to take the reins, and certainly a number of women of colour make great comedy and could have been fantastic hosts on the show. Appointing one would also have put Comedy Central ahead of the pack, positioning itself as a progressive network and challenging others to do the same. The fact that it chose not to is striking — though of course we don’t know what happened behind the scenes and whether women of colour were considered for or offered the job and chose to turn it down. Certainly there would be social and personal risks for a woman of colour stepping up to the position of a major media figure, and the blowback might not be worth it for many.

Black faces are slowly creeping into late night, though not quickly enough for my taste, and other people of colour are largely absent from the screen. Women remain notably relegated to backstage or support positions — they are there for bits and special spots, but not as anchors of late night shows. And many of the comedians on late night are hilarious and wonderful, with their own colourful characters and great shows that I genuinely enjoy watching. But I still would like to see other faces, other experiences, other cultures represented on late night, reflecting the fact that this is the United States, and it is not a uniform country.

What would late night look like with a Latina on one network, a Chinese comedienne on another? How would our perception of television, humour, and each other change with a more striking array of diversity on screen?

Image: Late Night Traffic in Beijing, Jens Schott Knudsen, Flickr