A dude and a desk: Why women really don’t get to host late-night TV

Salon talks to comedians, producers and execs about how women-helmed shows have been passed over and left out

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published June 9, 2023 6:00AM (EDT)

A late-night TV studio set with the lights off (Illustration by Ilana Lidagoster/Salon)
A late-night TV studio set with the lights off (Illustration by Ilana Lidagoster/Salon)

A monologue that alchemizes headlines into punchlines. A desk, because that's friendlier than a throne. Recurring bits and sketches that lead into cheerful interviews with celebrities. Evoking the term "late-night" brings to mind these images, along with anodyne jokes meant to send us to bed with a smile. The specifics change with each network, but only slightly, along with the figure around which everything revolves: the man hosting the show.

And for nearly 70 years, it's been assumed that the audience takes that as a given. Late-night means hanging out with a funny man, as opposed to an equally capable woman.

There's no debating whether a woman can do the job. Many women have proven that they can. So why haven't they been publicly considered for any of the prominent network late-night flagship shows until recently? Closely considering the answer to that question reveals more than the obvious conclusion. It's not merely that women have been shut out of these influential positions both casually and intentionally, but that this has been their space from the beginning of the genre.

Occasionally, albeit only within the last few years, we've seen signs of change. When NBC announced in March 2019 that Canadian YouTube star Lilly Singh would inherit the late-night slot left open by Carson Daly's departure, the news produced lots of fanfare.

Every few years, networks green-light late-night talk variety shows created for female hosts, only to yank them—either just as they're finding their audience or before that can happen. 

NBC's publicity team touted Singh's status as "first" – as in, the first South Asian woman to host a modern late-night show on the network, and the only female host on a major broadcast network among the current generation of personalities.

Headlines also trumpeted her sexual identity. "I remember all the articles because it looks practically identical: bisexual woman of color gets late night show! I almost legally changed my name to Bisexual Woman of Color because that's what people called me so often," she jokes in a 2022 TED Talk where she recalled her adventures in late-night. "And you know, as strange as that sentiment was I thought, 'Okay, the silver lining is that we'll finally get a different perspective in late night.' A little bit of melanin, a dash of queer, a different take on things — let's do this." 

Lilly SinghLilly Singh hosted "A Little Late With Lilly Singh" on NBC, which ended in 2021. (Corey Nickols/Getty Images for IMDb)

Two years after she recorded the final episode of "A Little Late With Lilly Singh," she told Salon that she remains grateful for the experience. But she's also a realist in terms of what she could have achieved, given the scarce resources apportioned to her short-lived show. That was a real obstacle, along with its 1:37 a.m. slot and a production schedule that sounds punishing even by the notoriously hard-driving standards of late-night.

"When you have that time slot and you're trying to introduce an audience to someone new, that takes time, and it takes money…You can't just be like, 'I'm going to kind of test this out at this hour,'" she said. "You're trying to introduce a massive audience to someone new? That takes an investment. And so I really encourage people that if you can't make that investment, you've got to rethink that."

Singh's show aired from 2019 until June 2021, which approximates the lifespan of talk-variety shows helmed by women. Of the latest batch, a BET late-night series hosted by "A Black Lady Sketch Show" creator Robin Thede, "The Rundown," debuted in 2017 and lasted for two seasons, as did Chelsea Handler's Netflix talk show, which bowed in 2016. Sarah Silverman's "I Love You, America," launched in 2017 and got a single 21-episode season on Hulu. Netflix streamed 10 episodes of "The Break with Michelle Wolf" in 2018 before pulling the plug.

Around the same time that Singh's show ceased production, YouTube and Instagram Live star Ziwe Fumudoh made her Showtime debut. "Ziwe," a blend of skits and hilariously uncomfortable interviews, also ended in 2022.

Placing their common experience into a larger view of late-night exposes a pattern the TV industry has been stubbornly reluctant to break. When a legacy late-night show's chair comes open and is inevitably filled by a man, that newcomer is typically given the time to find his audience and mold the show to his vision. (Conan O'Brien's months-long residency with "The Tonight Show" in 2009 is a memorable exception.)

We don't know — yet — whether a woman would receive the same level of grace. What we've seen is that every few years, networks green-light late-night talk variety shows created for female hosts, only to yank them—either just as they're finding their audience or before that can happen. The seven-season lifespan of "Full Frontal with Samantha Bee," which TBS canceled in 2022, is an outlier in terms of its longevity. But that's a quarter of the time "The Late Late Show" franchise existed, cycling through four male hosts over 28 years before wrapping in April with James Corden's exit. Its ending is an industry bellwether.

When asked to explain that pattern, former top Viacom executive Doug Herzog, who was the president of Comedy Central in 1995 and launched "The Daily Show," spoke plainly. "It's just legacy bulls**t. It's one of those things," he told Salon. "I think, just the public, to a certain degree, and the people who were making decisions, like me, sort of thought, 'We need a guy to sit there. This needs a dude.' I think it was sort of subconscious discrimination, for lack of a better word."

But how much is that bias, conscious or otherwise, rooted in gendered assumptions at the executive level extending back to the mid-20th century, and how much do personal histories play a role? How much do other factors, societal or material, impact the success or failure of talk-variety shows hosted by women relative to their male counterparts?

Moreover, is a hosting gig at a legacy late-night show in 2023 the plum post it used to be? This is somewhat of a rhetorical question. "The Daily Show" job remains unfilled after Trevor Noah's farewell in December 2022. Since January 2023, the production has cycled celebrity guest hosts through the chair he formerly occupied.

Even in a broader field of opportunities for talented, funny women, including movie roles, series production and Netflix specials, the job's value shouldn't be entirely underestimated. "I think anytime you get an opportunity to reinvent something, you have to say yes to that opportunity," Bee told Salon in a phone interview, adding, "and it is going to take a reinvention for sure. People are just not watching these shows in the same way. "

Silverman, who did a stint as a celebrity guest host on "The Daily Show," agrees with that second observation. Silverman finds it odd that a woman has yet to be tapped for a legacy hosting job like this one, she told Salon earlier this week in a Zoom conversation. "But also, as someone who loves, who grew up on late night TV and late night talk shows, and also really came into existence in comedy through being a guest on there, I'm really appreciative. But as just, objectively, it's beyond a dying form. I mean, is that OK to say?" 

Sarah SilvermanHulu's "I Love You, America with Sarah Silverman" was canceled after 21 episodes. (Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

As late-night talk lays fallow, with all the major shows having gone dark on May 2 in solidarity with the Writers' Guild of America's strike, it's worth examining these questions — especially since "The Daily Show" may become the first series to break late-night's proverbial glass ceiling. (Salon's unionized employees are represented by the WGA East).

Among the 10 stars who have taken part in the show's rotation of celebrity guest hosts, four are women. Three of them – Handler, Silverman and Wanda Sykes – have experience helming talk shows. Handler has hosted two. Wolf was set to participate in the second round before the strike was declared. Also in the running are "Daily Show" correspondents Desi Lydic, who hosted the show during the week of April 24, 2023, and Dulce Sloan, who spent one night in the chair before the WGA strike began.

If one of these women or another candidate who has yet to take her turn is chosen, it will have taken Comedy Central only 27 years to break that barrier. 

Yes, we're being sarcastic. Somewhat. It's not as if these jobs come open often. Historically, legacy late-night shows have changed hosts once every few decades. That made the multi-show, multi-network turnover that occurred between February 2014 and September 2015 extraordinary.

All the major legacy late-night network shows underwent a changing of the guard precipitated by the retirement of three legends: Jon Stewart, whose 16-year tenure on "The Daily Show" shaped what much of the genre looks like now, David Letterman, who launched the "Late Show" franchise on CBS and "Late Night" on NBC, and "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno, each of whom spent 22 years as the face of their shows. Before Leno, Johnny Carson hosted "The Tonight Show" for 30 years. Craig Ferguson also relinquished his "Late Late Show" gig in 2014, a job he held for nearly 10 years.

Again, from that perspective, the lengthy run for Bee's "Full Frontal" is impressive, even when accounting for the fact that her show was weekly. However, unlike her male counterparts, who tend to retain their job security until they decide it's time to leave, Bee wasn't afforded that choice.

"I definitely hoped to have longer," Bee said. "... I've come to expect the unexpected, for sure. I was hoping that if they were going to wind us down, because they hadn't picked us up for another full season, I thought we would sort of wind down over the fall. I had hoped for that — again, having no knowledge. No one told me that. But I've worked in this business a really long time and seen a lot of s**t so, you know. That's what I thought."

Meanwhile, Jimmy Kimmel is contractually obligated to remain as the titular host of "Jimmy Kimmel Live!", which debuted in 2003, through 2025. Late-night's other Jimmy, Fallon, is signed on to "The Tonight Show" through 2026. Stephen Colbert's deal to continue hosting "The Late Show" ends in August, but there's little reason to expect he won't renew. 

"The people who were making decisions, like me, sort of thought, 'We need a guy to sit there. This needs a dude.'"

The longstanding absence of women in key front-facing late-night positions is rooted in several factors, including modes of thinking that may be as outdated as the format is quickly becoming. That's strange given the fact that, as Herzog put it, "amazing women are littered throughout the background of all these shows."

Herzog hired Madeleine Smithberg and Lizz Winstead to co-create "The Daily Show." Its current showrunner is Jen Flanz. Merrill Markoe was instrumental in forging the groundbreaking structure of "Late Night with David Letterman," including creating "Stupid Pet Tricks" and its oddball field segments. Debbie Vickers was the executive producer of "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" for two decades.

Amber Ruffin, a featured performer on "Late Night with Seth Meyers" and the host of a talk-variety show on Peacock, is the first Black woman to write for a late-night network talk show.

Thede's work on "The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore" made her the first Black woman to serve as a head writer on a late-night talk-variety program. 

Sam Jay, who hosted the weekly show "Pause with Sam Jay" on HBO until it was canceled after two seasons, is an alumnus of the "Saturday Night Live" writing staff. Colbert's "Late Show" and "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" employ women as co-head writers. (One, Molly McNearney, is also Kimmel's wife.) "The Tonight Show" employed three women as head writers between 2018 and 2021.

But this wasn't always the case.

In 2009, TV writer and journalist Nell Scovell began her Vanity Fair story essay "Letterman and Me" with a statistic few were probably thinking about at that time, since many were still reeling over Letterman's on-air admission that he had sexual relationships with women on his staff.

"At this moment, there are more females serving on the United States Supreme Court than there are writing for 'Late Show with David Letterman,' 'The Jay Leno Show' and 'The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien' combined," Scovell wrote. "Out of the 50 or so comedy writers working on these programs, exactly zero are women. It would be funny if it weren't true."

When Colbert's "Late Show" debuted in 2015, the gender balance hadn't improved by very much. As The Atlantic pointed out, his writing staff at launch consisted of 17 men and two women, all of them white.

Defining Late Night

The common concept of late-night encompasses three different primary formats, with the two more contemporary iterations heavily influencing how the oldest and most venerated, "The Tonight Show," looks today.

That vision of an avuncular male host interviewing stars from behind a desk is nearly as old as NBC itself, dating back to 1954. It went on to spawn "Late Night," launched by Letterman in 1982. Eleven years later, and coinciding with Carson's retirement, Letterman launched CBS's first successful late-night entry of the modern era, "Late Show." The industry guilds are likely to still be on strike when it hits its 30th anniversary in August.

Since Leno left in 2014, both "The Tonight Show" and "Late Night" have been produced by Lorne Michaels, creator of the second-most durable American late-night comedy format, the sketch-driven "Saturday Night Live." (Michaels has served as the executive producer of "Late Night" since O'Brien became its host in 1993.) 

"There's an assumption historically that somehow, universally, everybody loves the lived experience of men."

"Weekend Update" was one of the main inspirations for "The Daily Show" in its original guise. The other was ESPN's "SportsCenter," from which Smithberg, Winstead and Herzog poached the show's first host Craig Kilborn.

When I asked Herzog to illuminate the thinking that went into selecting Kilborn for the job as opposed to considering a woman, he said, "Honestly I think we were always thinking about a guy. If I'm being honest, I don't know why. But I think that's, you know, what we were conditioned to think up until then." 

He added, "Like a lot else that we've discovered over the last couple of years that we've been missing out on, that was one of them."

Herzog also points out that in Comedy Central's early days, the audience was predominantly male. "By the way, we really built that over time too," he adds. (He also recalls that one of the first shows to get "big, big ratings" for the channel was its U.S. run of "Absolutely Fabulous," a British sitcom featuring an ensemble of women and created by two women, its star Jennifer Saunders and her comedy partner Dawn French.)

Kilborn looked the part of a smug network anchor around whom the producers built their first version of a news satire revolving around actual headlines, few of which had any real stakes. But after Kilborn made an obscene joke about Winstead in a 1997 profile, he was suspended for a week. Winstead quit. Kilborn left a year after that. In March 1999 he took over for Tom Snyder as the second host of CBS' "The Late Late Show," making way for Jon Stewart's formative era.

Stewart's "Daily Show" begat the version of late-night that holds sway over much of TV today: headline-driven segments sugaring information and politics with comedy. Under his stewardship, according to Pew Research Center polling, the show became a preferred source for younger viewers who had grown weary of the evening news, especially in the wake of 9/11. When many TV news outlets were accepting administration and corporate spin with little questioning or qualification, Stewart, Colbert, Bee and other correspondents became truth-brokers as opposed to gentle, politically impartial comedians in the mold of Leno.

In the lead-up and aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, that served them and other hosts wonderfully. Colbert's "Late Show" didn't hit its stride until he was encouraged to return to the pointed satire he cultivated while hosting "The Colbert Report," a spoof of "The O'Reilly Factor." Oliver's "Last Week Tonight" became comedy's "Frontline." Meyers' "Late Show" is an extension of his experience hosting "Weekend Update," but it's fair to say that its harder edge was sharpened on the "Daily Show" whetstone. 

Other direct and indirect spinoffs from "The Daily Show" may not have enjoyed those other series' duration, but they made their mark. Hasan Minhaj's "Patriot Act" lasted for six seasons on Netflix before ending in 2020. The Stewart era also yielded "The Nightly Show," Wyatt Cenac's public affairs-style HBO series "Problem Areas" …and "Full Frontal." 

"There's an assumption historically that somehow, universally, everybody loves the lived experience of men," Winstead told Salon. "But nobody can universally love the lived experience of women who they live with every day. That has been the assumption, always. Right?"

Samantha Bee"Full Frontal with Samantha Bee" ran on TBS for seven seasons and ended in 2022. (Rick Kern/Getty Images)

Bee's time with "Full Frontal" is illuminative in unraveling the knotted history of women in late-night, in that it explains what it takes for a woman to succeed in a field that's stacked against her. In short, it requires promotional resources and institutional support. 

Jo Miller, who left her longtime producer position on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" to serve as the head writer, showrunner and executive producer of the first two seasons of "Full Frontal," recalls that at the series' launch, it had both.

"TBS was also kind of rebranding itself. It was, we could say, new, and 'Full Frontal' was going to be its little prestige show," she said. "So they threw a lot of money at marketing because nobody knew TBS, and nobody knew Samantha Bee, according to their research ... And they moved those numbers [with] big marketing campaigns on both coasts, until people knew TBS and knew Samantha Bee. ... They stayed and [TBS] could charge more for advertising." 

"Their support never wavered creatively. But it did wane financially."

TBS also allowed "Full Frontal" time to find its voice and its niche. And the cable network's patience paid off. Following a premiere that drew 2.16 million viewers, episodes settled into an average weekly viewership of around 600,000 or so before the 2016 election heated up. Bee's show scored its best ratings averages at the outset of the Trump presidency when it was regularly topping a million viewers per episode. 

"It's a small data set, but when we were doing 'Full Frontal,' because it was a female voice, female interest and female topics, a lot of it, we had huge female viewership," Miller said. "And I think our most loyal viewers were college women, which was great." 

"They gave us tons of support at the beginning of the show, at a level that was really unprecedented for them," Bee said of TBS. "It was really quite remarkable...Their support never wavered creatively. But it did wane financially. And it's just really difficult to find new and ingenious ways to penetrate all the noise out there with bigger and broader things. Just trying to make your own press is very difficult."

Out of all her "Daily Show" colleagues, Bee and her team were the only satirists consistently covering issues related to reproductive rights, voting rights, structural discrimination and labor issues. And as she looks back, she's not surprised that her show, which managed to survive AT&T's acquisition of Time Warner in 2018, became an early casualty of the Warner Bros. Discovery merger.

"Our last show was the day before they overturned Roe v. Wade," Bee recalls. "The timing was wild. But again, it's a great and stark reminder that there aren't too many shows that get to be on TV just because the message is important, or now's the right time to say these things. Every once in a while in this business, you get reminded that, oh, it's actually a business... And if you are working for a parent company who's trying to make wallpaper for teenage boys, perhaps your show is not really fulfilling that need."

What's airing in "Full Frontal"'s former TBS time slot(s) these days? Baseball, wrestling or sitcom reruns.

"Five years ago, we didn't understand how important it would be to have those shows on the air now," Winstead says. "And that's, I think, the biggest shame...They were calling out everything that's happening right now in the world, and called, you know, alarmist. 'The minute you have an opportunity, you're talking about all this s**t that seems divisive.' And it's like, It ain't divisive. It's just real. It's the reality that nobody wants to deal with. And they were dealing with it." (Winstead should know. She's now the founder and chief creative officer of Abortion Access Front, where she advocates for reproductive rights and abortion as health care.)

That returns us to Singh's tenure as an NBC late-night host. The network may have enthusiastically called attention to all the firsts she represented, but she notes that the show's budget wasn't based on its historic nature. It was based on the overnight slot she inherited from "Last Call with Carson Daly."  

"When you shoot 96 episodes in three months, you kind of lose that magic."

The first season followed the typical structure of late-night, with Singh cracking jokes at the top of each episode before sitting down with celebrity guests. 

"Now I think we can all agree that the beauty and magic of late-night is its timeliness," Singh says to her TED Talk audience. "You know that no matter what's happening in the world, you can turn on late-night television and hear all about it. When you shoot 96 episodes in three months, you kind of lose that magic. I was the only show talking about hooking up partying, cuddling, traveling in front of a live audience during a literal global pandemic."

On top of that were the notes she received from the network. Don't be so loud. Don't be so big. Don't be so angry. Smile more. "And my all-time favorite: 'Don't over-index on the South Asian stuff,'" she said.

That three-month, 96-episode production schedule breaks down to two to three episodes a day versus the network standard of one a day. And, as she tells her TED Talk audience, she was also given half the number of writers that her male counterparts in early time slots have.  

"I don't think that any new late-night show gets the resources that it needs at the very beginning," said Miller, who recalled that at "Full Frontal," they were only allowed to hire more staff once the show was up and running and proved to be successful. "Studio executives and producers who want to put a late-night show in their lineup are inevitably people who do not have experience producing late-night shows," she added. "So they look at it and they're like, 'Oh, it's a desk and a dude, generally. How much can it cost? Hire four writers."

This is not a joke set-up, although it may read like one: How many writers does it take to put together a quality late-night show? There's no single or set answer. A 2022 Emmy website listing for "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert" lists 24 writers under its nomination for Outstanding Writing For A Variety Series. The 2022 nomination that "The Daily Show with Trevor Noah" earned in the same category honors 19 writers.

The most recent Emmy writing nod we can find for "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" is for 2013 and lists 14 names. The 2014 Emmy nomination for writing earned by "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon" includes 20 staffers. "Late Night with Seth Meyers" had 18 writers on staff at the time of its 2020 Emmy nomination. "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver" is a weekly series, and the website listing for its 2022 Emmy win for Outstanding Writing For A Variety Series includes 16 names. Miller says she had six writers for "Full Frontal," which was a weekly show too. 

"A Little Late," Singh tells her TED audience, also had six.

"It wasn't the best feeling to go on stage and do a monologue that I didn't believe in myself. But we weren't afforded that privilege, just because that's the late-night machine," Singh told Salon. "It's about, 'We got to get it done, we got to get it on air.' It's a daily kind of thing."

Nevertheless, in her farewell episode, she expressed gratitude for granting exposure to voices that deserve to be on late-night.

"In our 80 episodes of season two, in over 21 of them we had someone make their late-night debut. ... That's over a quarter of all of our guests!" she exclaims. Singh goes on to say, "Another thing all of these people have in common is that they don't look like the traditional late-night guests we're used to seeing. And I don't think it's a coincidence that the person who invited them on the show also doesn't look like a traditional late-night host." 

Now that public figures can interact directly with fans on social media, especially those all-important youngest consumers in their fanbase, the game has changed.

Right now, networks may be rethinking late-night as a whole. That includes Comedy Central, the only long-running late-night show whose producers are known to have approached at least two women before tapping Noah to replace Stewart in 2015: "Saturday Night Live" alumnus Amy Poehler and Amy Schumer.

Its celebrity guest host rotation has proven to be a ratings success, a rare case of viewership increasing where ratings for other shows have stagnated. "The Daily Show" saw its ratings climb 13% year over year during the first quarter of 2023, with quarterly social views increasing by 16% compared to the same period in 2022. 

Ronny Chieng, Desi Lydic and Roy Wood Jr during The Daily Show"Daily Show" correspondents Ronny Chieng, Desi Lydic and Roy Wood Jr. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images for Comedy Central)

Breaking it down by the top hosts' popularity, according to The Wrap, Silverman's week earned the third-highest ratings among the 10 guests, averaging 613,000 total viewers over her four nights in the chair. (She only became aware of this when I mentioned it to her during our interview.)

John Leguizamo came in second with a viewership average of 633,000 during his week.

The first-place finisher may give pause to programming executives keen to appeal to a younger, more diverse viewership. That would be 72-year-old Al Franken, former "SNL" writer and performer turned author and senator, who averaged 792,000 total viewers over his four nights. 

"You are saddled and tethered to that job. So if you have multifaceted aspirations, a lot of your s**t's gonna fall to the wayside. That's something I think a lot of women are thinking about."

Like we've said, late-night was designed to be an old guy's game. That may be one of the reasons the genre is in decline.

The weeknight topical format personified by the network shows, with the show-opening monologue, recurring bits and celebrity interviews, are all patterned after Carson's "Tonight Show," an era that began in 1962. Now that public figures can interact directly with fans on social media, especially those all-important youngest consumers in their fanbase, the game has changed.

"That monologue where everybody would do their take on the day? You're getting it all day, in real-time," Herzog said. "And the idea of sitting there and talking about celebrities for six minutes? You know what Kanye ate for breakfast, for lunch, and for dinner, and when he went to the bathroom. So by the time he gets on any talk show, what's to know?"

That's also true of comics, for whom Twitter has long been the place to test punchlines, build followings and publicize their shows and podcasts. Comedians don't break out on "The Tonight Show" anymore. CBS' replacement for "The Late Late Show with James Corden" affirms this: It's reviving "@midnight," a social media-themed game show that featured comedian contestants in its original format.

Hiring Singh was NBC's effort to address this erosion — she was a successful internet star with tens of millions of followers. Unfortunately, the network didn't adequately capitalize on the creativity that made her an internet star until its second pandemic-produced season. She conducted interviews over Zoom, created skits and provided her take on headlines in a style reminiscent of her YouTube content. But burying her show on a graveyard shift ensured that her takes never made topical news round-ups that were published the next day.

Burying her show on a graveyard shift ensured that her takes never made topical news round-ups that were published the next day.

Audiences are also consuming shows on their time, and that makes one wonder what's to be gained by tying this format to the post-local news time slot. After appearing on an episode of "The Daily Show" hosted by Silverman, Winstead recalls, "I must have gotten 200 emails from people. 150 of them said, 'I watched you the next day.'"

"... So you can't say, 'Well, we're catering to men because it's on at night, when men watch' and all the other s**t they said forever," she added. "People aren't even watching the shows in their totality. They're watching it clipped out, they're watching it on their own time."

Case in point: Silverman spoke to Salon to promote her latest HBO stand-up special "Someone You Love," something she couldn't do on late-night because of the WGA strike. "But the truth is, what we see of late-night shows are clips from monologues, mostly online," she said, "and not really, like, celebrity interviews unless something goes wildly awry." 

That may also be contributing to the lower advertising spends for late-night in recent years. According to statistics supplied by advertising intelligence firm Vivvix, the six major late-night talk shows took in just under $393.4 million in advertising revenue in 2021. In 2022 that number fell to $342.4 million, a decline of nearly 13 percent. 

"The Daily Show" saw its ad revenues rise between 2020 when it pulled a mere $12.7 million, and 2021 when it raked in $35 million. 2022 brought even better news, with the show netting just shy of $40 million in ad revenue, per Vivvix. But that feat is singular.

Confirming a report in Los Angeles Magazine that Corden's "Late Late Show" was losing money, its ad revenue dipped from around $43 million in 2020 to just under $27 million in 2021, pulling in around $24 million in 2022, per Vivvix data. That made it a slightly stronger performer than "Late Night with Seth Meyers," which brought in $39 million in 2020, nearly $23 million in 2021, and $20 million in 2022.

But the drop may have seemed steeper for "The Late Late Show," reported to have cost around $60 million annually to produce. Colbert's "Late Show" is the highest ad revenue earner in late-night right now, and has been since 2018, according to Vivvix. And yet, "The Late Show"'s 2022 ad revenue take of almost $118 million is still down 58% from its 2016 height of $278.3 million. That year advertising earnings peaked for all late-night shows; they've fallen by more than 60% since then.

This explain why, for about a year, NBCUniversal has reportedly toyed with handing the 10 p.m. time slot back to local stations and starting "The Tonight Show" at 10:30 p.m. on both coasts. What that means for the future of "Late Night " is unclear. As indicated earlier in this story, no streaming service has found enough success with the topical talk variety format to support a show on a long-term basis. Still, NBC might give it a try on Peacock.

Women invented late-night hosting

The irksome part about all of this is that the late-night genre owes its existence to a woman almost entirely forgotten by pop culture: Faye Emerson.  

Maureen Mauk, Ph.D., discovered Emerson as she was trying to pin down a precedent for Jimmy Kimmel's series of 2017 monologues defending the Affordable Care Act against an assault by two Republican senators. In taking up a banner on a policy issue instead of tossing off jokes from the sidelines, the usually apolitical host was engaging in something uncommon.

Mauk, a former Standards and Practices executive at Fox, says she spoke with Mary Huelsbeck, the archivist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (where Mauk completed her doctoral program) out of a desire to "prove that this is not the first time someone had spoken out and used their platform as a late-night television talk show host to do good political activation." (Mauk's husband, producer Hayden Mauk, used to work with Jimmy Kimmel.) 

The more fervently that "The Faye Emerson Show" dug into serious topics, the more newspaper reporters commented on her looks.

Show me Johnny Carson, she urged. Show me Steve Allen. Instead, Huelsbeck dropped Emerson's name, sending Mauk on a multi-year research journey through Kinescope footage in desperate need of digitizing, along with seven cartons of documents – "everything from her frequent flyer cards, to her death certificate and all her handwritten notes and…just tons and tons of correspondence and newspaper clippings and images," Mauk said.

Emerson was a film star who transitioned to TV in its earliest days to capitalize on the opportunities afforded by the nascent medium. She began hosting "The Faye Emerson Show" on CBS starting on October 24, 1949, partly following a hunch, Mauk says, that television would be a viable new platform and technology, and that viewers would be willing to stay up later to watch topically relevant programming. 

Emerson's 15-minute episodes were a freewheeling mixture of conversations encompassing everything from entertainment to current events, social issues and international policy. Following an initial launch in East Coast markets, and in time slots bumping up to 11 p.m., the show expanded nationwide in 1950. 

faye emerson david wayne and audrey hepburnActress Faye Emerson (R) with David Wayne and Audrey Hepburn at the Tony Awards in 1954. (Getty Images / Bettmann )But the more fervently that "The Faye Emerson Show" dug into serious topics, the more newspaper reporters commented on her looks. One described her decolletage as "putting the V in TV." This reductive coverage affected how some viewed her. In one episode, Emerson reads a letter from a man named Frank Havens who takes issue with an interview she conducted with a foreign correspondent who expressed views concerning a military operation that the viewer didn't agree with.

"Then he winds up with what I wanted to talk about," the host says with a chuckle. "He said, 'Better stick to the plunging necklines, Faye. Politics is not for little girls.'"

"Now, Mr. Havens," Emerson continues, "I think you have a perfect right to say what you think and to tell me about it. But I don't think that's true altogether. I think politics is everybody's business. And I'm not a very little girl either. So if you don't mind every now and then, at least I'm gonna do a little thinking about it."

In an industry where success leads to replication, Emerson's cultivation of late-night should have expanded opportunities for other women in similar time slots … in theory, and a perfect world. Her show ran around the same time that fellow actress Betty Furness hosted a variety series for ABC called "Penthouse Party" that aired at 10 p.m. on Fridays in 1950 before moving to an earlier prime-time slot in 1951. 

But Mauk believes the gendering of late-night TV wasn't based on any solid data proving that it was mainly men who were watching Emerson. TV was still an emerging medium, without extensive market penetration. AC Nielsen began measuring TV ratings in the 1950-1951 season but only began monitoring TV audience demographics using its Nielsen Station Index Service in 1953, well after Emerson's late-night show ended. In fact, from what we can glean from sources such as Hugh Malcolm Beville Jr.'s 1988 book "Audience Ratings," there was little to no standard demographics measurement for national TV in the early 1950s. 

The shift to male hosts, Mauk concludes from studying Emerson's career, "was more about masculine domination, a feeling that [late night] is bigger than they thought. 'So now we'll do it.'"  

Backing up this suspicion is a recording of an interview Emerson's son Scoop conducted with her close friend Garry Moore, who hosted game shows such as "I've Got a Secret" and "To Tell the Truth": "In the beginning, women were doing everything. And then I guess men realized that this was bigger than they thought it would be," Moore said. "Then it thinned out. Women got aced out, you know, when men found out it was a good thing."

Once network heads recognized late night's potential to rake in advertising revenue, it became the territory of Steve Allen, the first host of "The Tonight Show" when it premiered in 1954 (who also appeared as a guest on Emerson's show), then Jack Paar, and eventually, Carson. 

"The Faye Emerson Show" ended in June 1951, after which Emerson hosted other series, including "Wonderful Town, U.S.A." which created a version of a U.S. city on CBS' New York-based sound stages each week and showcased talent and celebrities from each featured burg. That made it very expensive to produce. 

But while Furness shifted to daytime television, where she would eventually be joined by others, including Dinah Shore, Emerson did not. She made many guest appearances on game shows, debate shows, and was even part of the first color broadcast on CBS in 1951 alongside Ed Sullivan and other stars, Mauk explained.

Emerson left the United States in 1963 and resettled in Majorca, Spain. 

"I think she honestly got tired of fighting the fight where every pound gain or phrase uttered on camera or off came under media and network scrutiny, and she had had this opportunity to get out," Mauk said. So she did. In a letter she sent to her son where she explains that she wasn't quite ready to return to the US, Emerson wrote, "I am free."

"And she underlined it," Mauk added. 

Emerson died in Spain in March 1983, a few months before Carson elevated another woman, Joan Rivers, to the role of permanent guest host of "The Tonight Show."

And it is Rivers' legend that we most closely associate with women in comedy, and in late night.

"Joan is the only one you can point to that that even came close to one of those legacy chairs."

Rivers' TV career was launched in 1965 when Carson gave her the last five minutes of a "Tonight Show" episode. That shot was a fluke, according to what Rivers says in the 2010 documentary "A Piece of Work." A comic who appeared with Bill Cosby bombed, so he suggested the producers use her, saying she couldn't possibly be worse. They put Rivers on the next night.

"After nine years of working bungalow colonies, and strip joints, and working in Greenwich Village in clubs where you passed the hat, and the hat wouldn't come back, on the air Carson said to me, 'You're gonna be a star,'" Rivers said in the film. "It was magical between the two of us. Absolutely magical."

"Joan Rivers was a creature of late-night TV," said author and critic Shawn Levy, who explores Rivers' career in his 2022 book, "In On the Joke: The Original Queens of Stand-Up Comedy." "She became an overnight star. And among the things that fell to her was she had a daytime talk show in the late 1960s called 'That Show.'" 

Joan Rivers hosting "That Show" in 1969. (Getty Images)

Her first guest was Carson, demonstrating the bond the two formed as entertainers. But most viewers became familiar with Rivers via "The Tonight Show."

"Everyone loved her," Miller said. "She had her own voice but it didn't jangle against Johnny's. It was a nice compliment…and there was a lot of talk that she would be the natural replacement" when Carson retired which, at that time, probably seemed imminent. After all, Allen only hosted "Tonight" from 1954 to 1957. Paar took the role until 1962. That meant Carson had been holding the job for 21 years.

So why not Rivers? "Somebody at the network decided that you know, that vagina of hers might be a problem, I guess, and kept it male," cracked Miller.

That's not too far from what happened. 

"What Ziwe is doing now is like what Letterman was doing back in the '80s... She's taking comedy to these new heights."

When Rupert Murdoch decided to start a new network called Fox in 1985, he and 20th Century Fox Chairman and CEO Barry Diller thought the best way to make a big splash was to launch a late-night talk show opposite "The Tonight Show."  

"They offered it to Joan and she said no, she would never leave Johnny," Levy explained. "But somebody in NBC told her that 'Johnny's contract is being renewed for two years, yours is only being renewed for one.' And she felt that this was their way of weaning her from her connection to the show."  

So Rivers accepted Murdoch's offer, and on October 9, 1986, "The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers" premiered on Fox.

It was a disaster from "go."

"It was a real shambles and the reviews were awful," Levy said. "And Joan and her manager and husband Edgar [Rosenberg] were sort of fired with a tremendous golden parachute, but great, great shame and disgrace." 

Within a year of the show's debut Rosenberg committed suicide.

There were other lasting ramifications to Rivers' leap, too. The first person she called when she decided to go to Fox was Johnny Carson. "He slammed the phone down on me. I called again, [he] slammed it down again, and never spoke to me again. Ever," she says in the documentary. "I think he was furious. He felt betrayed...I was now a competitor. He literally had me blacklisted. And to this day I have not been on NBC late night ever."

"Joan is the only one you can point to that that even came close to one of those legacy chairs," Silverman observed. "And because she had the nerve to do what was best for her career, she was blackballed for decades. I mean, wow — that's the male ego at work, because it was Carson angry. He wasn't angry at you know, Leno ... But he was angry at her. Like she should turn down an opportunity at something he knew she was elite at, you know?  And then that Leno carried that on was odd."

Both Leno and O'Brien refused to have Rivers on "The Tonight Show," reportedly out of respect for Carson, who died in 2005. Fallon broke that ban and welcomed Rivers back to "The Tonight Show" in February 2014 for his first episode. He brought her back a month later for an interview. Rivers died six months later, in September 2014.

Miller sees the longtime "Tonight Show" host's eventual official retirement in 1992 as "the inflection point, where it could have gone ungendered, that late night was for funny people," she said. But between Rivers' publicized failure to launch her nighttime talk show, NBC's selection of Leno as Carson's inheritor, and Letterman's successful move to CBS as Leno's competition, "it sort of became cemented as a certain kind of clean-cut white dude was the host," she said.

One also wonders how much of Rivers' and Carson's history permeated the sensibilities of producers and executives in charge of hiring talent for late-night programming over the years that followed. 

Women may have the last laugh after being shuffled out of late-night to daytime.

Thirteen years later Fox tried again with "The Wanda Sykes Show," which premiered in November 2009 as a replacement for the long-running sketch comedy MADtv and "Talkshow with Spike Feresten," which aired for three seasons. Sykes' show received one. 

BET also tried its hand with late-night in 2009 with "The Mo'Nique Show," which lasted 251 episodes and two seasons.

Despite all this, women may have the last laugh after being shuffled out of late-night to daytime. "The View," which is the top rated daytime talk show on TV and whose star co-hosts are comedians Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar, averaged around 2.3 million viewers per episode in season-to-date ratings provided to Salon by Nielsen. (The date range includes episodes that aired between September 5, 2022 and June 4, 2023.) Colbert's "Late Show" live plus same day audience is the only late-night program that comes close to that, attracting slightly more than 2.1 million viewers on average. The next closest, "Jimmy Kimmel Live!," drew an average audience of just under 1.5 million during that same timeframe.

Then consider the daily virality of clips from "The View." By the time the West Coast wakes up, whatever is said around that table is already trending on Twitter. Regardless of how scintillating a late-night host's monologue may have been the night before, unless they've courted controversy, their jokes are unlikely to show up in many social media feeds. It's recurring segments like "Mean Tweets" from "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" or "Carpool Karaoke" from "The Late Late Show" that have the broadest social reach.

Oliver's weekly deep-dives on "Last Week Tonight" are something of an exception, along with clips from episodes of "The Problem with Jon Stewart." Some of that has to do with each performer's star power, but much more of their success can be attributed to their deeper dives into relevant issues that the typical news cycle tends to skim. That model could end up informing "The Daily Show" moving forward.

Scovell sees an even brighter possibility in Ziwe, another social media sensation who transitioned into television. "I think what Ziwe is doing now is like what Letterman was doing back in the '80s," Scovell told Salon. "She's taking comedy to these new heights, building on the crumbling structure of late-night TV." 

ZiweZiwe Fumudoh's "Ziwe" ran on Showtime and ended in 2022. (Showtime)

"Ziwe" also plugged into something that's been missing in network TV since Letterman revitalized the format: absurdity. The version of "Late Night" that predates Lorne Michaels' era capitalized on the assumption that its hosts and writers could get away with the kind of ridiculousness that would be nearly impossible to sell in early timeslots. Their audience also skewed younger.

Scovell believes Ziwe could do the same for a new generation. "She can sing and act. She's beautiful and fashionable. I would love for her to have the resources to let her clever commentary on our culture fly." 

Winstead's dream would be for Frangela, aka comedians Frances Callier and Angela V. Shelton, to co-host "The Daily Show." "They are an incredible comedy duo who are intrinsically involved in the news," she said, suggesting that re-launching with co-hosts is a terrific way to revamp the format. 

Returning that initial proposal of the opportunity offered by this "The Daily Show" transition, one wonders if this job is something a woman would want anymore. Some of the celebrity hosts who visited "The Daily Show" did so mainly to promote their other work. Silverman told Salon that she did it for fun.

"It was really exciting. I thought, 'Oh, I would love this,'" Silverman told Salon. "But I really don't think I could do that for a kind of indefinite amount of time. I don't have the stamina of, I think, most people.  ...  And I really love doing odd jobs. I love acting. I love podcasts, I love stand up. I love you know, all these different things I get to do."

Handler, who served as a guest host on "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" in 2022, expressed her desire for the job to The Daily Beast before her audition week, during which she generated a clip in defense of being childless by choice that triggered conservatives. (Salon reached out to Handler for comment but did not receive a reply.) 

Having said all that, "It's a s**t ton of work that you are saddled daily," Winstead said. "I can speak for "The Daily Show": you are saddled and tethered to that job. So if you have multifaceted aspirations, a lot of your s**t's gonna fall to the wayside. That's something I think a lot of women are thinking about when they watch that slot happen."

Silverman's conclusion validates that theory. "I mean, no one offered me the job," she said. "...But thinking about it, I don't think I could do it, even though I think I would love it. You know, if I were younger, maybe, or on a different trajectory. But I like doing other things more."

Winstead and others also expressed concern that the person who inherits "The Daily Show" hosting chair may not be given room to find their audience. And Miller wonders how much control the eventual host will have over their content at such a crucial transition. She recalls Colbert joking about the former head of CBS, Les Moonves, being in his audience during the first days of his tenure.  

"If you're coming into a legacy show, just the momentum of the institution will make it hard to make the show your own," Miller said. "It's like trying to turn an aircraft carrier."

She added, "They will need to allow the transition period for loss of audience adjustment, and the host making the show their own," Miller said. "And it takes time. It took time for Trevor. It takes time for everybody coming in. But if it's a woman, they'd better allow her the same grace that they would extend to a Trevor or anybody else or they're shooting their property in the foot. And themselves."

Singh wholeheartedly agrees. "You are trying to change a legacy thing with an audience that has been built in for such a long time. That takes time. So it's a big commitment, but it absolutely can and will happen and I have no doubt about it," she told Salon, adding, "And if that happens — I'm putting it out P.S.A. right now, should that happen, which definitely should — that woman can call me anytime to ask me anything about anything and I will do everything in my power to help. Because I think it's so necessary."

Robin Thede, Michelle Wolf, Wanda Sykes, Ziwe Fumudoh and NBC representatives for "The Tonight Show" and "Late Night" politely declined to participate in this story. Salon also reached out to Comedy Central, Amber Ruffin, Chelsea Handler and representatives for Mo'Nique and did not receive a response.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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