When he left his short-lived hosting gig at “The Tonight Show” after a public squabble with NBC and Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien — toting a multimillion dollar severance package and a new contract on a cable network – recounted the details of his dashed childhood dreams of anchoring the late-night behemoth in interviews and a comedy tour. Just one sad/humorous comment: “When I was a little boy, I remember watching ‘The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson’ and thinking, ‘Some day I’m going to host that show for seven months.’”
Another denizen of after-hours funny, Craig Ferguson of CBS’ “The Late Late Show” got it right, though, when he dodged taking sides and said it made him uncomfortable getting worked up over “a bunch of middle-aged white guys arguing over who gets X million dollars.”
This week, when Jimmy Kimmel’s ABC show moved up to the 11:35 p.m. time slot, in direct competition with Leno on NBC and David Letterman on CBS, the landscape changed, but not very much. Network late night is still the province of white guys.
Young minorities and girls of every color who dream of the White House see a President Obama succeed after two hard-fought races and Hillary Clinton leading in polls for a 2016 run. But unlike the young Conan, when it comes to anchoring a late-night network show, they can keep dreaming.
Notice I say network. There have been a few syndicated blips. Arsenio Hall hosted a popular syndicated show two decades ago — distinguished by unexpected musical guests including Bill Clinton on the sax – and he’s planning a comeback this fall. George Lopez came and went in a late-night blink of an eye. When Joan Rivers fronted her own show after a stint as permanent guest host for king of late night Carson, it didn’t last and he never spoke to her again. “I think he really felt because I was a woman that I just was his,” she has said.
You have Chelsea Handler hanging out on cable, where W. Kamau Bell and Key & Peele have been renewed for their topical takes on subjects that include politics and race. But even on the crowded cable landscape, where Jon Stewart (in a show co-created by women), Stephen Colbert and Bill Maher rule, anyone who sticks out as “different from” is hard to find.
Within their own narrow demographic, the white guys of network can flex their comedic personalities, from the earnest Leno to the edgy Kimmel. The weary Letterman, considered a comedy genius by younger acolytes, can survive a sex scandal with staffers (didn’t Bill Clinton get away with something like that, too) and America still turns to him at bedtime.
The funny lady America returns to every day is Ellen DeGeneres, who gets to be very, very nice. She dances. She’s also off stage before the sun goes down.
Maybe late-night TV is more like politics than it would seem. Women and minorities are subject to microscopic scrutiny and insult based on the superficial or irrelevant. (Pretty much everything Rush Limbaugh says about Hillary Clinton and Obama, for example.) They are not allowed any imperfections or mistakes. They often get no respect.
However, the political bench is promising. A record number of women and minorities were sworn in to the 113th Congress, mostly Democrats, but also Republican Sen. Tim Scott from South Carolina, an African American. Of the 100 U.S. senators, 20 are women.
Is it just force of habit, reluctance on the part of the white guys who make the decisions to try something different or the desire to keep at least one thing the same in an America that’s changing? There is a black man in the White House, a woman, perhaps, on deck — and Jimmy Fallon as late-night host in waiting.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3