The Many White Men of Late Night

Slate's Culture Blog
March 7 2013 1:24 PM

The Many White Men of Late Night

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Howard Stern, who is reportedly being considered as a replacement for Jimmy Fallon on NBC.

Photo by Erika Goldring/Getty Images.

The recent rumors that Jimmy Fallon would replace Jay Leno on The Tonight Show sooner rather than later have given way to another bit of gossip: Howard Stern could be Fallon’s replacement when the time comes. This has prompted TV observers to ask a number of questions, including, “Could NBC possibly control Stern?” and “Is he too old for the gig?” But I’ve got another one: Does late night TV really need another white guy?

Few American institutions are as dominated by white men as the late night talk show. (The only one that immediately comes to mind is the priesthood leadership of the Mormon church.) Take a look at the list of 15 current late night talk shows on Wikipedia, and you’ll find 13 men and two women, all white. That same page’s list of former late night talk shows includes only men, and just one nonwhite host, George Lopez. The list is hardly exhaustive—Arsenio Hall, once and future late night host, is missing, as is W. Kamau Bell—but even a more definitive catalog would be similarly male and pale. Why is that?

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Well, it’s a fairly small group, obviously, and many late night hosts held their jobs when TV was more monochromatic and when women were fighting a sexist tide in much of the stand-up world (where several talk show hosts have gotten their start). But it’s 2013, so that hardly seems like enough explanation. As with evening news, networks have been remarkably conservative when it comes to putting a single person behind a desk to anchor a show. And over the last few decades there simply hasn’t been a steady march toward greater diversity. When The Arsenio Hall Show premiered on Fox in 1989, it added some color to what was then a very white late night lineup. When Hall returns to late night this fall, nearly a quarter of a century later, the landscape won’t look all that different. This is particularly surprising given how many more options there are now, thanks to the expansion of cable.

Some of the white men of late night are so good at their jobs that even losing them for a summer is disappointing. Jimmy Fallon has been terrific at 12:35, and I’ll be very happy if he replaces Jay Leno. Nobody else in the world can do what Stephen Colbert does (which is, of course, a send-up of a particular breed of white American male). But it’s long past time for network programmers to widen their net when thinking about the next potential late night star.

Howard Stern? Come on. You can do better.

David Haglund is a senior editor at Slate. He runs Brow Beat, Slate's culture blog.

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