John Oliver and Seth Meyers: Two White Dudes on Diversity in Late Night

The XX Factor
What Women Really Think
Aug. 12 2014 3:05 PM

John Oliver and Seth Meyers on Diversity in Late-Night Writers’ Rooms

450477042-john-oliver-speaks-at-the-museum-of-the-moving-image
John Oliver did not know the race or gender of the writers who applied for jobs on his show.

Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images

Could things be getting slightly better on the diversity front when it comes to the coveted spots in late-night comedy writers’ rooms? Seth Meyers, who has been hosting Late Night With Seth Meyers since February, was interviewed on Monday by BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti, and the question of getting people who aren't white men into comedy writing rooms came up. "So I heard that you made a real effort to hire a diverse writing staff," Peretti said toward the end of the interview. Meyers has 12 writers, including three women and at least three people of color, one being Amber Ruffin, who is reportedly the first black woman to write for late night network comedy.

Amanda Marcotte Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a Brooklyn-based writer and DoubleX contributor. She also writes regularly for the Daily Beast, AlterNet, and USA Today. Follow her on Twitter.

"Well, we have a diverse writing staff," Meyers said, but went on to suggest that it wasn't really a major effort to get there. "I feel it's easier and easier to have a diverse writing staff, because the field has diversified. When you look at packs, when you go to see shows, there are more diverse candidates. We have a diverse staff, but we didn't hire them because of that. We hired them because they made us laugh."

Advertisement

That answer demonstrates how hard a line it is to walk when talking about diversity in hiring, when all too many people believe that if you have to make an extra effort to hire women and people of color, it's because they need an "extra" boost when compared with white male candidates. It's hard to fault Meyers for wanting to shut that presumption down. Plus, he is right that one of the major reasons that women and people of color are underrepresented in comedy writing is the pipeline problem: Too many people who aren't white men were shut out of improv and standup at a young age, meaning that they had fewer opportunities to develop into the kind of people who get hired to write for late-night TV. If the pipeline is getting better, then it should follow that you start seeing more diversity in writers’ rooms. 

While Meyers offers valuable perspective on the question, his answer did overlook the fact that unconscious discrimination continues to play a role when it comes to hiring, with plenty of studies showing that people still tend to favor men and white people, even if they believe themselves to be free of these kinds of prejudices.

Because of this, another late-night host, John Oliver, tried an innovative strategy when hiring writers for his HBO show Last Week Tonight, according to IndieWire. On top of hiring former David Letterman writer Nell Scovell to actively seek out women and encourage them to apply, Oliver and his staff used blind submissions in both rounds of hiring. "Oliver chose to hide the writers' names from himself, he says, to fight against his own prejudices," Ingoo Kang of IndieWire writes. The result was a staff with two women out of nine writers. 

That two out of nine, or three out of 12 is a sign of improvement reflects how lopsided the field still is. As Kang writes:

Last Week Tonight ended up with two female staffers, Juli Weiner and Jill Twiss, out of a total of nine writers. That 22% figure doesn't sound like much, but it's certainly an improvement over other shows. Of the three 2014 Emmy-nominated late-night talk shows, Jon Stewart boasts a 19% female writing staff (3 of 16 writers), Jimmy Fallon a 10% female writing staff (2 of 20 writers), and Stephen Colbert a paltry 5% (only 1 of his 19 writers is a woman).

[Correction, Aug. 13, 2014: Daily Show writer Daniel Radosh informs us that there are actually four female writers out of 14 on Jon Stewart's staff, which is 29 percent of its writing staff.]

Meyers and Oliver are definitely showing a way forward. Meyers is right that a diverse pipeline can help improve diversity in the writers’ rooms of television, which means standup clubs and improv troupes need to give more opportunities to young comics. And Oliver's experiment shows that the paucity of the pipeline still means that even blind hiring leads to a mostly male staff. That doesn't mean he was wrong to do what he could to minimize the effect of unconscious bias, of course. But it also suggests that this problem can't be fixed solely from the top down and that going after a diverse staff rather than making yourself colorblind might be a more effective route.

So, now we are on our way toward more diversity in the late-night writers’ room. Next step: Diversity in the host’s chair. A girl can dream. 

TODAY IN SLATE

The World

The Budget Disaster that Sabotaged the WHO’s Response to Ebola

How Movies Like Contagion and Outbreak Distort Our Response to Real Epidemics

PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer

Everything You Should Know About Today’s Eclipse

An Unscientific Ranking of Really, Really Old German Beers

Education

Welcome to 13th Grade!

Some high schools are offering a fifth year. That’s a great idea.

Culturebox

The Actual World

“Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.

Want Kids to Delay Sex? Let Planned Parenthood Teach Them Sex Ed.

Can Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu Pull Off One More Louisiana Miracle?

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 22 2014 9:42 PM Landslide Landrieu Can the Louisiana Democrat use the powers of incumbency to save herself one more time?
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 23 2014 11:51 AM It Seems No One Is Rich or Happy: I Looked
  Life
The Eye
Oct. 23 2014 12:48 PM Track Your Bag and Charge Your Phone With This Carry-On Smart Suitcase
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 23 2014 11:33 AM Watch Little Princesses Curse for the Feminist Cause
  Slate Plus
Working
Oct. 23 2014 11:28 AM Slate’s Working Podcast: Episode 2 Transcript Read what David Plotz asked Dr. Meri Kolbrener about her workday.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 23 2014 12:01 PM Who Is Constantine, and Should You Watch His New Show?
  Technology
Technology
Oct. 23 2014 11:45 AM The United States of Reddit  How social media is redrawing our borders. 
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 23 2014 7:30 AM Our Solar System and Galaxy … Seen by an Astronaut
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.