LOS ANGELES – Last year, as a late-night TV shake-up ended with yet another chorus line of white male hosts, Joan Rivers decried the lack of women in any of the coveted jobs as “beyond frustrating.”
Days after the death of the only woman to host a late-night network show, the status quo was reaffirmed as CBS on Monday anointed Craig Ferguson’s successor: James Corden, a popular British performer, but one largely unknown to American viewers.
Kathy Griffin, who lost a close friend and mentor when Rivers died at 81, was disappointed but unsurprised by the decision. She has good reason: nearly three decades after Rivers’ brief run with her talk show on Fox, the late-night network landscape remains entirely male.
“I was interested in the Ferguson spot long before it was announced because I had a feeling things might shift,” said a candid Griffin. “My joke phrase is, ‘I can start Monday.’ ”
The response of one executive to her query: “They’re not considering females at this time,” she recounted.
“You realize that’s illegal to say in a business meeting?” was Griffin’s comeback.
When she told by another industry exec that the absence of female hosts was “embarrassing” and that women who represent half the population should hold half of such jobs, he had a ready answer: “Well, you have ‘The Talk.’ ”
That show, of course, is in daytime and has four co-hosts, not one powerful female comedian owning the nighttime stage.
The effect, even for a resilient professional like Griffin, is dispiriting.
“I walk into the (meeting) room thinking, ‘I'll give it a shot.’ I leave the room thinking, ‘I never had a chance,’ ” she said.
While the rest of TV catches up to diversity, with fictional portrayals daring to imagine women as U.S. presidents and mirror the reality of an African-American leader, networks simply are unwilling to roll the dice on either a female or minority in the lofty position of late-night host.
Rivers’ brief tenure on the fledgling Fox network nearly 30 years ago remains a lonely emblem. The network cited low viewership for the cancellation and she blamed a business clash, but whatever happened, it was one chance and out for her and the rest of her gender.
Imagine if Conan O'Brien’s NBC experience quashed the deal for white guys.
Cable, meanwhile, has inched forward with BET’s Mo'Nique and E!’s Chelsea Handler (both shows are now ended), and the upcoming Comedy Central program with black comedian and writer Larry Wilmore.
To make it in the big leagues, a performer needs the unwavering support of power brokers including producers, agents and network executives, Griffin said, pointing to “Saturday Night Live” founder-guru Lorne Michaels’ grooming of Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers for NBC late-night jobs.
One especially damaging industry argument, made privately, is that women want to get their pre-bedtime monologue jokes from a man, while female hosts such as Ellen DeGeneres and Queen Latifah are welcome in daytime.
In fact, the audience for Handler’s “Chelsey Lately” was about 65 percent female, more than any other late-night show.
It’s the age of audiences, not their gender, that should worry networks. The cold reality is that younger viewers are doing their viewing elsewhere, including YouTube and edgier cable shows. The median age of viewers for the three 11:30 p.m. Eastern shows is just shy of 56 and steadily rising.
Maybe women can lend a hand. There clearly are contenders for the work.
Griffin, for one. She’s earned two Emmy Awards (for Bravo’s “Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List”) and this year joined the small band of female winners of a Grammy Award for best comedy album (“Calm Down Gurrl”). She’s an adroit comedian and savvy enough to fit her edgy comedy into a broadcast mold.
Other names are bandied about, such as Aisha Tyler, but to no avail.
Griffin worries, reasonably, that the ship has sailed for another generation of women. Most late-night hosts are new and on the young side, such as 39-year-old Jimmy Fallon. And based on the track records of Johnny Carson, Jay Leno and David Letterman, turnover is rare.
Indeed, the math looks bleak when the 27 years since Rivers’ show ended are added to perhaps a couple decades more.
“We could be looking at 40 or 50 years until a woman is hosting a network late-night talker,” Griffin said. “Here’s the deal: We’re (screwed).”