The Diversity of Late Night Guests Isn’t Much Better Than the Diversity of Its Hosts

fallon-phoneboothIn February 2014, Jay Leno stepped down from The Tonight Show on NBC. Two months later, Letterman announced he would retire from CBS’s Late Show, and Craig Ferguson announced he would leave CBS’s The Late Late Show. The shuffle felt seismic and exciting — would we finally see some diversity behind a late night desk? The networks answered with a resounding “no.” Jimmy Fallon succeeded Jay Leno, passing Late Night on to Seth Meyers. Craig Ferguson handed the baton off to James Corden, and Letterman gave his seat to Colbert. A whole new crop… of white men.

Two weeks ago, Variety published a feature entitled “Why Late-Night Television is Better than Ever,” and the discussion about the lack of diversity re-surfaced. A proud, glossy photo showed ten male late night hosts — Colbert, Conan, Corden, Oliver, Wilmore, Maher, Fallon, Meyers, Fallon, and Noah — grinning in sleek, well-tailored suits, glasses of hard alcohol in hand. Twitter went berserk. The photo captured the homogeneity of our late night landscape so succinctly it almost seemed satirical. While the piece lamented the lack of female presence in late night, Samantha Bee — whose new show Full Frontal debuts on TBS in January — was excluded from the picture, while Trevor Noah, who had yet to begin hosting The Daily Show, smiled wide in the front row.

We’ve talked a lot about the dearth of female late night hosts, but we haven’t discussed the lack of female late night guests. I had never given much thought to the gender balance of late night guests until the first night of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. On his highly anticipated first episode, Colbert spoke to zero women. He introduced his bandleader, Jon Batiste, and Stay Human, Batiste’s six-member, all-male band. Colbert did a bit with Jimmy Fallon and a bit with network president Les Moonves. He brought out his first guest George Clooney, and his second guest Jeb Bush. Only at the very end of the show did three women (Brittany Howard, Susan Tedeschi, and Mavis Staples) join an all-star group of musicians to sing “Everyday People.” For a show that pointedly opened with the national anthem and ended with “Everyday People,” the lack of women seemed almost silly.

At its core, I think our cultural fixation with late night TV — when it’s done right — isn’t a bad thing. Late night hosts and producers would likely tell you that their shows strive to make us laugh and think about our national discourse — a noble cause. The shows ideally educate the audience about the news, an audience that may not be getting news from anywhere else. And with guest and performance bookings, late night celebrates what’s new, impressive, and noteworthy in our culture. So when a teenage girl tunes in to a late night show before bed and only sees men’s accomplishments being celebrated and discussed, it’s both misleading and discouraging. It’s tough to aim high when you don’t see people who look like you achieving their dreams.

So: Is the gender ratio on Colbert’s first episode the norm across late night? Sadly, it is. To find out, I aggregated the guests from the main, classically-formatted late night shows – Colbert, Conan, Corden, Fallon, Kimmel, and Meyers – from the month of September (the weeks of 9/7, 9/14, 9/21, and 9/28). For each show, I noted the:  

  • Number of total guests
  • Number of male guests, number of female guests
  • Episodes where they only had male guests
    • In the four weeks I examined, none of the shows had any episodes with only female guests. (There were many episodes with only male guests).
  • Episodes where the first guest of the night was a woman

Some things to note if you want to be picky about numbers:

  • Conan was on vacation the week of 9/7 so he only has three weeks’ worth of shows in the sample.
  • In the event that a show had a re-run I did not count those guests — I only considered new episodes. (They all ran re-runs on Labor Day, 9/7, so I didn’t count those episodes.)
  • When a band was on, I counted each member as an individual toward the total guest count, so Duran Duran counts as four males, and Pearl Jam counts as five males.
  • With percentages, I always rounded up. (The numbers are sad enough even with rounding up).

Across the four weeks, here are the rankings of percentage of female guests:

  • Corden – 20 out of 52 guests were female, 38%.
  • Fallon – 18 out of 65 guests were female, 28%.
  • Colbert – 23 out of 84 guests were female, 27%.
  • Kimmel – 17 out of 65 guests were female, 26%.  
  • Conan – 11 out of 50 guests were female, 22%.
  • Meyers – 12 out of 56 guests were female, 21%.

Corden came out on top with 38% female guests, but also had the worst overall week, with only 8% female guests the week of 9/7 (one out of 12). He made up for it the week of 9/21 where 10 out of 16 guests were female (a five-member all-female band really helped).

Meyers is the worst offender with only 21% female guests. Across the four weeks, he also had five shows with only male guests. Colbert and Kimmel were close behind him on that, with four all-male shows (during the week of 9/14, three out of four of Kimmel’s shows had only male guests).

Colbert had the most lead female guests with nine total across the four weeks, with Fallon behind him at seven. Conan came in last with only two lead female guests across his three weeks.

I also kept track of the occupation of each guest — it’s far and away mostly actors/actresses and musicians, with a few politicians, athletes, and standups sprinkled in here and there. Across all the shows in all four weeks, there were zero female athlete guests, despite the buzz around Ronda Rousey — Ellen had her on on 9/14 — and plenty of exciting female tennis in the news.  

Another discouraging statistic: The Roots (Fallon’s house band) have had 16 musicians sit in with them so far in 2015, but only one has been a woman (Sharon Jones).

What about less classically structured late night shows? Andy Cohen’s Watch What Happens Live on Bravo blows all of the traditional late night shows out of the water. During the same four weeks I analyzed, he had 36 guests total, and 23 were female — 64%. (Only 11 of those 36 guests were “Bravo” guests — people from The Real Housewives, etc. If you exclude them from the count to only have the type of mainstream guests the rest of the shows typically feature, there were 25 guests, 16 female, which is still 64%).

I couldn’t find a complete list of the panelists from The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore in the month of September so I used a list from the month of June. In June, Wilmore had on 57 guests total, with 21 female for 37%, coming in a little behind James Corden. Wilmore does get points because the racial diversity represented on Wilmore’s show puts the rest of the shows to shame. (I didn’t record racial diversity for any of the other shows because that is a separate major discussion).

It’s unsurprising that the two shows with the most diverse hosts — a gay man and a black man — had the most diverse guests (imagine if there were a female host…).

But don’t the late night shows just recycle the same guests — people promoting new projects? Not really, actually. There was less “recycling” than I expected. No guest ever went on more than two of the six shows in the four weeks, and even going on two was pretty rare; it was only a handful of actors/actresses promoting projects, like Andy Samberg with the Emmys and Anne Hathaway with The Intern. It seems that the shows really do have a say in who they book, which makes the lack of female guests all the more disappointing.

The answer to all of this may be that late night talk shows are stale and outdated and we should move on to a format that better reflects the time we live in. But as long as we keep watching, late night has a unique opportunity every night to garner attention for and celebrate a diverse microcosm of our nation. And right now, it’s squandering that.

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