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Oprah Winfrey, the great lunar mother who dictates the tides of daytime television, is stepping down. Not any time soon (the launch of the Oprah Winfrey Network isn’t until September 2011) but nevertheless her departure from syndication is a reality. To mark the occasion, let’s revisit the role of female talk show hosts, and consider why none have yet succeeded on late night television.
Female talk show hosts have traditionally been relegated to daytime, due perhaps to the same mid-century marketing logic that gave us the soap opera: more women are home watching television during the day than are men. Take for instance Ricki Lake, Kathie Lee Gifford, or the Eumenides that populate “The View.” By contrast, the best-known women who work in late night TV are probably the staffers who slept with Dave Letterman.
But it’s not that a woman has never hosted a late-night network talk show: “The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers” aired for less than one year, premiering in the fall of 1986. Since 1983, Rivers had served as Johnny Carson’s permanent guest host, a fairly major coup in and of itself. But when Rivers learned she wasn’t one of the frontrunners under consideration for the “Tonight Show” spot if Carson were to step down, she was furious.
Smelling blood in the water, FOX swept in and offered Rivers her own program. Time-slotted to compete with Carson, it would fail miserably. A woman host, it seems, was interesting only as a novelty.
The current exception is Chelsea Handler, the gleefully foul-mouthed host of E!’s “Chelsea Lately.” A recent glowing New York Times profile of Handler acknowledged that, while the comedienne has made remarkable strides on her talk show, she’s orders of magnitude away from a Lettermanian degree of success. There are a few reasons why.
What does it take to host a late-night talk show? The title of Handler’s Times profile (“I’m Chelsea Handler. And You’re Not.”) is a play on Chevy Chase’s famous “Weekend Update” introduction, but the comparison with “Saturday Night Live” is misleading. A talk show’s standard news-rehashing monologue and various sketches certainly call for traditional comedic chops, but the celebrity interview, a talk show staple—it is, after all, where the titular “talk” comes from—requires a skill set all its own.
On “Chelsea Lately,” Handler is often overtly mean, devoting most of each episode to mocking celebrities, and she also doesn’t do a very good job of concealing her contempt for the people who actually appear on her show. It’s not that her C-list guests don’t deserve it, nor that it isn’t funny. But it represents the limitations of Handler’s draw—someone like Jennifer Aniston wouldn’t deign to waste an evening in an uncomfortable couch in front of an audience of gawking tourists just so that she could be insulted on national television.
The talk show host is asked to fulfill the difficult function of flavor enhancer: he (or she) must make even the most dreadfully boring of guests look good, keeping the interview funny without taking over the spotlight. What brings the job to a complexity far beyond that of daytime interviewers is that the result is expected to be consistently hilarious, not just mildly amusing to a few hundred thousand viewers who haven’t had their coffee yet. This balancing act requires no less than a profound bond with the audience: the host must be eminently likeable.
Most talk show hosts cut their teeth on years of stand-up, so that’s the arena from which a lady-successor will most likely emerge. But as it is, when comedy clubs often adhere to an unspoken “one woman comic a night” rule, the successful comedienne is necessarily a perfect storm: attractive (but not too attractive!) with a masculine (but not too masculine!) sense of humor.
The female comedians who make it big often do so by finding a particular shtick that differentiates them—consider Sarah Silverman’s hyper-vulgarity, Janeane Garofalo’s liberal dissent, or Kathy Griffin’s tabloid trash-talk. These are comics I personally respect and admire, but I don’t think that their brands of comedy have the broad appeal needed to anchor a mainstream network talk show.
I would never suggest that Handler and others like her should compromise their comic sensibilities. While the E! Channel isn’t exactly an oasis in the midst of the vast wasteland, Handler has incredible creative license on “Chelsea Lately,” free from the pressure to entice network-sized audiences.
The remedy to the lack of women on late night is not to breed a zinger-equipped army of comedy androgynes. It is to encourage female comics, and try our hardest to appreciate the quality of their humor free from the context of gender.
As things stand, I wouldn’t be surprised if we put a woman in the White House before we put one behind the “Tonight Show” desk. Nevertheless, my vote is for Betty White, who has only gotten funnier since she briefly hosted an eponymous daytime show in 1954.
—Columnist Molly O. Fitzpatrick can be reached at email@example.com.
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