Comedy’s Crass Ceiling- The Progressive- 4/1/14

For more than thirty years I have been a comedy practitioner, and for more than forty years I have been a student of late night comedy. From Tonight to Late Night to Late Late Night, and from the big three networks to cable channels, I can trace the lineages: from Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon, and Seth Meyers back through Jay Leno and David Letterman, the fighting Cain and Abel brothers, back to Johnny Carson, who reworked Dick Cavett and Jack Parr. I have followed comedy family tree offshoots, such as Craig Ferguson and Conan O’Brien. Now as an older adult learner, I am especially grateful for the recording refinements of Tivo.
Of course, I have happily followed the career trajectories of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central, and Bill Maher on HBO, but they’re on cable.
For five decades, the late night show memes of desk, fake microphone, monologue, interview, and musical or animal guest have basically remained the same. The sixth meme, the white man, has also held sway. Joan Rivers, Paula Poundstone, Wanda Sykes, Whoopi Goldberg—all tried and failed. Chelsea Handler has slyly repurposed the word “late” with her evening show, Chelsea Lately, but, again, it’s on cable.
The latest crop of comics, Fallon and Myers, were welcomed to their new night jobs with Olympic coverage that made them more viral than Bob Costas’s pink eyes. They are next gen, less offspring of Johnny Carson and more spawn of Lorne Michaels. The SNL creator and comedy impresario is now the fountainhead from whence all comedy flows.
Many women studies majors have theorized about this failure to break through what they dub “the crass ceiling.” That phrase inadvertently proves that women study majors have a sense of humor, however slight. My theory refines theirs. I think the dominance of men on late night has something to do with an unwritten code, possibly genetic, that testosterone is for nighttime use and estrogen is for daytime use.
Ellen DeGeneres is a huge afternoon success. Generally, though, a single daytime dose of estrogen is not perceived to be as powerful as the night-T, so women are often clumped into groups around a table, if they can find one not occupied by Charlie Rose.
Women are allowed to be award show hosts. Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, and Ellen DeGeneres have proven themselves hilarious mistresses of the one-night stand.
The poet/activist June Jordan once observed that whoever has the power determines the point of view. For now, Lorne Michaels has the power, and he determines what’s funny. Given that for years he could not find and nurture a funny black woman for the SNL roster, even recently during five years of Michelle Obama comedy possibilities, I don’t much expect much change.
In sampling women’s reactions to the new late show recruits from the SNL farm team, I have noticed more sighing resignation than Guerrilla Grrrl fury. They know eventually a woman will get the nod, probably after everyone has turned from networks to binge streaming Netflix. As women comics take the leap making and starring in their own movies, running sitcoms, and doing their own daytime shows, they seem to be saying, “Who would want that job?”            
And who am I to argue? 

Leave a Reply