When I was ten years old, I begged to stay up to watch the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. My father said that I was too young. I reasoned with him that when I was old enough to watch, I’d be too tired. My argument won me a one-time-only, Friday night reprieve. I popped up early Saturday morning to show that despite my late night, I could still be a productive member of the household. During the years when I was old enough to watch and young enough to stay awake, I watched for women ‚Äì Moms Mabley, Phyllis Diller, Anne Meara, Elaine May, Totie Fields. With the aid of VCRs and TiVo I have continued my personal longitudinal study of late night comedy shows. As a feminist who has made her living in comedy for 25 years, I wonder, “Why is it that women comics never get to make that leap to hosting a late night talk show?”
Did the late show pioneers – Steve Allen, Ernie Kouvacs and Jack Paar – sign a secret pact to keep women off the nocturnal transmissions – thus begetting Joey Bishop, Dick Cavett and Johnny Carson? Carson crushed his loyal guest-host, Joan Rivers, like a bug and sent her off to shill jewelry on QVC and interview others who were famous for being famous on award-show red carpets. Then, after a public catfight, he bequeathed his show to Jay Leno, not David Letterman, who got his start doing the weather in Indianapolis, toiling in the morning talk show fields. Now Leno, in an oddly lame-duck move, has already bequeathed the hallowed slot to the younger, hipper (to someone) Conan O’Brian.
Letterman has not yet named his successor, but will probably select another stud from the stable since cable channels, hoping to establish late-show cred, have followed the lead of the big three channels with yet more men: Arsenio Hall, Dennis Miller, Craig Kilbourne, Gary Shandling, Jimmy Kimmel, DL Hughley and Jon Stewart. Bill Maher, who lost Politically Incorrect after an untimely politically incorrect comment on the courage of high altitude bombers, is back with another show called Real Time. Even if these guys fail, they fail into another show.
Why is that?
Joan Rivers, who followed Johnny’s sacrosanct formula of opening monologue and guest interview, was cancelled. So when Whoopi Goldberg hosted a short-lived late night show she tried something new, upending the bandleader-sidekick-desk-panel seating arrangement. Unfortunately, she also experimented with interviewing one guest for a full hour. If viewers didn’t like her guest, they switched channels. A terrible faux pas, when the whole point of these shows is to advertise stuff to nineteen-to-34-year-old males, the ones who supposedly watch these shows – although can anything really compete with online porn? Whoopi was not renewed. Paula Poundstone and others have also tried and failed to guess the secret password into the after-hours club, but the bouncers are fierce.
Apparently estrogen does not show well under the night lights, and testosterone withers in the light of day. So women comics are relegated to day-time talk shows. Despite Rosie O’Donnell’s and Ellen Degeneres’s big hits, they’re not allowed to stay up late with the guys. Is it women’s fate to speak only to the daytime audience of the underemployed, freelancers, school truants and stay-at-home moms? Is it somehow unseemly for women to speak to men at night?
I think the answer can be found in the film The Aristocrats.
It is not, by the way, a movie about the Bushes. It’s a documentary that features comedians, mostly male, telling what is supposedly the world’s filthiest joke. The joke is a secret handshake, the one comics tell each other after hours. It is in three parts, as predictable as a knock-knock joke. In the set-up, a show-biz family goes to a vaudeville talent agent seeking work. He asks them to describe their act, and the joke’s hilarity comes in the comic’s description of the act’s obscenity, especially as it is contrasted with the punchline, the act’s name, “The Aristocrats.” As long as the teller observes the rules of set-up and punchline, he receives total comic license to spew a toxic bilge of excrement, sexism, misogyny, bestiality, violence, pedophilia ‚Äì whatever he can come up with.
The film is an unwitty, unwitting passport through comic portals into a fascinatingly puerile world of violence and anger. Both the film’s critics and its subjects claim that the constant repetition of the joke takes away the hurtfulness of the words. Thus, repeating, ‚Äúbanging your eleven year old daughter‚Äù becomes so meaningless, the viewer can focus on the marvelous variety of comic styles.
By process of natural selection, the fittest survivors of the film’s comic Darwinism, the aristocrati of comedy, are mostly male. The comic elders mouth the classic line, which I have often heard in my career, “Look, funny is funny.” That gender erasure reminds me of something June Jordan once said: there is power and there is point of view, and whoever has the power determines the point of view. So, the ejaculatory, standup/punchline brand of male humor has a funny point of view. The multiorgasmic, extended storytelling of women does not have a funny point of view. Because the long, multipart, middle section of the aristocrat joke is safely bracketed by the familiar set-up and punchline, when men tell it, it is deemed hilarious.
Of the women comics in the film, only Goldberg and Sarah Silverman make the joke their own – Golberg by anthropomorphizing foreskins, and Silverman by inhabiting the role of the aristocrats’ waiflike, wounded daughter. The rest of the women try to tell the joke from the male point of view and come across as uncomfortable consorts, afterthoughts.
Call it the Heisenberg Humor Principle – men find men funny because that’s what they are looking for. The men who own the networks that produce the late-night TV shows recognize the male point of view, and they promote it to the coveted position behind the desk. With age and an undiminished feminism, I have been able to shift the frame. I now sleep well, knowing all that tawdry humor is safely consigned to the after hours. Last one in, turn out the lights.
Kate Clinton has been a multitasking feminist humorist for 25 years. Information on her book What the L? and her 25th Anniversary It’s Come to This Tour are available at www.kateclinton.com.