For over 60 years, American late-night talk show hosts have sat behind desks in a black and white tux with their guests perched on a couch just off to their right. As much as the programs themselves are part of Americans' nightly rituals, the late-night talk show set has become an iconic – and predictable – fixture in television, today inhabited by comics including Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, and James Corden, following in the footsteps of Jay Leno, Steve Allen, and Johnny Carson. However, despite the past commercial success of late-night talk shows, there’s proving to be an emerging issue with them: they only fit the straight white man comic.
The pioneer of the late-night talk show was a woman, the actress Faye Emerson, who hosted interviews and gave her own political commentary in 1949 on "The Faye Emerson Show," often from a couch in a living room. But then women were relegated to the realm of daytime television, where advertisers could appeal to stay-at-home wives.
Shortly after, men began to take over the late-night world. Though prolific hosts such as Steve Allen & Jack Paar were highly influential, the realm of late-night is most synonymous with the name Johnny Carson. The reason being Carson remains television’s longest-running late-night show host, spending nearly half of his life behind his talk show desk. He was a master of small talk & was described by critic Kenneth Tynan as an "immaculate machine."
Why this setup doesn’t work for anyone else
As evidenced in the past few years, the late-night show comic was made strictly for straight white men to fulfil. A direct example of this is Indian-Canadian Lilly Singh’s late-night show that aired in 2019 and was cancelled in 2021, titled “A Little Late With Lilly Singh.” The main issue with her show was that her scripts were written by white men that didn’t play to her strengths. Singh’s jokes were unamusing and her bits were repetitive. It seemed that every other sentence was her pointing out the fact that she wasn’t your typical white late-night show host.
No later than 30 seconds into her debut episode, Lilly references race twice, & both jokes are met with dwindling amounts of laughter and applause. It’s easy to see that her script wasn’t playing to her strengths as an Indian woman who grew up on the internet— which has so many interesting angles that the writers could’ve taken into account if they weren’t so preoccupied trying to get her to fill the straight white man comic. The late-night category has been dropping the ball for the past several years and Lilly was truly a victim of that category’s attempts to revive the genre. The failure of her show further plays into the harmful narrative that “women aren’t funny/can’t be comedians,” which goes to prove that there is no successful space for women, let alone women of color, in the late-night industry.
As we encroach on a new wave of talent, most of Gen Z is not watching The Tonight Show to see Jimmy Fallon or Kimmel or Corden, they’re watching for their favourite celebrities to make an appearance. The late-night setup is becoming increasingly repetitive and boring, and this generation is enjoying more consumable content like Hot Ones with Sean Evans, or Chicken Shop Date with Amelia Dimoldenberg.
Though the late-night legends of the past have left an immeasurable mark on television as we know it, it’s time that we recognize that late-night shows support a one-dimensional version of success and that the straight white man comic cannot and will not cut it anymore.