If I May: Late Night So White (and Male)

Yesterday, “Variety” reported that Jimmy Kimmel, host and executive producer of ABC’s late-night talk show “Jimmy Kimmel Live!,” was considering retiring from his position when his contract expires in 2019. He has hosted the show since its inception in 2003, which makes him the second-longest tenured late-night talk show host, trailing only Conan O’Brien.

Kimmel’s show is one of the five “main” late-night talk shows currently airing. The rest are: “The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon” (which airs on NBC), “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” (CBS), “Late Night with Seth Meyers” (CBS) and “The Late Late Show with James Corden” (CBS). I say “main” because these are the late-night shows that each air on one of the four main cable networks.

When Kimmel or any of the other hosts listed above retires, that host’s network will have to find a replacement. In my lifetime, there have been a great deal of late-night replacements. At NBC, Conan O’Brien replaced Jay Leno as host of “The Tonight Show,” and Jimmy Fallon took O’Brien’s old job as host of “Late Night.” Then, Jay Leno took back his job of hosting “Tonight,” and O’Brien started his own show at TBS. Later, when Leno finally retired, Jimmy Fallon got his job at “Tonight,” and Seth Meyers took over “Late Night.” Over at CBS, when Craig Ferguson retired as host of “The Late Late Show,” James Corden stepped in as host. Most recently, when David Letterman retired, Stephen Colbert took over as host of “The Late Show.”

I call attention to this because every one of the hosts that I’ve listed above is white and male. Every time there has been a late-night hosting job vacated by a white male, that job has been subsequently filled by a different white male. Now, there are late-night television show hosts that are not white and male. “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee” is a weekly late-night talk and news satire show that airs on TBS. Bee is the only female late-night show host on any mainstream network. Trevor Noah, a biracial South African man, is the (fairly new) host of “The Daily Show,” a nightly political late-night show on Comedy Central. He replaced Jon Stewart, who is, of course, a white male. However, this replacement is somewhat tainted, as “The Daily Show” hosting job would probably have gone to John Oliver, another white man, had Oliver not been given his own weekly show on HBO.

While Bee’s and Noah’s late-night presence is certainly not insignificant, it is also certainly not enough. With the rise of streaming and online content, the network on which a show airs is becoming less important. That being said, the “main” late-night shows are watched by far more people, both on television and online. Furthermore, there is also a symbolic notion to hosting one of the “main” shows — those jobs are four of the highest-profile gigs in American media. While Bee’s and Noah’s shows are undoubtedly important and high-profile, they are in a very different category than the “main” shows.

The question is, why have networks continued to choose white, male hosts? I believe it is because they know it is a safe choice. Audiences are used to seeing a white man host these late-night shows, and so in choosing another one, the networks stick to the status quo. Choosing a female performer or a performer of color (or both) to host a late-night show should not be considered a risky choice, but unfortunately, it is. It is time for a network to take a risk. It is time for someone who is not white and male to host one of the “main” late-night shows. When Jimmy Kimmel retires, I hope that ABC makes the risky — but nonetheless correct — choice and chooses a host who adds some diversity to the faces of late-night television.