Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Men Wear the Worldwide Pants in Late Night

There's a move afoot in Toronto to step back to the days of all boys schools. One of the school board chiefs is all for it.
Which is idiotic. All black schools, all boy schools, how far back in time are we headed? What is with this move to segregation? What are we teaching our kids?
The Catholic high school I went to, Michael Power in Etobicoke, started out as an all boys school. It amalgamated with neighbouring St. Joseph's when I started Grade 11. Up to that point, the boys behaved like animals, or worse, Niners. Behaviour was modified dramatically when the wee kiltie lassies entered the classroom and the boys were forced to stop breathing through our mouths. The women fascinated us, civilized us, turned us into gentlemen. (Well, some of us. Sorta.) The place even began to smell better.
The trigger for this meandering walk down memory lane is a piece that appears in the current Variety Fair. It is by Nell Scovell, a former Letterman scribe and veteran sitcom writer and one of only seven women ever to write for Letterman over his 27-year run in late night.
Scovell was prompted to write in the wake of the talk show host's recent extortion-induced confession that he has had sex with female staffers. Scovell worked briefly on Letterman's old NBC show 20 years ago and suggests in the fascinating article that--while the boss never made an advance on her (and actually comes off his usual courtly self in the piece)--there was a "hostile, sexually charged atmosphere" to that work environment.
What is truly astonishing as well, as Scovell writes, is that there are currently no female staff writers on Letterman, Leno or Conan O'Brien's late night talk shows. Zero. It does look like a Harvard debating club when the writers from any of those shows get up on stage to collect their Emmys. As she says, there are more women on the U.S. supreme court.
Leno's new 10 o'clock show does have much more of a female and even minority presence with the many comedy correspondents now in place. Some of those women also write their segments so Scovell's claim may be a little out of date.
Fox's upcoming The Wanda Sykes Show (premiering Nov. 7), while it is a Saturday night only entry, will also likely shake the boys club up a little.
What is disappointing about all the Letterman fallout is that Dave was finally getting his due for being the grown up in late night. It took him decades to earn and get credit for that maturity and now it is all being questioned again on a whole other level.
Neal Justin, the TV critic for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, takes things a step further in an article published this past weekend. Justin, who interviewed me for the piece (I have a book coming out next year on the history of late night TV), writes that late night has long been a white man's burden and points to all the middle-aged white guys who stack the guest spots on shows like Real Time With Bill Maher. (I spoke with Maher in Toronto last week and he agreed with me that the late night boys club had closed ranks around Letterman. Read his typically straight ahead comments in my CP piece here). Aside from Chelsea Handler, Joan Rivers and Arsenio Hall, writes Justin, "late nights have been dominated by Caucasian males, many of whom could share the same tailor and swap monologue jokes without anyone knowing the difference." (Read the rest of Justin's feature here.)
I'm not sure network TV's Caucasian bias is all by design. I suggested to Neal that had Chris Rock wanted to host a network talk show five or six years ago (instead of fronting his HBO effort), Fox and ABC would have run over each other to grab him. Rock didn't need the huge cut in pay and walked away from any late night broadcast temptations.
NBC may have missed a golden diversity opportunity, one might argue, in casting Jimmy Fallon as Conan's heir on Late Night, but house band The Roots do give that show a black appeal missing from the other talkers. Plus Keenan Thompson's crazy act would get old fast in late night if he were behind a desk night after night.
The best opportunity for a colour barrier breakthrough in late night might come from Canada--Brampton's own Russell Peters. He's loose and fast on his feet as he's proved over the past two Juno Awards. His material is racially charged and potentially explosive, but kids love the dude. He probably doesn't need the pay cut either, and CTV has no incentive to shed the Daily Show, but if the private network ever wanted to seriously get into the Save Local TV business, they could do worse than showcasing Peters in late night.
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