Are Women Getting Short Shrift in Late Night?

As women rise in the workplace and public life, late night remains TV's man cave

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Photo-illustration by Francisco Caceres for TIME

These times are not exactly a laugh riot for American men. The economic downturn has cost them more jobs proportionally than it has for women, and long-term workplace shifts are taking away more heavily-male jobs, possibly forever. More women now earn college degrees and hold managerial positions than men do. (The current cover story in the Atlantic posits this trend as "The End of Men.")

But there's one field the "mancession" has not touched: late-night comedy, still (with exceptions like Chelsea Handler) a preserve of silverbacks. We spent much of this year wondering whether TV could make room for that one white guy who lost his show to that other white guy, in a field in which red hair counts as diversity.

Last month, the women's culture website Jezebel called out Jon Stewart's The Daily Show for having hardly any female writers or on-air talent. Though the women of The Daily Show lobbed back an open letter saying that 40% of the staff was female, Jezebel's point stands: men hold most of the plum jobs there.

The Daily Show is hardly alone. The writing staffs of this year's five Emmy-nominated comedy talk shows read like a boys' baby-name book, full of Bills and Joshes and Brians. But the implicit argument against The Daily Show was that a progressive comedy show should do better: we all know liberal men aren't sexist. (Pause for laughter from Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton fans.)

Men are like a crumbling Cold War superpower, clinging tightly, as men do, to their ICBMs: politics, culture, media. (I'm told gender diversity among newsmagazine columnists is an issue too.) The boys' network is strong in the clubby, un-p.c. comedy world, especially late night.

It's a relative handful of jobs, yes, but late-night comics are the unelected legislators of America: they mock the mighty and audition Presidents. Theirs is a kind of passive-aggressive nerd power, but it's power all the same. Which is one reason it was so creepy when David Letterman, who has scant few women on his creative team, admitted affairs with female staffers.

More and more, such disparity is at odds with the real world that these shows spoof, in which women were the past two Supreme Court nominees and anchor two of three network news programs. Saturday Night Live's biggest stars lately have been women: Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Kristen Wiig. Ellen DeGeneres is hugely successful in daytime. Are women funny only on weekends and before local news?

Fey is an especially good example, since she hit big doing a fake SNL newscast not unlike The Daily Show. She then created 30 Rock, TV's best critique of its own gender politics. Fey's character, Liz Lemon, runs an NBC sketch comedy called The Girlie Show; in the pilot, she's ordered to hire a male star, and the show is renamed TGS. Lemon is snarky and feminist, but even she has to recruit from the same Y-chromosome-heavy comedy pool as everyone else, and her own writers' room consists mostly of men.

Explanations for the late-night boys' club in the real world are all too familiar: the people hiring complain of a lack of qualified applicants, while their critics say they're looking in the wrong places. There's no reason both can't be true. Nell Scovell, a former Letterman writer, argued after Dave's sex scandal that late-night shows "rely on current (white male) writers to recommend their funny (white male) friends to be future (white male) writers." The Daily Show just hired Olivia Munn as a correspondent; some critics said it chose the Attack of the Show! host — who once posed for Playboy — for her looks.

Is that what it takes to get Comedy Central's guy viewers to follow a woman? Maybe not, but when it comes to pop-culture equity, the audience shares the blame. The path to a stand-up stage or a writers' room is a long one, from the humiliations of childhood through the crises of adolescence and beyond. How often do parents praise girls as opposed to boys for being funny? What's easier — getting your girlfriend to see Get Him to the Greek or getting your boyfriend to see Sex and the City 2?

When late-night shows began, male-dominated comedy reflected society's power balance. Now guy humor is an increasingly isolated preserve of omega-male movies and geek-aggressive TV shows piped into man caves. It may hold out longer than business or law, but culture can change too. If nothing else, some TV exec at some point is going to see a ratings opportunity in late night. (Well over half of Jay and Dave's viewers are women, says Nielsen.) After cracking that network, women could surpass men there too. Which would add new meaning to getting the last laugh.