How Diverse Does Colbert's Shtick Have to Be? Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

From our earlier roundup of readers debating the merits of my colleague Megan’s piece scrutinizing the Late Show writing staff, one reader wrote:

Here’s how you change this diversity issue, rather than complaining about it, telling Colbert who to hire, demanding some sort of race or gender-based quota, etc.: Go and create a rival show in which the entire writing staff is comprised of either female and/or black.

The replacement show for Colbert is Larry Wilmore’s The Nightly Show. Its head writer is notably not male and not white, but rather “the only woman of color working as a head writer in late night”:

[Robin Thede says her staff] is one of the most diverse in the business. “I feel like every late-night show has the exact same writers’ room,” Thede said. “They all look the same and they all dress the same. And that’s fine. That’s a machine that works.”

For a long time, late-night shows suffered from a serious homogeneity problem. David Letterman never hired a single black writer in his 32 years at CBS. In its 40 years on the air, “Saturday Night Live” has had exactly two female head writers, Tina Fey and Paula Pell. Last year, a woman named Amber Ruffin entered the history books by being the first woman of color hired to write for a network late-night show.

Earlier this summer, Thede did an interview with Code Switch, the great NPR blog:

The following quote from Thede touches on the main point I made earlier, that a talk show’s writing staff—not the executive staff, not the booking staff, not the producers—is an extension of the host’s unique personality:

[Thede] laughs loudest at every joke and articulates Wilmore’s perspective. It’s her job to make sure the writers follow his style.

“Too many writers get stuck in the trap of writing what they think is funny, and not considering who they are writing it for,” she says. “Writing for Larry — totally different than Kevin Hart, totally different from Chris Rock, totally different from Queen Latifah, totally different from Anthony Anderson, totally different from Mike Epps.”

Thede should know; she’s written for them all over the course of her wide-ranging career.

Have any thoughts about The Nightly Show or this topic in general? Email Our previous note was updated with a few of your emails, so check them out if you read the note the first time around. Update from a reader:

If NBC’s writer development program is any indication, they are actually having a fair amount of difficulty attracting minority applicants in sufficient number to satisfy their diversity needs. For the past several years, they’ve been very explicitly indicating that minority applicants have a leg up in getting admitted to those programs, as seen in this quote from their Late Night Writer's Workshop application page:

We are looking for writers who are “almost there” but need that final bit of preparation and exposure to key industry players. We particularly encourage female writers and those of diverse backgrounds to apply.

It’s possible NBC is going to great lengths to attract minorities to these programs so hey can summarily reject them, but it seems doubtful. They seem to be indicating a hunger for diversity in their programs that they can’t fill without hopscotching to new un-tapped talent, and that would seem to indicate there’s something of a shortage for diversity in those fields.