How Diverse Does Colbert's Shtick Have to Be?

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

My colleague Megan just wrote a piece grilling the new Late Show for having overwhelming white male writers for their overwhelming white male host, Stephen Colbert. A bunch of readers weren’t as upset about that lack of diversity in this particular context. One suggests that a writing staff is simply an extension of their host’s personality:

They’re writing jokes to be delivered by a white guy. Is it any surprise that most of the writers are white men? You don’t want it to seem like he’s delivering other peoples’ jokes.

Another reader reinforces that point with another example:

Amy Schumer, whose comedy I find to be top-grade from her feminist perspective, employs more women writers than men. So? That’s her schtick.

And writers aren’t everything—and not nearly as powerful as other staffers:

Just an FYI, while I agree that there should be definitely more women writers on Colbert’s staff, let’s also not overlook the fact that there are females in key positions in his overall staff, including executive and co-executive producers, supervising producer and executive in charge, senior entertainment producer, and music producer.

And the vast majority of Late Show writers came over from The Colbert Report; 13 of the 19 have Report credits, by my count. (And two of the newcomers are the only two female writers, whose tweets are above, suggesting that Colbert was trying to branch out.) So loyalty and a comedic comfort zone naturally play a big role in the hiring process. Another reader expands on that point—that Colbert picked the best people he knew:

I haven’t read bios, but I’m willing to bet good money that almost all of these writers attended prestigious private universities or liberal arts colleges in the Northeast or California, perhaps with one or two Northwestern or Duke graduates in there. They came from families of multiple generations of graduates of such universities, and grew up in affluent portions of one of the nation’s 25 biggest metropolitan areas.

Becoming a comedian or comedy writer isn’t something that working-class folks generally do, because it’s enormously financially risky. I remember reading an interview with Jim Brewer, who was on SNL in the ‘90s and was in a few comedies around that time (Half-Baked being the most memorable); he was one of the few cast members or writers not from a professional-class background. If he failed, he wasn’t in a position to just give up and go to law school or get an MBA, which is what happens to a lot of burned-out creatives from these backgrounds.

Naturally, almost all of these folks are white, and they groom people who remind them of themselves—which means other Ivy Leaguers from upper-middle- or upper-class backgrounds, of the same gender (for a variety of social reasons). Colbert himself, of course, was the son of an extremely prominent physician and academic administrator, and attended Northwestern.

Takeaway: the filtering process happened a long, long time before Colbert decided who was going to be in his writing room, although that doesn’t excuse him.

So, however non-ideal those broader social trends, it’s not like Colbert started a hiring process from scratch with his new show. Another reader also cuts him some slack:

I think Stephen has established his bona fides on diversity as an important social value. Without question. Ms. Garber doesn’t examine the hiring process, where any bias would be revealed, nor the peculiar chemistry the individuals selected would need with Stephen to maximize his comedic performance. We don’t know from Ms. Garber’s story the makeup of the application pool, much less their non-chemistry objective qualifications.

So far, as the show gears up, Stephen and the producers have made the judgment that this group gives the show the best chance to get up and running toward a secure long-range future. Further, there are legal standards regarding employer discrimination which have not even been hinted at as coming into play. I would suggest at the outset of any legal analysis that an actual fit between a comedian and a writer trumps virtually every other possibly relevant factor in this context.

Another reader makes the point that race and gender aren't the only factors for diversity:

It’s simpler to have a critical discussion regarding gender (rather than ethnicity), since there are only two options. Or are there? If you take today’s variations on sexual identity into consideration, you now have multiple subdivisions within each gender. With regards to ethnicity, the subdivisions are too many to count. Just how much diversity is enough diversity, and what is the philosophical argument for thorough diversity in every circumstance?

One more reader:

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. What you do is go and create a rival show in which the entire writing staff is comprised of either female and/or black.

Then, when you succeed, you laugh at Colbert for choosing his writers based on their “white male-ness” instead of their talent. Others will become aware of how many super-talented writers are available for hire as a result of their not being white males ... and they will tap into this vast pool of talented-but-overlooked writers.

And BOOM, you thereby INSPIRE the change you want to see without just telling other people what to do (or more specifically, who to hire) based on what you want to see. Demonstrating what he’s missing out on would be infinitely more convincing than lecturing from the sidelines.

Your thoughts? Email Update from a reader:

The readers who are giving Colbert the benefit of the doubt are missing the point of Garber’s article. To say Colbert doesn’t need to hire minorities or women because his “shtick” isn’t specifically about them completely disregards Colbert’s history as a comedian. His humor often involves challenging our country’s institutions, all of which continue to disservice women and people of color. Although Colbert no longer does this through his conservative pundit persona, political jokes still play a prominent role in his material and race and gender will undoubtedly be continual topics of conversation.

Assuming comedy writing staffs are mostly white men because they’re naturally the best fit for the jobs perpetuates stereotypes like women aren’t funny and minority comics only appeal to “niche” audiences.

I don’t think Colbert excluded women and minorities out of a sense of malice, he merely continued an implicit bias that goes back generations—white men tend to hire other white men. Committing to a diverse writers room isn’t affirmative action or filling a quota. It’s acknowledging that having a group of people with a diverse set of backgrounds and ideas makes your comedy sharper and more incisive.

I’ve been a big fan of Colbert over the years and I still have high hopes for his show. But I find this development disappointing, especially considering how he’s targeted racism and misogyny in the past.

It’s worth noting, per the reader’s point about female comedians, that a full 13 percent of Colbert’s non-musical guests scheduled for the first three weeks are female comedians—Carol Burnett, Amy Schumer, Abbi Jacobson, and Ilana Glazer (compared to just one male comedian, Jim Gaffigan). And the guest list is pretty diverse overall. That seems like the best approach to diversity for a show like this—inviting a wide variety of people onstage to speak for themselves, in their own words, rather than have diverse words and ideas be filtered through a white male host, which happens with a writing staff.

Update: A reader gets the last word here:

In the media world, it’s not always enough to just be a fighter for the underdog. There’s always going to be a blindspot in a person’s worldview. No matter the people you surround yourself, no matter how well read or how kindhearted you are, it is difficult to cover all bases.

So I don’t have a problem with Megan Garber bringing this up in order to, at the very least, put it out there for some level of discourse. For those of us who are able to ascend the news media ladder and have our voices in some ways be heard, we quickly become part of the privileged and establishment. That’s just the way it works. You can still care about issues like poverty, but you are no longer in that moment of pain.

The author of Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich, had an interesting article in The Guardian not too long ago, with a headline titled as “In America, only the rich can afford to write about poverty.” And I think that thesis works pretty well here. Stephen Colbert and his writing staff convey the difficulties of life in fantastic ways, but there will be level of separation on certain issues, since it’s being written about from a perched view.

And it wouldn’t be very fair to blame the show for this. I think the Notes readers talking about how these are the people Colbert know, who work well together and are most immediate to them, are perfectly true and fine. But as the show progresses, I think it would be good to have additional voices, because additional voices are always needed. We saw it at the end run of The Daily Show, where at the very least the correspondents became more of a mixed group of folks who all brought something different to the table. And I’m sure the current Late Show staffers all bring something different to the table as well, and anyone different we can add to that scale may in fact be even better for the show.