Well, this is sad. Splitsider reports that Stephen Colbert's new show—the one that premiered delightfully earlier this week, the one that seems to be trying to bring a new kind of intellectualism to late-night network comedy—has a writing staff that includes 17 men. And only two women.
And: All 19 of those writers are white.
Feel free to use this space to react with a loud groan or maybe a silent scream or maybe a dismissive “¯\_(ツ)_/¯” or whatever else suits you.
And, you know: I get it. Sort of. To take just one side of this, the gender question: Comedy writing skews male, famously and/or notoriously, and it’s to some extent easy to over-essentialize these things—the 17 men Colbert selected to write his material might be total feminists, and the two women might be raging misogynists, and they will all, regardless, bring a whole host of hidden and highly individualized experiences to their roles as the creators of a show that will ostensibly have a huge audience, and thus a huge platform, and thus a huge influence. There is, overall, an important difference between category and identity, and we should not be glib about any of that.
But then. A writing staff is, in many ways, the soul of a show. The 19 people Colbert selected for The Late Show will decide much about how his influential platform will do its influencing. And Colbert himself, furthermore, is someone who—based on interviews he’s given as himself rather than the characters he has played on The Colbert Report and, now, The Late Show—seems to think deeply about the structures and systems that make the world what it is. He seems to understand, in a way many comedians don’t, that even the most innocuous kinds of “entertainment” play a role in defining culture.
You’d think Colbert would know better than most of his peers that “diversity” is not just some aspirational tautology, but the best proxy we have for ensuring that cultural products that aspire to some kind of mass-ness represent, as best they can, the actual mass. That diversity is—even when it’s kept behind the scenes, even when it’s rumply and sarcastic and sleep-deprived—a signal of the value his show places on differing opinions, and differing experiences, and differing modes of understanding and processing and representing the world.
So. Colbert can pay all the lip service he wants to the cheeky idea that “women should be in charge of everything.” He can tell people, during the development phases of late-night comedy’s newest entry, that “I’m going to do my best to create a Late Show that not only appeals to women but also celebrates their voices.” He can make a point of having female guests on his show (more, even, than the two who appeared in the first four episodes), and of talking with them about more than their clothes and their boyfriends. (Stephen, if you’re reading: Please definitely do that!) He can reassure himself with all the familiar data about comedy writing skewing male and about late-night comedy writing skewing especially so. (Though it’s worth noting that Amy Schumer, one of Colbert’s two female guests this week, has a writing staff on her show of six women and four men. So.) He can maybe even tell himself that—once he’s proven himself to Les Moonves and Jimmy Fallon and “the nation” and all the other people who are pressure-cooking The Late Show in its early days—he can bring on more writers, or new writers, and make sure that a decent portion of them are ladies. And not-white!
He can, for sure, do all of those things. But if he’s made the decision, at the outset, to have such a wildly skewed ratio of men to women, and of white writers to writers of color—then nuance has already been pre-empted. The benefit of the doubt has already been taken.
Colbert has been asked before about the lack of diversity on his writing staff. His responses tend to involve making a joke of the question itself. When asked about his staff’s makeup during this year's Television Critics Association convention, Splitsider notes, Colbert responded, “Lot of Leos. A couple Tauruses. But we make it work. Obviously those people shouldn’t be left alone.” During his acceptance speech when The Colbert Report won an Emmy last year, Colbert noted, “Our writers won last week for Writing a Variety Series! I’m so proud of those guys and one woman! And I’m sorry for that, for some reason.”
For some reason. If it’s 2015, and you’re not sure why you should be sorry about something like that, then—I hate to say it, but—you actually have a lot to be sorry for.