David Letterman and the Missing Female Comedians

The former Late Show host thinks his successor should have been a woman, but he hasn’t always been such an outspoken cheerleader for equality.


David Letterman’s post-retirement life has been fun to witness. Since leaving The Late Show on May 20, 2015, he’s grown out his beard, hung out at the Indy 500, and generally seemed very happy about no longer being beholden to broadcast television. He’s also been candid: Reflecting on his legacy in an interview with Tom Brokaw for an upcoming episode of Dateline, he spoke openly when asked who should have succeeded him on CBS, saying, “I don’t know why they didn’t give my show to a woman. That would have been fine.”

Letterman didn’t seem to bear any particular ill will for Stephen Colbert, the man who replaced him, though he’s repeatedly noted that he wasn’t consulted on which star should take up the Late Show mantle. But while his new comments reflect a refreshing viewpoint on the overwhelming maleness of late night, they sit uncomfortably alongside his legacy as a host. Letterman was a massive influence on comedy in his 33 years at Late Night and The Late Show, but perhaps the biggest strike on his record was the disproportionate lack of female comedians who appeared on his show over the years.

That issue came up for debate in 2012 when The Late Show’s comedy booker Eddie Brill said he didn’t favor female stand-ups because they were rarely “authentic,” telling The New York Times, “I see a lot of female comics who to please an audience will act like men.” Brill was fired, but the damage was done—he’d been the gatekeeper for The Late Show for 11 years, and in 2011, he let only one woman perform stand-up on the show (out of some 200 episodes).

I wrote earlier this week about the challenges female stand-up comedians have faced in a field that’s long been a boy’s club. From open-mic nights to televised specials to major movie blockbusters, women have historically been underserved at every level in comedy. Thanks to the fact that they now have alternative methods of promoting themselves, and to speak out against sexism, that’s beginning to change. And it’s great to see Letterman, free from PR concerns or fealty to network bosses, speak his mind in interviews on the subject, even if it doesn’t do poor Stephen Colbert any favors.

When asked by Brokaw if he missed late-night TV, Letterman said he surprisingly didn’t at all, adding, “I’m happy for the guys—men and women—there should be more women … You know, I’m happy for their success. And they’re doing things I couldn’t do. So that’s great.” It is great—women like Samantha Bee (the host of Full Frontal on TBS) are showing late-night TV just what it’s been missing for all these years—but it’s too bad it took Letterman so long to speak up.