Trevor Noah could be the funniest man in recorded history or someone on par with Gallagher: Either way, he’s yet another male host in the late-night talk-show universe.
The South African comedian, who will succeed Jon Stewart at The Daily Show later this year, is biracial—which means that Comedy Central has not one but two late-night shows with black men at the helm. This is a huge step forward. But it would have meant even more if the network had picked a woman to take over.
It’s not like there’s a shortage of candidates. Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Sarah Silverman, Aisha Tyler, Amy Schumer, Tig Notaro and Sasheer Zamata all should have made the short list. There’s also some serious in-house talent, aka Samantha Bee and Jessica Williams. (In February Williams tweeted that she wasn’t ready for the role … but was Conan O’Brien ready for the hosting seat? He struggled for a good long while before finding his stride.)
Many other talented women could have thrived as Stewart’s heir apparent, like cultural critic Jamilah Lemieux, MSNBC’s Zerlina Maxwell and the beyond-funny Broad City duo, Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer—but Comedy Central went the safe route, just as NBC did when it tapped Jimmy Fallon and CBS when it chose the hilarious (but undeniably male) Stephen Colbert. No matter how much proof there is to the contrary, there persists in Hollywood the notion that women aren’t funny. (Lizzy Caplan and Scott Aukerman skewered this stereotype last year on IFC’s Comedy Bang! Bang!: “Boys can be funny,” Caplan said. “I just think maybe they haven’t had the opportunity to be funny for as long as girls have.”)
There are likely more subtle factors at work. Consider this: Stewart has become quite the yeller on The Daily Show, bellowing whenever he’s particularly irked. But while it’s OK for a man to get heated, would the network tolerate a woman who expressed her outrage in this fashion? Stewart’s also been allowed to age on the show, graying and rounding as his tenure’s progressed. It’s safe to say that a woman host wouldn’t be given the same opportunity to look anything less than picture-perfect.
And ultimately the same issues that kept late night white for so long are holding women back. According to Free Press research, people of color hold just 3 percent of the licenses to the nation’s full-power TV stations. Women own less than 7 percent. Mammoth corporations—Comcast, Disney, etc.—own all of the major networks, and men are the CEOs of all of those behemoths. It’s simple math: White men in power beget more white men in power.
Cheers to Trevor Noah for further chipping away at late night’s white barricade. But let’s face it, Comedy Central blew it here.
Amy Kroin’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and Salon, among other publications.