Jay Leno is back on The Tonight Show, Conan O’Brien is gone, and fans are arguing over which version of the show is better. But no matter how often the host changes, one thing never seems to change: Leno currently has no women on his writing staff—when Sarah Palin performed a stand-up routine for him, her jokes were written by men—and neither did O’Brien during his Tonight Show tenure. In late-night comedy, shows can go years without a woman in the writers’ room, and things have gotten worse in recent years: David Letterman’s first head writer was a woman (Merrill Markoe), but he didn’t have any female writers last year. Markoe told Maclean’s that when she started in the business, “everyone made fun of ‘tokenism.’ Every show had its token one to two women.” In today’s late-night world, she’s starting to “look back at tokenism fondly as a time of enlightenment.”
Why don’t late-night shows hire women to write for them? The simplest reason is that most of the writers who apply for the job are men: “When I started the show with Dave in the early ’80s, very few women submitted work,” Markoe says. But even today, when there are more female stand-up comics and other women who Markoe describes as “very familiar with the general sensibility” of late-night comedy, things haven’t been any better. “Women are equal watchers of those shows,” fumes Melissa Silverstein, blogger and founder of womenandhollywood.com, “yet are somehow not thought of as capable of contributing behind the scenes.”
If hosts do hire a woman, it’s often because they knew her already. Craig Ferguson, who hosts The Late Late Show, has one female staff writer: his sister Lynn, a respected comedian in her own right. Markoe was romantically involved with Letterman at one point, and when Jimmy Kimmel broke up with Sarah Silverman, tabloids reported that he was dating his writer Molly McNearney. Without a prior relationship, it can take a long time for a woman to win the trust of the people who do the hiring; Jill Goodwin, who got a job last month as Letterman’s first female writer in years, was an assistant on the show for almost a decade. “People hire people they’re comfortable with,” says Silverstein, and in practice, it seems like hosts aren’t comfortable with women they haven’t met repeatedly.
It’s different in the daytime, which is a woman’s world with hosts to match: Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres, the endless parade of talkers from The View. DeGeneres has lots of men on her staff, but she has a number of women writing for her, including herself. In late night, there hasn’t been a woman host of a network talk show, and few women have been considered since Joan Rivers guest-hosted for Johnny Carson. Hallie Haglund, a writer for The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, told the New York Times that late-night writers are “writing through one person’s prism” and that person “is always a dude.” If networks had equivalents of Chelsea Handler, who hosts the cable talk show Chelsea Lately, or even of Sarah Palin (“I hear once in a while this job comes open,” she told Leno), there might be more women working for them.
There might also be something about the late-night atmosphere that makes it a man’s world. Since the writers have to come up with many last-minute jokes, they need to feel free to pitch anything, no matter how sophomoric—and they may fear what will happen with women in the room. Rachel Axler, who used to write for Stewart, said in a comment on ephblog.com that she was not treated unfairly in the hiring process, but that producers understandably wanted to make sure the writers “maintained an unhampered ability to joke around and be creative, without feeling they had to censor themselves.” That could explain why hosts like Leno and O’Brien are more willing to hire women as non-writing producers: in those jobs, they can’t interfere with the writers’ God-given right to act like frat boys.
There are signs, though, of what Markoe sees as “a generational shift” away from fear of women. The youngest host, Jimmy Fallon (who was on Saturday Night Live when Tina Fey was the head writer), hired several women writers when he took over O’Brien’s old show. And Markoe adds there’s one other reason to hope: in the ’80s, this issue “was not even a topic of concern. At least now people are fretting about it.” Leno’s Tonight Show has exactly as many women writers as Johnny Carson’s version—but Leno will be hated for it. That could be seen as progress.