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TV’s diversity problems go far beyond Stephen Colbert — and any single late-night host

Colbert and Letterman on The Late Show, when Colbert was named as the new host.
Colbert and Letterman on The Late Show, when Colbert was named as the new host.

Lack of diversity in late-night television is nothing new, but it's back in the conversation in a big way, thanks to the recently busy revolving door of host changeovers.

The last few years have been the busiest in late night's history. NBC replaced Jay Leno with Jimmy Fallon, Larry Wilmore took over Stephen Colbert's 11:30 pm time slot, David Letterman handed Late Show over to Colbert, Jon Stewart turned over The Daily Show keys to Trevor Noah, and James Corden took over Craig Ferguson's Late Late Show spot. After decades of watching the same faces on late night, the landscape is looking rather different these days.

But is it really? As Vanity Fair's recent feature made startlingly clear, all these changes have taken the form of men passing the torch to other men.

This picture represents a slight improvement from the exclusively white slate of years past, with the inclusion of black hosts Noah and Wilmore (who only got their shows this year). Samantha Bee will break up this all-male club in 2016 with her own late-night show for TBS. And as Noah told Newsweek in response to the Vanity Fair controversy, women comedians like Amy Schumer and Melissa McCarthy are landing prominent roles. It's not all male, all the time.

The point Noah misses, though, is that while these changes in front of the camera are encouraging, they still don't change the diversity plateau lurking behind the scenes — and it's still a far more pervasive problem than most realize.

Most agree Colbert's new show is a fresh take on late night, but his writers room is a stale holdover

Stephen Colbert

George Clooney and Stephen Colbert talk on the series premiere of The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. (CBS)

While Stephen Colbert's new iteration of The Late Show has mostly racked up positive reviews, Splitsider's Megh Wright took a look at its credits and burst the collective bubble with just a title: "17 Men, 2 Women: Colbert’s Writers Room Shows That Nothing’s Changed in Late Night." As Wright points out, this wildly skewed statistic is especially disheartening after Colbert's promise to "create a Late Show that not only appeals to women but also celebrates their voices" in a recent piece for Glamour:

While there are many talented female comedians out there, right now the world of late-night is a bit of a sausagefest. Perhaps one day it will be just the opposite—which I believe is called a Georgia O'Keeffe retrospective.

...But female viewers need more than a pretty face. They need someone who will represent their voice. And I think this essay has proved that I have an authentic female perspective, because most of it was written by two female writers on my staff.

While Colbert got points for acknowledging the incredible gender disparity in his industry, that joke still fails to mention that the "two female writers" on Colbert's staff are the only two female writers on Colbert's staff.

Wright's piece has spread widely since it was published on September 10, with equal parts indignation and exhaustion. Colbert is one of the most openly feminist men in late night. If his idea of "celebrat[ing] women's voices" is a writers room that's 90 percent men (and white men, at that), how much progress is really being made?

The Late Show With Stephen Colbert is far from the only show — late-night or otherwise — to lack diversity behind the scenes

Colbert is the latest host under fire for his lopsided room, but overwhelmingly male writers rooms have been one of Hollywood's only constants. His fellow hosts have called on a similar breakdown of writers. The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon lists only three women out of 24 credited writers, and Real Time With Bill Maher (where I have worked in the past) has only ever credited one woman writer throughout its 13-season run. Letterman's Late Show left with a single woman writer, and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno went off the air with exactly zero women writing on the show. As noteworthy as the lack of women in late night is, it isn't exactly new.

While no late-night writers room approaches an even gender split, Live With Jimmy Kimmel and The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore do have women head writers — and in fact, The Nightly Show's Robin Thede is the first and only black woman in history to hold that position.

As visible as the late-night gender disparity has been, though, predominantly male writers rooms hold true across the genre board. The most recent report from the Writers Guild of America says that the share of women writers has actually dipped back down from an all-time high of 30.5 percent in the 2012-'13 season to 29 percent. In 2001, women made up 26.8 percent of writers rooms.

The barely distinguishable numbers on women writers.

WGA West

If these numbers seem like splitting hairs, well, that's because they are. As the WGA's chart shows, the difference in women writers' employment across almost 15 years is relatively tiny.

Nell Scovell, a producer of the upcoming Muppets reboot and a former writer for The Late Show With David Letterman, references this report in a piece at the New York Times with the discouraging title "The 'Golden Age' for Women Is Actually Just a Rerun." She also points to a Variety article that talked about the "unprecedented" number of women showrunners working right now as it simultaneously admitted that the share of women executive producers declined from 18.6 percent to 15.1. "That sounds less like a march to equality," she writes, "and more like a moonwalk, giving the illusion of forward motion when, in fact, the dancer is sliding backward."

"It's all about who you know" isn't just a snarky Hollywood catchphrase. It's an instinctive hiring philosophy.

As the lack of women and minority writers comes up again and again, so does a familiar argument. The defensive logic goes along the lines of, "We would love to have more [women and minority writers], but they just don't apply as much as [white men], and anyway, we just hire who makes us laugh."

This is where it gets tricky. It might be true that there are fewer women applying to these jobs, though there are very few solid numbers on applications. But two questions come out of this logic: Why aren't women applying more, and should a room be obligated to add women when it thinks a man is funnier?

To the first question, the fact is that the existing networks came out of a male-dominated system that is hard to crack even today. While there has been some progress toward more gender-balanced writers rooms, those spaces were saturated with men for decades. Changing that takes real effort, and sometimes it's just easier to shrug at the applications and go on with the show.

Fewer women might know about these jobs in the first place because of the existing, largely male networks. A new study from the Center for the Study of Women in Film and Television reveals that men are, in fact, more likely to hire other men. Dr. Martha Lauzen, the author of the "Boxed In" study, laid it out in straight facts: "On broadcast programs with at least one female creator, women comprised 50 percent of writers. On programs with no female creators, women comprised 15 percent of writers."

One running joke in the entertainment industry is that Harvard Lampoon alumni are disproportionately represented in comedy rooms. The Lampoon has had women writers — and currently has its first African-American woman president — but its alumni are largely white and male. Tina Fey has written about leaning on "Harvard nerds" to make up as much as a full third of her room at 30 Rock, and alum Conan O'Brien has quipped to "give a white male from Harvard a frickin’ chance."

One of the key facts in Colbert's case is that many of his Late Show writers came from his existing Colbert Report room. These writers are people he knows, trusts, and likes. And that's important! Being able to rely on your staff without a second thought is a huge advantage when you have so many shows to put on every year. The trouble is that drawing from a pool of talent that you already know — no matter how solid that talent is — leaves very little room to introduce anyone new.

Scovell wrote about her fraught time at Letterman and the dearth of women late-night writers in a 2009 essay for Vanity Fair. At that time, none of the "50 or so" comedy writers at Letterman, Conan, and Leno's shows were women. She did agree that fewer women apply, but went on to say that "that’s partly because the shows often rely on current (white male) writers to recommend their funny (white male) friends to be future (white male) writers." She recommended a more "targeted outreach" in the improv, standup, and blogging communities to find women who usually wouldn't get the chance to submit material.

When John Oliver started production for Last Week Tonight, Scovell was tapped to do exactly that. Last Week Tonight also got notice for its unusual "blind selection" policy, wherein those reading the first two rounds of packets couldn't see who had submitted them. While Last Week Tonight With John Oliver still has two women staff writers out of 11 total, this is the kind of step that can open up the doors and encourage those who might not have thought they'd have a chance before.

More diverse writers rooms means more diverse content — and less of a burden on the odd people out to represent their entire demographic

One of the most discussed moments of the premiere of HBO's Project Greenlight is when Matt Damon talks over black producer Effie Brown (Dear White People, In the Cut) when she brings up a concern for the movie they're trying to make. The only black character in the script is a prostitute who is assaulted by a pimp. As Brown starts trying to voice her concern about how this situation is handled, thus advocating for a directing team of a woman and a Vietnamese man, Damon cuts her off. He insists they had the same thought, and as far as diversity goes, "you do it in the casting of the film, not in the casting of the show." Brown gapes, visibly shocked.

While Damon was trying to reassure her that they have diverse interests at heart, his logic accidentally betrayed both why diversity is so slow to happen, and why it's so important. Like Noah in that Newsweek interview, Damon assumes visible diversity on screen excuses a lack of diversity off screen in the decision-making process. Also: Damon and his white, male cohorts can have all the best intentions in the world, but they can't know what it's like be anything other than white and male.

Brown speaking up — and getting shot down — is also emblematic of another crucial aspect of this discussion. Before Jon Stewart bowed out at The Daily Show, his former correspondent and staff writer Wyatt Cenac made headlines with a candid conversation on Marc Maron's WTF podcast. While the main story that circulated was the one in which Stewart apparently told him to "fuck off," the more crucial point was how uncomfortable Cenac was being "the one" black writer in the room:

I gotta be honest if something seems questionable, because if not, then I don't want to be in a position where I am being untrue not just to myself but to my culture, because that's exploitative. I'm just allowing something to continue if I'm just going to go along with it. And sadly, I think that's the burden a lot of people have to have when you are 'the one.' You represent something bigger than yourself whether you want to or not.

This is one of the most important aspects of this writers room diversity discussion. Though they were rebuffed, both Brown and Cenac were the only black people in the room as they spoke up on an issue they thought was racially insensitive. The pressure to speak up was on, whether the people around them realized it or not. But as Gene Demby wrote in a powerful piece for NPR, "the tricky thing about being The Only One … is that even when you know it might suck, you put up with it to get your foot in the door. "

And when women and minorities do get their feet in the door, the comedy reflects it in its diversity. Inside Amy Schumer has ballooned to titanic pop culture proportions thanks to its feminist bent, delivering razor-sharp sketches like "Football Town Nights" (on campus sexual assault by revered athletes) and "A Very Realistic Military Game" (on rape in the military), both written and conceived by women. (The Emmy-nominated Inside Amy Schumer team has a majority of women.)

The Daily Show has started featuring more content that speaks to women's experiences, like Jessica Williams's features on street harassment and campus sexual assault. Upcoming Daily Show host Trevor Noah impressed critics at this year's TCA's with a standup set that included how he saw the shifts of racism, coming from a childhood in apartheid South Africa to present day in the United States. Key & Peele regularly took on race and masculinity in a way the show just couldn't if there weren't people who had lived those experiences in the room. If nothing else, making the effort to include writers and producers who aren't white men is just a smart creative strategy, because it will naturally diversify the content.

Late night isn't the only genre that needs diversifying. It's just the most visible.

A photo like Vanity Fair's lays bare late night's problem in an unusually stark way. The (Mostly White) Men of Late Night have become a marker for what needs fixing in Hollywood, but they're far from the only examples. The lack of women and minority writers, producers, directors, executives, and general decision-makers pervades the entertainment industry from top to bottom.

There's no doubt that talented, smart writers are in these late-night writers rooms and any of the dozens of other scripted writers rooms that exist in this age of television saturation. White men can surely identify and have empathy for issues that don't affect them — but they haven't lived them. All these rooms that lack racial and gender diversity are weaker for it, because they also miss out on key perspectives — not to mention jokes — on issues they might not even realize exist.