It’s a thrill to see Stephen Colbert take his place among the mainstream late night stars. He’s a personal favorite who is a goofy genius onscreen, talks candidly about tough issues like loss and faith and Lord of the Rings. And he has a soft spot for feminists.
Unfortunately, his writing staff remains overwhelmingly white and male, based on this list provided by Splitsider. We were only able to count two women on a staff of 19, and no one noticeably non-white among them. The feel of Late Night may be new and fresh, but this lineup is very much a throwback.
This isn’t the first time such an issue has come up with Colbert. In 2013, a Q&A with his writing staff lingered uncomfortably on the issue of their demographic makeup. Colbert insisted the process was all about the writing sample, ignoring the steps it takes to get a writing sample on the desk of a high-ranking person at a big show:
“I don’t know why,” he said, reiterating the staff-writer-hiring process. “We don’t say, ‘Give me men.’ I don’t look at the name on the packet when I first read it, because I just want to see what it is, I’m just trying to see if it’s making me laugh.” Scardino isn’t the first woman to write for the show, but she is the only one on the job now. “At one point we had three women on the writing staff,” said real Colbert before switching to TV Colbert mode, “and it was just toenails everywhere…just terrible. Everyone laughed, awkwardly.
In 2014, when awarded an Emmy, Colbert made another comment on the topic:
“We want to thank everyone who’s not on this stage who worked on the show. Our writers won last week for Writing in a Variety Series. I’m so proud of those guys — and one woman,” he said, to tepid applause. “Sorry for that, for some reason,” he added with a shrug.
Finally, there’s the matter of his guests. Last August, Chloe Angyal counted 45 recent Colbert Report guests. Here’s what she found: “Of 45 guests, 73 percent were men, and 89 percent were white. And of the 12 women (12!) who appeared among Colbert’s last 45 guests, three of them shared a time slot. Of those 12 women, there was just one woman of color — District of Columbia Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton.” This tally shows that the problem isn’t just who’s coming across the transom, but more systematic and cultural.
I maintain that it’s a positive thing that Colbert can be adorably and winningly pro-feminist when he takes on gender issues, and I don’t think that this feminist streak is totally undercut by the disparity on his staff. But his legacy might be undercut, if his writing staff stays that skewed into what is hopefully a long tenure at CBS. Because the makeup of writers on big shows like Colbert’s both reflects and creates a pipeline, and a message to younger writers, both about who gets hired and who matters.
Now, Colbert is hardly alone on the landscape. The entire late-night world is a particular pocket of extreme white-maleness in a TV landscape that remains far from diverse. It may really be that there are very few applicants of color and women even crossing the threshold, and even fewer who have received the kind of training and experience that it takes to work an extremely demanding job like this one. In that sense, I am somewhat sympathetic that Colbert doesn’t feel like he can wave a wand and make his staff change overnight.
But that doesn’t mean he’s powerless, at all. Feminist bosses and stars like Colbert can take lots of steps create cultural change in their industries, including putting effort into building a pipeline. For instance, they might reserve an internship or, even better, fund a fellowship for people from underrepresented groups (see: what HBO is doing) to bring them up through the industry. They might go a step further, and create new associate writer-type jobs to help give new hires experience if they can’t get it elsewhere. They can also be exceptional bosses to the women and people of color they do hire, helping them navigate work-life issues while keeping an eye on office power dynamics and environments to make sure they’re welcoming. And they can use a more diverse guest roster to network and find folks in the industry who might be good potential collaborators in the future.
Colbert is beloved by his fans because of his mix of wit and humanism. It’s that latter quality that I hope will propel him to seriously consider the long-lasting impact he can make with a small effort to shake up the pale, male world of late-night comedy writing.