We Need More Women in Late Night

Just because Chelsea Handler's 'Chelsea' is a fail, doesn't mean women in late night is.

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Complex Original

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Chelsea Handler’s brand new talk show Chelsea dropped on Netflix yesterday with the intended mission every new late night show always promises: to blow up the late night format. It’s Netflix’s first foray into the talk-show genre, and the streaming service is taking an experimental route with the format, releasing new episodes of Chelsea at 12:01 Pacific time every Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. The idea, as Handler explains in her opening monologue that she insists is not an opening monologue, is a late night talk show that isn’t held by the binds of time. In the first episode—which includes the confusing guest lineup of secretary of education John B. King Jr., Pitbull, and Drew Barrymore—Handler claims the show is a continuing education project for her. She never went to college, so Chelsea is her college.

Despite the specifics of Netflix’s packaging and all of Handler's promises though, Chelsea doesn’t blow anything up. The premiere looks exactly like your typical late night show, with its celebrity guests, obligatory election joke, desk, and live-studio audience. Handler told NPR’s Eric Deggans that Chelsea will “break every rule” of television talk shows, but the premiere doesn’t break any.

If you don’t like Handler, she’s not going to win you over with Chelsea. I found the premiere to be nearly unwatchable. My favorite part was Chunk, Handler’s dog who freely roams the stage in place of the traditional late night sidekick. Chunk ran away from Pitbull when he first came to the stage, and I was like, "SAME, CHUNK." 

For a while, Chelsea Handler was the only woman in late night television. Her E! Series Chelsea Lately ran from 2007 to 2014 and, like Chelsea, it wasn’t very good. And the fact that she was the only woman in late night certainly wasn’t enough to obscure the fact that her show was wildly inconsistent in the effectiveness of its humor, often relying on the flimsy comedy of offensive commentary. Handler’s schtick has always been that she doesn’t give a fuck. She’s an equal-opportunity offender, as she puts it in her Netflix docuseries Chelsea Does, and she mistakenly believes that makes her above criticism.

So you’re probably gathering I’m not the biggest Handler fan. But despite that, I’ve always been bothered by the strange burden of representation Handler faced as the only woman in late night back during Chelsea Lately, and by the very obvious dismissal of her place in that space. When the New York Times’ Bill Carter published an article about Jimmy Fallon and the late night landscape, Handler was merely mentioned in a parenthetical. But even though she was rendered invisible by media, she still carried an unbelievable amount of pressure. If Handler didn’t succeed, the stuffy network executives who seem so hell-bent on keeping late night television as male and white as possible could point to her failure as proof women can’t host, which isn’t fair to Handler or to viewers craving more diversity in late night. One person can’t represent an entire excluded group. Handler was openly sick of being asked what it was like to be the only woman in late night, and who can blame her? 

Now, with TBS’s Full Frontal With Samantha Bee well into its first season, Bee bears that burden, too. Much of the press coverage surrounding Full Frontal ahead of its premiere was focused on how Bee would become the new only woman in late night. Bee has handled the question pretty well, usually using it as a chance to talk about how she hopes her show will open the door for more women in hosting positions. She seems to be acutely aware of the pressure on her and her staff—which is 50 percent female and 30 percent nonwhite—to do well. Again, it isn’t fair, but as only one of two ladies in an ever-growing sea of Jameses, she's seen as representative of an entire gender.

Bee has exceeded the already high expectations for Full Frontal, which really does break rules by doing away with guests and grounding itself in Bee and her frank, unapologetic opinions that are really only matched in intensity and candor by The Nightly Show’s Larry Wilmore. Her show is incisive, focused, and funny. Her segment on untested rape kits is one of the best things I’ve seen on television all year. Her first episode played with the idea of the “woman question” by attributing Bee’s success to witchcraft.

Comparing Bee and Handler merely because they are two women in the same field would be pointless and misguided, though I don’t doubt people will do so. That’s the problem with male-dominated spaces. The women get lumped together and treated solely like the "other." If anything, the vast differences between Handler and Bee's shows merely proves that there is not a monolithic picture of what “women-hosted late night television” looks like. Women in comedy are not all the same, which seems like an obvious fact to state, but I’ll be shocked if Bee and Handler don’t end up getting endlessly asked about each other in interviews in the coming months.

For the first time ever, there are two women hosting two different late night shows concurrently, but that’s hardly a victory. In September, Vanity Fair published a cover story about the “titans of late-night television,” including a photo of the so-called titans. Trevor Noah was included in the photo even though he hadn’t yet taken over the Daily Show desk. Handler and Bee, whose upcoming shows had already been announced at the time of the story, were nowhere to be found.

It’s simple: Late night television is overwhelming male, and there should be more women in hosting positions. Hiring a new host is always going to be a risk, regardless of gender. But the men of late night get to be individuals, and are never asked to shoulder the weight of their entire gender. If they’re not great at what they do, it doesn’t all of a sudden mean networks are going to avoid the next Jimmy that comes along. More shows hosted by women could potentially mean getting some bad with the good, but that's okay. I’m certainly not arguing that every show hosted by a woman will be good merely because it is hosted by a woman. I’m not even saying anyone should watch Chelsea merely because it’s hosted by a woman. And when I tell you to watch Full Frontal, I am saying it because it’s a really goddamn brilliant show. Let’s get to a point where neither show has to carry the burden of opening doors or breaking ceilings.

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