The summer of 2014 will likely go down in American journalistic history as one of the most news-heavy summers in decades. Ukraine, Gaza and now Ferguson have gripped the attention of those who cover and consume the news.
For those who consume news through comedy, it is no different. This summer, millions of Americans, especially younger ones, will have their understanding of these international and domestic crises filtered through the lens of political satire, thanks to the efforts of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and relative newcomer John Oliver. Stewart and Colbert are darlings of the left, icons of contemporary American liberalism. But neither has earned that status in one very important way: the majority of their guests are just as white and male as they are.
Colbert’s track record, in particular, is simply pitiful. This is both surprising and dismaying, given his status as one of the most visible liberal comedians performing political satire today, and the place he holds in the hearts of so many left-leaning American viewers.
Though the situation appears to be improving in writers’ rooms, the on-air underrepresentation of anyone who isn’t a white male remains acute. Of the 10 late-night comedy shows with the highest ratings, only one is hosted by a woman. All 10 hosts are white (and 20 percent of them are named Jimmy). This looks likely to change at the end of 2014, when The Colbert Report ends its nine-year run and Colbert takes over at The Late Show. Colbert’s time slot at Comedy Central will be filled by The Minority Report, to be hosted by The Daily Show’s longtime Senior Black Correspondent Larry Wilmore.
How Colbert’s place in the late-night comedy landscape will shift when he moves from cable to network remains to be seen. For now, however, he is highly influential. The “Colbert bump,” the effect created by having the host endorse a product or an idea, is demonstrable> In response to Amazon’s treatment of Hachette authors, the comedian urged his viewers to buy the debut novel by Hachette’s Edan Lepucki from other retailers. Lepucki’s California debuted at No. 3 on the New York Times bestseller list. Authors and actors promote their newest releases on these comedy shows, and they are a way for public intellectuals to establish and build their bona fides. Appearing on Stewart or Colbert bestows credibility and respect on many of the people with whom the hosts choose to converse.
And yet when it comes to gender and race, their guest rosters more closely resemble a GOP national convention than they do the liberal vision of a diverse and equitable America. Of Stewart’s most recent 45 guests, 17 of them, or 38 percent, were women. This is closer to gender equity than many comedy and news shows manage, and it’s certainly a better showing than Colbert. But when you factor in race, Stewart’s numbers start to look very grim indeed. A resounding majority – 68 percent – of his guests were white, and of the very few African-American guests who appeared on his show, all were entertainers – the band Wu Tang Clan and the comedian Kevin Hart. Women of color fared similarly poorly on The Daily Show: Out of 45 guests, just three were women of color.
In Colbert Nation, the numbers were worse still: 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.
Stewart has come under fire before for the lack of diversity in his writers’ room and among his correspondents. In 2010, journalist Irin Carmon, then a staff writer at Jezebel, wrote about the lack of gender diversity in late-night comedy generally but zeroed in on The Daily Show as a particularly poor performer. “As fiercely liberal and sharp-eyed an observer as Jon Stewart can be, getting women on the air may be his major blind spot,” Carmon wrote, provoking a firestorm during which Stewart stated on the air that “Jezebel thinks I’m a sexist prick.” Four years later, The Daily Show has one additional woman correspondent — for a grand total of two.
It was also a bad year in the guest chair for both Colbert and Stewart. Artist Jennifer Dalton chronicled a near 90 percent male guest rate in an exhibit called “Cool guys like you.”
Though Colbert came under fire earlier this year for his attempt to use racial insensitivity to mock racial insensitivity, he has not faced public criticism about the dearth of women on his show – but his failure to feature a diverse range of guests suggests that he should. Earlier this summer, Colbert interviewed white men on six consecutive shows. In short, Colbert and, to a lesser extent Stewart, are sending the message that the most credible, interesting and relevant people out there – the people viewers should hear from and know about – are almost all white and male.
Late-night comedy will be dominated by white men for the foreseeable future – hosts come and go so rarely, and we are so far from racial and gender equity that it will take years before the host population hits parity. But achieving diversity among guests can be solved much more quickly. If we must live in a late night landscape hosted by white guys, the least we can demand of those men, especially if we’re going to hold them up as liberal icons, is that they practice what they preach. Right now, the hypocrisy is so severe that it’s not even funny.