The debate over whether women can be funny has raged in for decades, but Kiley McNutt proves, through production theory, that the time is right for an estrogen invasion in late night.
By Kiley McNutt
Steve, Jack, Johnny, Jay, David, Conan, Joan, Jon, Jimmy, Craig, Bill and Chelsea. Which of these names doesn’t belong? Or in other words, which of these names stands out against the others? That’s right, these are kings of late-night television. Correction, these are the kings and queens of late-night television. Late-night television is dominated by male forces in front of and behind the screen and traditionally with the presence and success of very few women. Critical production decisions on the macro, mid range and micro-levels of Production Theory have resulted in the lack of women working in late night television.
Production Theory assesses the dynamics of individuals, organizations and institutional influence that we see on television by looking into three types of criticism (Vande 259). Macro-level criticism focuses on big-picture questions with ownership and networks. This criticism looks into how ownership affects what we see on television. Macro-level also looks into external factors larger than ownership and network such as economic and political factors that affect what we see on television. Micro-level criticism focuses on pressures faced by television workers, how these pressures affect what the viewer sees on television. Micro-level looks at how the emotional and personal relationships that affect TV workers portray what is on television. Mid-range criticism looks at the dynamics within a company (Vande 259). These criticisms investigate how decisions made behind the scenes affect what the viewer sees on television, things such as network and producer decisions and what material gets used for the show.
In the book, Film Production Theory, referring to the production of cinema going on as usual Jean-Pierre Geuens suggests, “On the surface indeed, nothing has changed and it is business as usual in Hollywood. If we dig a little deeper, though, it is not difficult to see that this background of continuing normality, glamour, and professionalism in the industry in fact hides radical transformations that have influenced the conception, production, distribution, and reception of films in the last thirty some years” (1-2). This suggests that the viewer, unless familiar with Production Theory, is blind to the changes that happen behind the scenes. They see the changes in front of them but what matters is how the information gets in front of them, the changes throughout the years that affect what the viewer sees. Production Theory uses an in-depth analysis to study the organization of the production and the decisions that are made. The gatekeeper concept of Production Theory states that, “at each level, an individual or group of individuals functions as a gatekeeper, controlling what ideas and information get through and what ideas and information are barred”(Vande 259). Influence and power are factors in decision-making and control in Production Theory. People are capable of controlling the information they receive on television and how they perceive it. If they choose to dig deeper, they may come to find material swayed a certain way based on FCC regulations, political ideologies, personal relationships, network ratings and much more. Production Theory relates to the lack of women working in late-night television in that, decisions made behind the scenes at all levels of control have failed to hire women to work on late-night television.
Macro-level forces such as network competition create suppressors for women to succeed in late-night television. When there is higher competition between networks, they will experiment by putting a woman in a “man’s role” and the presence of women becomes more prevalent. In a study focused on women in television in the 1980’s regarding women’s appearance in television, David Atkins states that experimenting with the use of women in television is greatest during competitive times for the networks. In these competitive times, they will experiment by putting women in non-traditional roles (680). He states, “We would expect that the number and range of series devoted to working women will increase after 1987 as the networks face intensified competition from the nascent FOX network and cable” (680). This example shows that in higher times of competition, women have a better chance at having a hosting role for late night.
Joan Rivers was the focus of an experiment in 1986 when her late night show premiered as the first female late-night talk show host. In the book, Television Talk: A History of the TV Talk Show, Joan Rivers’ show was analyzed from a business perspective. Fox was a brand new network that launched in 1986 and was eagerly trying to take over much of the viewing audiences. Fox took a great leap of faith on Joan Rivers, who had a tremendous amount of success as a permanent guest host on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, evening out his polite humor with her raunchy gossip talk. The failure of Joan Rivers’ show is blamed on the lack of talk show experience by the Fox network executives, the bad blood between Rivers and Carson and Rivers brash personality that was seen as off-putting to some (Timberg 131-134).
There are far fewer female writers than male writers on late night television as a result of Mid-Range components of Production Theory. Men being the talent of late night television, affect the hiring of female writers for their shows. As of November 11, 2009 there were no female writers on The Jay Leno Show, Late Night with Conan O’Brien and The Late Show with David Letterman. Late night has been considered a male-haven with advertisers, talent and a male dominated staff. Late night television was considered a man’s safe haven after a long day of work, where daytime television was meant to attract women. On the contrary, while men make up the majority on screen, women make up the majority of the audience. The New York Times article suggests that women make up over 50% of the late night audiences for most networks (Carter 1).
The most obvious difference between men and women on the production side is the amount of women writers on a show, compared to the amount of writers total on a show. “One woman who does have a late night show, Chelsea Handler on the E Channel, has five women writers on her staff of 10” (Carter 2). This statement suggests that when a woman runs the show from the talent perspective, there will be more female writers.
On the contrary, in a letter addressed to the public, the women of The Daily Show spoke out addressing issues of sexism and accusations of the lack of females on the production staff. The women pointed out that they make up 40% of the production staff including producers, writers, editors, crewmembers, correspondents and researchers. They claim that there is no sexism in the hiring process and that all employees are indispensible and hired on ability. “Jokes and concepts come from our studio department, our field department, our graphics department, our production department, our intern department, and our control room. Jon’s rule is: the strongest idea and the funniest joke win every single time, no matter who pitches it–woman or man, executive producer or production assistant. And of course none of these jokes and ideas would get to air without the layers of production talent working behind the scenes” (The Daily Show).
While it’s true that generally there are less female writers than male writers in late night, fewer women apply for the positions as writers for television than men according to Bill Carter’s article. If women aren’t applying for the positions, it’s difficult to make an argument that there are fewer female writers because there aren’t enough women to choose from to hire (2). On the contrary, seeing that late night television has traditionally been a man’s world could be viewed as intimidating for a female comic writer. The perception that men run late night television can seem daunting to women attempting to break into the industry. Female writers need to be more prevalent in order for late night television to appeal to its entire audience and while there are some late night shows that do employ a great deal of women, it is few and far between. Also, one could argue that Jon Stewart being Jewish sympathizes with the gender minority, being that Judaism as a religion is considered a minority. Chelsea Handler (who is also Jewish) hires women because she, like Jon Stewart, doesn’t see gender boundaries.
In an interview with Katie Couric she asks Chelsea Handler, “Is it hard for women in stand-up comedy?” Chelsea replies, “No. It’s easier…If you’re funny, you’re funny and you’re going to be funny. There’s truthfully less women out there doing it. I have female comedians on my show all the time that are hilarious” (@katiecouric). Chelsea Handler has become successful as a stand-up comedian and late night host with the help of five women writers and female stand-up comedians frequently sitting by her side at her daily roundtable. While her comment disputes the argument that it’s more difficult for women, it also supports it. She is a woman who hires women because she sees funny instead of female and she has become outrageously successful with her female supported staff.
Societal perceptions at the macro-level of production theory have made it more difficult for women to break into the industry due the perception that women are “not funny”. Women have historically been taught to be a lady, a mother and silent. Breakout women such as Joan Rivers, Carol Burnett, Lucille Ball and Phyllis Diller have changed these perceptions for women such as Chelsea Handler to succeed. This age old idea is still a struggle for women pursuing comedy in late night television. There is also an internal struggle at a micro level that funny women face in becoming successful stand-up comics due to this larger, external perception. The macro-level criticism directly affects the micro-level in that the large societal perceptions have become expectations of the public and instilled a false belief in women that they struggle with internally (micro).
In Susan Horowitz’ book Comic Appeal, Sex Appeal, and Power she points out an article from a 1909 newspaper stating “Measured by ordinary standards of humor, she is about as comical as a crutch…A woman was made to be loved and fondled. She was certainly not made to be laughed at” (4). Regina Barreca supports this claim by stating, “Comedy written by women is perceived by many critics as trivial, silly and unworthy of serious attention. These reactions might appear understandable, given that women are writing outside the locus of power and authority” (6). These two authors point out the historical idea that women are not expected to be funny nor powerful and if the two combined is preposterous. I think women are intimidated by this idea of breaking into the male domain of humor. Few women have the courage to use their humor to their advantage to entertain audiences and are enabled by this traditional viewpoint. Horowitz points out, in an article by Nancy Walker “To be a woman and a humorist is to confront and to subvert the very power that keeps women powerless, and at the same time to risk alienating those upon whom women are dependent for economic survival” (6). Since comedy is seen as a male profession, for a woman to pursue such an occupation, with talent nonetheless, would that make men who are unable to succeed in a male-dominated profession, feel like less of a man? Is a woman less of a woman for not succeeding in a female dominated profession? When I’m identifying “male” and “female” professions, society has taught me that is what they are on a macro-level of analysis.
First women need to become comfortable with their humor and get the courage to expose them as the opposite of a 1950’s prototype. Once women are comfortable the next step is breaking into the business. Getting a start in comedy was more difficult for women than men, “As female stand-up comics, Diller and Rivers met with tremendous resistance. Stand-up comedy was – and to an extent, still is – a male profession. Many male comics got their start doing comedy in strip joints – and audiences were used to equating men with humor and women with stripping” (3). Women are being even more objectified by having to stand in front of an audience of drunk, horny men and cross all acceptable barriers of comedic perception. Women are in a strip club to be looked at, while the men are to be laughed at.
Once women have now accepted the fact that society doesn’t view them as “funny” and they are able to stand in front of an audience of people they have to fight their own internal demons. In multiple articles it’s mentioned that female stand-up comics are forced to find their “inner nature at war with what’s expected from a ‘real girl’” (Horowitz 6). Carol Burnett confessed to avoiding production meetings on her show The Carol Burnett Show because she didn’t want to appear as “not nice” or unfeminine (3). Macro-level forces such as social perceptions of women create internal battles for women and what’s expected of them versus what they desire. Joan Rivers has said she doesn’t like funny women, that she doesn’t think she is funny but witty. Karen Babbitt has admitted to sacrificing femininity for comedic approval. “Funny women have to achieve a delicate balance – projecting enough power to take control of the audience and enough vulnerability to be non-threatening” (Horowitz 13). I agree with Horowitz and the fact that men can let loose when they are in front of an audience but women have to be cautious not to threaten or they’re violating an unwritten standard. Forces such as these become internalized in these women and in a sense I think that women are keeping themselves from fulfilling these comedic roles. Women have to let their own boundaries down and be willing to cross societies boundaries. Women who have done so have become incredibly successful. Carol Burnett said, “The idea that it’s not feminine to clown around is old hat. Just be you” (Horowitz 5). Today we see women like Chelsea Handler, Wanda Sykes and Sarah Silverman who are just as, if not more uninhibited than the men of comedy.
If societal perceptions at the macro-level could be changed, women would be able to change their own perceptions at the micro-level. Instead, women are fighting off their internal demons and forcing society to look at them and change their perceptions. Female comedians speak about their struggles of being both funny and attractive. Joan Rivers says, “Men don’t want you to be funny. I think they’re terrified that you might be smarter than they are…” (French). She goes on to say that when she is in front of a man, she inhibits herself the way she wouldn’t in front of an audience. Susan Horowitz quotes Michael Iopoce with, “We must ‘let our guard down’ to laugh. If we laugh too hard, we become ‘helpless’ or ‘weak’ with laughter. In our society, men are conditioned to avoid this at all costs. They are more reluctant to laugh than women, perhaps because they have been conditioned to avoid appearing weak, helpless, or just plain silly”(9). Women like Joan Rivers keep their guard up when around men so men don’t have to let their guard down… an internal struggle (micro), which is a direct result of a bigger, societal perception of the roles of men and women on a macro level.
Will a female ever appear on a major network as a late-night talk show host? I think Chelsea Handler has the most potential to becoming the next prime-time network late night host. In response to a question regarding bringing women onto a primetime network for late-night comedy Chelsea Handler responded that she was approached by a prime-time network and said, “I didn’t think I was really ready to graduate to that particular point and I’m not really sure that that’s where the future of late night is…cable is so much of a better medium for me. You get away with a lot more, standards of practice is why.” She continued by saying, “I get to say things that I probably wouldn’t be able to say on network television and I get to have opinions…that are more pointed…Jay Leno has to be nice to everybody” (@katiecouric). Chelsea Handler is known for her foul mouth and harsh outlook on celebrities, changing that would change the format of her show as well as the audience.
While I agree that Chelsea appeals to a certain audience and gets away with the format of her show due largely in her ability to voice her opinion and force a “bleep” every few minutes, ratings do not lie. At the 2010 VMA’s, Chelsea Handler brought in 11.4 million viewers as the host, the most since 2002’s VMA’s and the third highest ratings in VMA history (TVbythenumbers). Being that Chelsea had a larger audience, she had to appeal to more people and she was able to do so. She wasn’t doing her normal hosting gig on E Network where she gets away with whatever she wants and her audience members have a specific taste for her. Chelsea fans do have a specific taste and that’s honest, raw, uninhibited comedy where the host not only teases the celebrities and politicians, but the company she keeps as well as herself. “What is it about this woman that resonates beyond the relatively puny numbers of ‘Chelsea Lately’ …and the confines of concert venues … that are not always best in class? It can’t simply be the fact that she’s a woman in a male-dominated field, although she is only the second woman after Joan Rivers to have her own late-night show. Beth de Guzman, editor in chief of paperbacks for Grand Central, which published ‘Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang,’ talks of an ‘absolute fearlessness’ in Ms. Handler’s comedy while Simone Handler-Hutchinson believes her sister has developed a cult-like following in part because ‘fans like to live vicariously through Chelsea. She’s smart, she’s got guts, she likes to party’” (Barnes). Fearless is what a woman needs to be in order to be a successful late-night host. In my life time, I hope to see a fearless woman take the state next to the “big boys” on primetime network late-night television. As seen with the VMA’s, Handler can wear many different masks to appeal to a wider audience if she chooses to do so.
Macro level criticisms are seen in the economy and social forces that internalize battles for female stand-up comics with potential. Micro and mid-range criticisms show the lack of women behind the scenes in late night television and the ability to get more women in front of and behind the late night train. Production theory assesses these situations and suggests that these types of influences have a great deal of powerful affects on the women in the late-night television industry, or lack there of. In assessing these theories and criticisms, it will help the push in making women more prevalent in the late night comedy business.
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