Lack of Female Comedic News Hosts Must Be Taken Seriously

Posted in 2014 The Gnovis Blog

Earlier this month, “Saturday Night Live” executive producer Lorne Michaels announced that comedian Michael Che would replace Cecily Strong on the show’s “Weekend Update” segment.[1] This is notable for multiple reasons, not least of which that Che will be the show’s first black anchor.[2] But another particularly compelling one is that this will mark the first time the ‘Update’ desk, which boasts venerable alumnae Jane Curtin, Tina Fey, and Amy Poehler, is staffed by two men.[3] Strong has stated that she is happy about the move, and is looking forward to doing more sketch work on SNL[4] (and no doubt many viewers will laud the return of “The Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With at a Party”). However, her replacement by a man could have grim implications for a late-night and satirical news media landscape that remains tirelessly male-dominated.
It was timely, then, that last week Georgetown Professor Leticia Bode assigned the students in CCT:505 two articles on comedic and satirical news, neither of which touched on gender politics: “Filmed in Front of a Live Studio Audience: Laughter and Aggression in Political Entertainment Programming,” of which she is a co-author, and Michiko Kakutani’s 2008 profile of Jon Stewart.
I wondered what the data would reveal if Professor Bode’s study had also considered its subjects’ reactions to known and unknown female hosts. The authors’ argument that the presence of audience laughter makes viewers perceive the host as “more credible and likeable and less aggressive”[5] strikes me as accurate, but I suspect that perceived credibility, likeability, and nonaggressive-ness would be more difficult for a female host to earn. I’m certainly not trying to revive the tiresome “Can women be funny?” debate, but rather pointing out that viewers habituated to male hosts—Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and all the white boys of late-night talk shows—would likely be harder on women. It also would have been interesting to note the subjects’ genders and consider the differences between men and women’s perceptions.
There is little doubt that The Daily Show has earned its reputation as “both the smartest, funniest show on television and a provocative and substantive source of news,”[6] and both Stewart and Colbert are uncontestably brilliant. Furthermore, Larry Wilmore’s Minority Report—The Colbert Report’s successor—promises to be a delight. But until more women are hosting comedic and satirical news programs (Daily Show sideliners Samantha Bee and Jessica Williams, anyone?), I fear that viewers’ ideas about who gets to be “funny” and “likeable” and “nonaggressive” will remain biased, problematic, and—case in point—unexamined.
[1] Bill Carter. “New Comic to Anchor ‘Update’ on SNL.” The New York Times, September 11, 2014. Web.
[2] Rebecca Rose. “Michael Che to Become First Ever Black Anchor of SNL’s Weekend Update.”, September 11, 2014.
[3] Carter
[4] Megh Wright. “Cecily Strong says she’s ‘Genuinely Happy’ About Leaving Weekend Update.”, September 15, 2014.
[5] Emily K. Vraga, Courtney N. Johnson, D. Jasun Carr, Leticia Bode, and Mitchell T. Bard. “Filmed in Front of a Live Studio Audience: Laughter and Aggression in Political Entertainment Programming,” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 58:1, 131-150, DOI: 10.1080/08838151.2013.875020.
[6] Michiko Kakutani, “Is Jon Stewart the Most Trusted Man in America?” The New York Times, August 15, 2008.