The Lingering Era of the Male Talk Show Host

Seeking female faces on our screens

by Barbara Esuoso


The lights in a large theatre are dimmed for a nightly ambiance, while the studio erupts with the noise of an enthusiastic crowd anticipating the appearance of the iconic 6-foot-4 redhead.  Conan O’ Brien confidently makes his way to center stage under the weight of unceasing applause. Experience exudes his persona as he makes goofy hand gestures at the nighttime crowd, eventually getting them to quiet down.  He smoothly begins to talk about national news (read: Donald Trump), generously sprinkling in some rudely humorous comments with the help of his announcer.

One remote flick to channel 4, and an infectious theme song begins blasting, with the spotlight now on a blue-lit stage and a woman with a blond pixie cut and a tailored suit. The audience is a sea of women with high-pitched screams for their beloved daytime host, Ellen DeGeneres, well-known stand-up comedian and talk show host. She starts off the show with a comedy bit, leading into an exercise that somehow has the crowd laughing for 20 minutes.

What’s the difference between Conan O’Brien and Ellen DeGeneres? They’re both funny, a subjective statement nonetheless proven by their immense success. Like most talk shows, both follow a similar format: celebrity guests, top musical performances, comedic banter, etc. And yet TV is full of so many more Conans than Ellens.

Aside from the vulgar Chelsea Handler on E!, whose show is now off-air, and programs like The View that are created for and primarily watched by bored housewives, most television talk show hosts are male. We have veterans and icons like Jay Leno, David Letterman, Larry King, and those that are still on the air: Bill Maher, Stephen Colbert, Conan O’ Brien, Carson Daly, the Jimmys (Fallon and Kimmel). On the other hand, there is a questionably low amount of female talk show hosts. The icon and legend, Oprah Winfrey, cannot be forgotten, but once she retired, female presence in the talk show world quickly waned. Women like Suze Orman, Ellen DeGeneres, Kelly Ripa, and Wendy Williams were left to hold down the fort, while the male-dominated talk show landscape soldiered on.

A recent issue of Vanity Fair put a spotlight on late night television, and the photo accompanying the article featured all men. The article described the insider business of passing on “late nights” and “daily shows” from host to host, man to man. Jay Leno gave The Tonight Show to Jimmy Fallon, who gave Late Night to Seth Meyers. Meanwhile, successful female entertainers like Margaret Cho or Kathy Griffin weren’t being considered for these positions.

“Do these high expectations mean that people in the media industry do not find women as capable of success?”

Of even further importance is the disparity between daytime and late night shows. Late night, or primetime, generally generates more viewers, as adults and students are home from work and school to tune in and keep up ratings. On the other hand, daytime television can only cater to a smaller audience. In recent years, Chelsea Handler’s Chelsea Lately was the only late night show with a female host, and even then she was on E! rather than a mainstream public broadcasting channel such as ABC or CBS. In a CNN article, Breeanna Hare seeks out the reason for the lack of female presence, especially in late night television, and finds the issue to be, of course, society’s power imbalance. Hare quotes James Poniewozik of TIME: “When late night shows began, male-dominated comedy reflected society’s power balance. Now guy humor is an increasingly isolated preserve of omega-male movies and geek-aggressive TV shows piped into man caves…it may hold out longer than business or law, but culture can change too.”

As movements for gender equality progress and permeate into law and business, let’s hope that they make a direct difference in culture as well.

Clearly, the media has been, historically, a male-dominated industry. The history of male-dominated professional fields runs far back to the early years of gender structures and roles in America. As these roles become less strictly defined, especially as gender equality resurges as a prominent national issue, women are filling larger roles in industries, including media. The question is, why haven’t they filled these new roles in a substantial way in the talk show business? In the same article, CNN interviews the legendary late Joan Rivers, who says: “It’s a very special art, a very special talent, and you [a female] have to be very strong. You have to be a great talker, a great listener and you have to be a fan. And they just haven’t found the woman with all that yet. But she’s out there.”

The bar is raised high for women in the industry, given that, in the past, they haven’t had an established network or foundation. Do these high expectations mean that people in the media industry do not find women as capable of success?

This can’t be true, especially considering female comedian powerhouses such as Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, who have generated millions of fans, hosted several well-known award ceremonies, and acted as the leading ladies of their respective television shows. Women like them are clearly capable of succeeding at late night hosting—they just haven’t been given the chance to prove it in the talk-show world, with its long legacy of white-male-behind-a-desk entertainment. Regardless, optimism for the emergence of a leading lady prevails.  

I do believe that there is hope, based on the past phenomenon of the long-standing empire built by The Oprah Winfrey Show. Winfrey, through her tear-jerking, evocative, and entertaining talk show, generated millions of viewers for over twenty years—and it was daytime.  She created a new realm of talk show presence by prefacing legends like Dr. Phil and Suze Orman. If Oprah is capable of creating a media movement, aren’t other women capable of hosting a talk show?

In short, the media industry has had an infrastructure that supports a certain host type—usually men—in the spotlight. Bringing women into the spotlight would mean a challenge to this infrastructure, a new era of talk show media, and, as Joan Rivers said, a risky step that must be taken by the right female host. That’s why today we are only able to look at memes of Family Feud’s Steve Harvey and the beautifully non-aging Anderson Cooper. It’s why we’ve had legends like Dr. Phil and Maury Povich to fix our seriously messed-up problems, and Regis Philbin to deceive us with the false hope that we could be as rich as him. We can all be grateful for this, while simultaneously demanding that their female equivalents not pass by undetected.

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