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Diversity Is Slow To Arrive In Late Night Comedy


And Eric Deggans is with us now. We wanted to talk more about the future of late-night comedy. And we particularly wanted to talk about the whole question of getting a more diverse cast and writer's rooms on some of these shows, so Eric is staying with us for that conversation. Also joining us is Yael Kohen. She joins us from NPR's New York bureau. And she is the author of the "We Killed: The Rise Of Women In American Comedy." And, Yael, welcome to you, and, Eric, thanks for staying with us.

YAEL KOHEN: Thank you for having me.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Always a pleasure.

MARTIN: So, Eric, you just told us about the 40 years of "SNL." It seems like they had a time there in the 1990s and in the early 2000s when there were tons of female cast members who launched successful careers from that show - you know, I'm thinking of Molly Shannon, Kristen Wiig, Tina Fey. Are we seeing any other breakout stars like that recently?

DEGGANS: I would say Kate McKinnon is along those lines. She's "SNL's" utility player. She can play, you know, anybody from a refugee, you know, coming from Europe to Justin Bieber.

MARTIN: Justin Bieber and Hillary Clinton.

DEGGANS: Exactly, so she's probably the best example of that. But I think what "SNL's" doing now is turning towards racial diversity because that's A - the future of the audience that they want to speak to. They want to speak to young people, and they're more diverse than ever. And also, it's the place where they are still kind of falling down. They don't have any Hispanic cast members. They don't have any Asian cast members. They hired several black women recently. But only one of them has really broken out in Leslie Jones. So they have a ways to go, I think, with racial diversity.

MARTIN: That was the question I was going to ask you is the cast this year is very similar to the cast last year when this issue surfaced in a big way. Do you feel that "SNL" has largely put that issue to rest for now?

DEGGANS: No, I don't because I think they're aware - they should've been, frankly, 10 years ago if you ask me. But it's hard to even get them to realize that that's an issue or that it's tough for them until it's something as obvious as they didn't have someone who could play, you know, Michelle Obama until last year.

MARTIN: Yael, what do you think about this? And you can take the issue more broadly if you'd like to in just thinking about the whole landscape of late-night comedy, you know, overall.

KOHEN: I mean, obviously, we need to do better. You know, Joan Rivers had her late-night show back in the 1980s, and Fox launched the network off of that show, which is amazing to think about how little progress has been made since then. You know, it would be great to see a woman head up a late-night program. But then the big question that people have is late-night is a dying - it's not a dying format, but it's an old format. It's a stale format. It's hard to make it exciting in the way that some of the comedy that's coming out right now is exciting. And so the question is do women want to be late-night hosts? Now, of course, I'm sure you ask anybody - you offer them a late-night show, they're going to take it, and Samantha Bee has one coming out on TBS.

MARTIN: I also want to broaden the conversation to what's going on behind the scenes. It's not just the people who are in front of the camera, but the people who are doing the writing. I know it was noted earlier that a very small number of Stephen Colbert's writers - at least those credited writers - are women. That also seems to be the case with Jimmy Fallon.

KOHEN: Right.

MARTIN: The most high-profile late-night programs, and they're all men.

KOHEN: Sure. They're all men, and I think that they would make the argument that, you know, these men are being groomed for it in many ways. There's a lot of cliquey-ness in comedy. You know, people work in the clubs, and they kind of have their friends that they work with. And when they get the - when they get jobs, they kind of bring their people along. And sometimes when you bring along your people, your people kind of look like you. Also, I think when they generate lists of potential writers for a room, they are disproportionately stacked with men. It's not to say that there couldn't be more women on those lists. So it's not that the talent's not there, it's just where are you looking for the talent?

MARTIN: Well, let me ask each of you this question. Why does this matter? Recognizing that I asked you (laughter) I invited you to have this conversation, so I recognize that. I can see where some people might say you know what? I have bigger things in the world to worry about than this. Yael, why - does it matter?

KOHEN: Of course it matters. I mean, you have - when you have diversity in a writer's room or even on the screen, it kind of - it brings you new perspective. And comedy itself, you know, it's a way to examine the world around us and, you know, make perhaps certain things that are difficult to deal with more accessible. So when you only have straight white men telling us what's funny, you're seeing it through their lens, where they don't necessarily understand the female experience. It's not - that doesn't mean they're not made to - they can't be made to understand it, but they're not living it day to day. So I think in that way, you're leaving out 50 percent of the population, when it comes to women, of things that they can relate to or letting the other 50 percent of the population understand that this is what women go through. There is a sense sometimes that what men go through is universal and even if it has nothing to do with women.

MARTIN: OK. Go ahead, Eric. You wanted to add to that?

DEGGANS: My answer to that question would be much simpler - it makes the shows better. And so if you want to take this late-night comedy vein that feels so stayed and feels so, you know, old-school, the best way to freshen it up is to let new voices have a chance at making comedy in that realm. So it's time...

MARTIN: OK, we're almost out of time, so I just want to ask - speaking of - Yael, you alluded to this earlier, is late-night really the game that matters right now in comedy? You have alluded to the fact that there are more places to do comedy now than there were even five years ago. You know, and perhaps some of these outlets are more hospitable to their voices than the traditional broadcast networks and even perhaps traditional cable. I mean, there's, like, Hulu. There's Netflix, so...

KOHEN: Right.

MARTIN: ...Glass half-full, glass half-empty. And if you were a young woman interested in comedy, should you feel encouraged or discouraged right now?

MARTIN: I would feel encouraged, absolutely. I think that to focus simply on the late-night question is kind of a narrow lens. There's so much going on in comedy right now. And there's so many new ways to distribute it, whether it's YouTube or Hulu or Netflix or Amazon. There's such a - there are so many more outlets and such a hunger for content that it certainly seems like an opportunity to kind of create something that you're proud of that's outside of the realm of the format of a late-night show.

MARTIN: All right...

KOHEN: I mean, we shouldn't certainly let up on it. We would - I'd love to see a female host. But I don't think that that's the end-all be-all...


KOHEN: ...Of what's going on in comedy right now.

MARTIN: ...All right, Eric, we gave you the first word with your piece. I'm going to give Yael the last word with her comments here today. Yael Kohen is the author of "We Killed: The Rise Of Women In American Comedy." She was with us from New York. And Eric Deggans is NPR's TV critic. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

KOHEN: Thank you.

DEGGANS: Always a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.