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Late-night TV stand-up demographic scorecard: First half, 2012

Eddie Brill and David Letterman

Remember when The New York Times profiled Eddie Brill into a corner and caused an uproar both within CBS and Late Show with David Letterman -- which took away Brill's power to book stand-up comedians on Letterman after almost 11 years -- and within the comedy community, which debated whether female comics really do "act like men" to please audiences?

That was six months ago.

Most people focused on the sillier aspects of the NYT piece. The backbiting by other comedians. Women not being feminine onstage. Women being too feminine onstage. That Brill got to perform on Late Show while also booking it. OK. That last one may have been a true conflict of interest -- even if it no longer exists, and when it did, Brill maintained that he only performed on camera at Letterman's behest.

No. The one thing that stood out in the January 2012 NYT piece on Brill, and continues to stand out, is a fact: Women (as well as non-white people and gay men) who perform stand-up comedy have very few opportunities to showcase their stand-up comedy on network TV.

First, though, a caveat. The late-night talk shows on ABC, CBS, NBC and TBS often invite comedians to do "panel" -- sitting next to the host in a chair or couch, there to plug a TV show, movie, book, CD or DVD. They may recite their bits, but it's not the same when the host is part of the dialogue and setting them up. Also, yes, Chelsea Handler over on E! invites many comedians onto Chelsea Lately, but there again, they're all sitting together in trios behind a counter, riffing on gossip and headlines of the day. It's fundamentally not the same (read: different) from standing alone with a microphone and performing a stand-up routine.

And if you want to look at cable, even Comedy Central's stand-up showcases give short shrift to the ladies. John Oliver's New York Stand-Up Show, currently airing its third season, offered two spots to women among the 24 performers (16 of the 22 men are white). Last year's Gabriel Iglesias Presents Stand-Up Revolution may have blazed a trail for Latino stand-ups, but of the 20 performers onscreen, only two were women.

That said, let's see how much the world of late-night TV has changed as a result of the NYT piece on Brill.

In the first six months of 2012:

Conan (TBS) encouraged stand-up comedy most frequently, with 23 performers taking center stage on his Burbank lot. Of those 23, 18 were white men. One woman (Erin Foley) got a chance, as did four other male stand-ups (Hannibal Buress, Kumail Nanjiani, Owen Smith and Dwayne Perkins).

Late Show with David Letterman (CBS), under new booking by a team of "young" staff members, helped produce 11 stand-up comedy segments inside the Ed Sullivan Theater. Of those 11, all were men. Yes, that's correct. No women. And the one male comic who wasn't white was Joe Wong, who has performed on Letterman multiple times previously.

Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson (CBS), which pre-tapes the stand-ups and sometimes delays their broadcasts for weeks at a time due to Ferguson's propensity to chat up guests for the full hour, managed to fit seven (7) stand-ups into the first half of this year. All were men. Five of the seven were white.

Late Night with Jimmy Fallon (NBC) also booked six stand-up acts in the first half of 2012, and changed bookers during this year. Now the booker for Montreal's Just For Laughs festival selects the comedy talent for Fallon. Which, interestingly enough, led to three acts receiving gigs on both Fallon and Montreal this year. Anyhow. As far as opportunities went, four of the six acts here also were white; the others were the Lucas Brothers, and Wendy Liebman.

The Tonight Show with Jay Leno (NBC) only managed to book one stand-up act early in 2012, and that was longtime performer (and Seinfeld touring partner) Mario Joyner. Of course, Leno did book several stand-up acts as "correspondents" on his short-lived excursion into primetime. And he continues to fly in Jim Norton on occasion, though that's for sketches and riffing, not for stand-up.

Jimmy Kimmel Live (ABC) likewise, only booked one stand-up act early in 2012, and that was Dana Gould.

The totals? 49 stand-up performances; 38 white men, nine men who aren't white, and two women.

Does it have to be this way? Should it be this way? Do white men dominate stand-up comedy, and therefore they also should dominate the airtime on late-night TV talk shows? Do lesbian performers have a leg up, so to speak, on gay men in terms of receiving these opportunities? Is it because they're acting like men? And why did Leno and Kimmel scale way back on their stand-up bookings this year?

If you were booking the stand-up comedy segment for a late-night TV talk show, what would be your criteria? Would you worry about diversity -- not just in terms of gender or ethnicity, but also in age and experience? Or would you just put any funny person you saw on the show?

Voice your opinions in the comments!

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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8 Comments

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  3. Rob Lowman

    As a person who has failed college statistics 3 times, this article strikes me as complete bull shit. Allow me to explain. Are there more white comics then other demographics? Let’s say there were 100 male white comics for every female comic. Now let’s say Letterman had on 10 male comics and one female comic. That would mean 100% of professional female comics got a spot on Letterman while only 10% of males got the opportunity. Is it possible that because there are so many more male white comics that when shows look for the most talented individuals there are more talented white males to book then other demographics? It’s a thought. I don’t know the numbers but I am pointing out that saying: “hey there were ten spots and they all went to men, this is wrong” is bullshit as the selection of candidates could be predominately white males. Or put another way, Letterman rejected more white males when selecting comics then any other demographic. Also, I don’t know the networks numbers. Perhaps these comics actually do best for their audiences. Just saying there’s other info to consider and let’s not be a bunch of whiny pussies about this. Granted though as a white male with no current comedic prospects, I’d like to keep as many doors open as possible.

    Reply
    • Voice Of Reason

      yes, its easy to find funnier white men than women, because of the numbers. But what's the explanation for the lack of black comics? On every level, even though there are a lot less, there are as many if not more black comics performing at a high level (even if they aren't recognized - btw I
      m a white comic). Let's say they are 100 white comics to every 25 black comics. I would say the 15 of those white comics are on a level where they kill it all the time and can be all over TV. But I would also say 15 of the 25 black comics are there too, yet nobody books more than a few at a time because they don't want the show to be booked as urban.

      Reply
  4. Prateek

    Conan's show is by the most diverse. And while true in the first 6 months of 2012, there was only 1 female comic but in terms of non white comics there were a few more(Hannibal Buress and Dwayne Perkins). And in July he put up 3 female comics including Beth Stelling, Tig Notaro and Cristela Alonzo(female and non white)

    Reply
  5. Josh Homer

    let's keep this in mind when Stand Up for Diversity comes around and all the white male comics start complaining.

    Reply
  6. Damon Earl

    This article fails to take into consideration network censors who dictate inappriate material for the viewers of tv land. A comic who is more obscene in a club may be very funny but his filtered set in most instances simply isn't because they do not work on it as much since not booked to do so. The non white, female and gay unfortunatly are generally far more graphic in their humor presentation and while many are very funny in that capacity they bomb without it! This is my personal observations as I do standup comedy every so often, nothing prejudice or racist but, simply the way it is!!

    Reply
  7. Liz Worrell

    Congrats, Sean! You can count! Now, what do those numbers mean? You don't make any attempt to extrapolate a conclusion in your article. You just let the numbers hang there, looking bias, while you say nothing about them. You're just trying to get people wound up so they will read your blog. This is shock-value, entertainment journalism created for the sole purpose of getting people upset at the white man, the one demographic who has no way of defending himself from any type of ridicule.

    There is a submission process for late night, yes? How many white men submitted? Did more white men submit that any other demographic? How many more? Sure, if equal amounts of men and women submit and, then, fewer women are chosen, fine, I'll agree to some prejudice. But, as Rob stated in his comment, there are other numbers to consider. And we don't have access to those numbers. You, the author, did no research and, thus, failed to provide us with those numbers.

    Chelsea Lately has more women than any other show. Why? Because women watch that show! Dave Attell is a talented white male comedian who will never be on Chelsea Lately. Why? Because 18 - 34 year old women have no desire to look at, or hear from, Dave Attell. Same with Louis CK. And Neal Brennan. And the scores of talented white comedians who have never been on that show.

    Who watches Comedy Central? Men ages 18 - 24. So, the only female comics allowed on Comedy Central are going to be the ones who cater to that audience. Does that mean Rita Rudner isn't talented? No, it just means she doesn't work for Comedy Central. But, it would still skew your ridiculous little count when you do your article about: Number of Men VS Women on Comedy Central.

    What are the ratios of white men watching late night VS other demographics? If you tell me that a substantial market share of black women in their 30's are watching Letterman, I will bet you the program will start booking more comedians that appeal to that demographic.

    Just pointing at a television and saying, "There's a white guy, there's a white guy, there's a white guy," is completely meaningless. Taking to your blog to publish your numbers is even more meaningless. You should be ashamed of yourself. And you should go back to school and learn how statistics work.

    Reply

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