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BIPOC late-night and variety show writers say the lack of diversity on-screen and behind it is due to a lack of chances and opportunity given to people of color.
“If you look at traditionally… the hosts that we remember a lot, the ones from those 11:30 p.m. 12:30 a.m. shows, they got so many chances,” Greg Iwinski, who has written for Comedy Central’s “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” and CBS’ “Late Show With Stephen Colbert” said Thursday during TheWrap’s strike roundtable, “BIPOC Late-Night and Variety Writers Speak Out.”
“But if you’re a person of color, it’s like, ‘Here are six episodes, each year that we’re going to call a season. So you have six half-hours,’” Iwinski continued. “And [executives] are saying, ‘Well, if [hosts of color] can’t do it in two and half hours a year, I guess we’ll just let your show get canceled after two or three seasons.’”
Historically, late night TV has been a predominately white man’s playground. Vanity Fair’s 2015 photoshoot with the “titans of late-night” made that abundantly clear. Though Larry Wilmore (“The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore”) and Trevor Noah were the two exceptions out of the lineup of 10 hosts.
Noah’s exit as the host of “The Daily Show” in 2022 — a position passed to him by Jon Stewart after he left the show in August 2015 — marked the last time a person of color hosted a late-night series on television. At least until Arsenio Hall’s show, after Noah’s departure, POC representation in the 11 p.m. block and on streaming platforms got more and more scarce.
A reboot of Hall’s late-night Fox series “The Arsenio Hall Show” (the first Black-owned and hosted late night talk show, which debuted in 1989) was canceled after one season on Netflix. Showtime canceled its hit series “Desus and Mero” in 2022 after a two-season run and the duo’s split, and the cabler also dropped Ziwe Fumudoh’s self-titled variety show, “Ziwe,” after two seasons in April of this year.
While viewers still have “The Amber Ruffin Show” on Peacock and Sam Jay’s “Pause With Sam Jay,” even late-night veteran Jay Leno (NBC’s “The Tonight Show”) recognized there was an issue with diversity in the TV sector a long time ago.
“I applaud anybody that tries something different in late night TV,” Leno said at the time in a CNBC interview. “It’s just another white guy at 11:30. That’s not really groundbreaking. It would be interesting to get some minority opinions and some women in there, too.”
John Thibodeaux, who served as a writer for “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” said some of the issues lie within the leadership.
“I think a lot of it goes back to who the executives are and who are the people making these types of decisions,” he said. “Because I think in the vacuum of their inability to understand the product, they lean on what they think is a proven…someone who brings their own audience, right?”
Like in TheWrap’s previous strike roundtable with BIPOC writers, the panel also said they’ve experienced limited amounts of diversity in the writers room.
Naima Pearce worked on HBO’s now-canceled “A Black Lady Sketch Show,” which she said had one of the one of the most diverse writers rooms she’d ever been part of. It was comprised mostly of Black women, some of whom were first-time writers. Pearce opened up about how the strike is impacting the pipeline of opportunities for female writers of color.
“I had not written on a show, I think, with another Black woman at that point… It becomes a space for information sharing,” Pearce said. “I think a big thing about this strike is [people of color] were isolated, in some way and in their rooms. Being a minority, or the only person of color in the room. There was just a lot more talking during the strike about how [people of color] are getting, for lack of a better word, screwed and feeling a little less alone in how [we’re] struggling to make ends meet. You think it might be like a personal failure of like, ‘Should I just be funnier?’ It’s not that. It’s systemic. What a surprise.”
Celeste Yim (NBC’s “Saturday Night Live”) agreed that POC representation in Hollywood is slow to change.
“Luckily, when I joined ‘SNL,’ I was not the only person of color, but I was one of them… even on the picket lines there is an overt lack of diversity. The strike being a class issue makes it a race issue. And the reality is that we make up a very small percentage of the industry. And I think so many of us are used to our identities being exceptional. When I started doing stand-up in 2014, I was like the only working Asian comedian in Toronto, every show I did was historic. I feel that still. I’m one of the only queer people of color in a leadership position and late-night television.”
Tim Barnes (NBC’s “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon”) recalled the time he was the only Black writer on the late-night series.
“There have been plenty of Black writers on the ‘Tonight Show’ and there have been plenty of Black writers since, but I was in this interesting space where I was the only Black writer on the show for that period. That was a strange amount of pressure that I’m still unpacking,” Barnes said. “There’s this fear of just being the flavor of the moment when you get that opportunity to be a Black host or a Black writer on a show.”
Ultimately, Iwinski said these issues are all due to the chances people of color don’t get in comparison to their white counterparts.
“We need to enter an era where people of color, writers, performers of color, hosts of color are given that same kind of chance to find their voice and find the show’s voice and find that audience,” Iwinski said. “I think of ‘Last Week Tonight.’ That first season was over 20 episodes out the gate. That’s a lot of chances to get it right. And some chances where you get it wrong.
He continued, “I remember when I was at ‘Colbert.’ It was like, We’re No. 1, 3.1 million people watch us a night. So a little less than 1% of America watches us every night and we’re the biggest show in this kind of television. Like you think there’s not three million Black people out there that want to watch a show? There are, we just need to be given the same chance.”
Watch the full panel discussion above.
For all of TheWrap’s WGA strike coverage, click here.