Between the three major television networks—CBS, NBC, and ABC—six late night variety shows air nightly. Each has their own merits, though by no means are they meritocratic. All it takes is one glance at the October 2015 Vanity Fair cover story to see a disappointingly familiar pattern: straight white men dominate the late night landscape. The one female host in all of TV late night, Samantha Bee, wasn’t even featured in the spread (a point hilariously corrected in a viral tweet).
The issue with the current crop of hosts is not entirely based on demographics. Frankly, it is just that some of these guys aren’t very funny. Or, rather, their senses of humor are a few degrees below the level of maturity required to cover the increasingly serious political and social conditions faced by the country in the Trump era. Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon, particularly, have not adjusted well to this hyper-politicized environment, save a few standout moments. James Corden, the British host of CBS’s Graham Norton-esque “The Late Late Show,” is mediocre, and who even knew that Carson Daly appeared nightly on NBC’s “Last Call?” (I did not until I Googled it to research this article.)
When each day’s news seems more challenging to process than the last, the levity of a late-night comedian’s analysis is a welcome change of pace. If I’m going to stay up worrying about the crisis of the moment, I might as well learn a little more and laugh a lot in the process. CBS’ “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” which now outperforms Fallon’s “The Tonight Show” on a regular basis, has built its reputation on the incisive political commentary expected by audiences in the Trump era. For this Colbert has received much praise, most of which is well deserved. Still, “The Late Show” is Colbert’s and Colbert’s alone.
On the other hand, there’s Seth Meyers. Every bit as cerebral, though far less appreciated than Colbert, Meyers approaches NBC’s “Late Night” with a different philosophy. He recognizes the limitations of his identities and looks beyond himself to put on a show that’s remarkably different from those of his counterparts.
Meyers knows that there are some jokes he just can’t tell. He addresses this issue head-on in the aptly titled segment “Jokes Seth Can’t Tell.” Rather than shelving some of the jokes that come across his desk, two of his female writers, Amber Ruffin (who introduces herself with an enthusiastic “I’m Black!”) and Jenny Hagel (“and I’m gay!”) deliver punch lines that would probably sound racist, misogynistic, or homophobic if they appeared to have been developed by Meyers himself. The segment leads with Meyers acknowledging his own boundaries as a comedian.
“…a lot of jokes come across my desk that due to my being a straight, white male, would be difficult for me to deliver,” Meyers said.
The segment is not only hilarious, it’s also a lighthearted way to explore the role of identity in comedy. Meyers always appears to be shocked by what the writers say, while they smile mischievously at the audience. At the end of the segment, Meyers is encouraged to tell a joke, at the end of which Ruffin and Hagel feign outrage as Meyers declares, “lesbians and black women are liars!” It’s absolutely over-the-top, but the absurdity allows the host and his writers to demarcate new boundaries on the stage, where the host normally sits alone. By stepping out of the spotlight, Meyers makes room for his writers—and his entire show—to shine brighter.
When the show discussed the Women’s March, his female writers came on to give their takes. Two female writers debated the new Wonder Woman movie back in March. Nearly every time a topic appears that someone at the show could explain better than Meyers himself, he momentarily cedes his platform to them. With so much tokenism in today’s entertainment, it can be difficult to distinguish when shows are authentically taking on the issues. But considering how frequently and sincerely Meyers hands off the mic, it does seem that his show takes a legitimate interest in perspectives outside the white-male purview.
Most recently, in the days following Charlottesville, Meyers’ show aired a segment titled “Amber’s Late Night Safe Space.” In the span of six minutes, Ruffin (the first black female writer hired by a late-night show) walks Meyers through her experience. She leads him into her safe space, a room in which she cannot be made to feel uncomfortable (an experience that Ruffin likens to “going on Facebook after you unfriend all the people from your hometown.”) The cozy backstage room is decorated with luxurious furniture and paneled with portraits of generations of black female role models. When Seth tries to bring up neo-Nazis and white supremacists, he finds himself saying “neo napkins” and “white supermarkets” instead. When Ruffin challenges Seth to touch her hair, it’s as if a force field has appeared around her head. They share margaritas and have an honest discussion, led by Ruffin, about the need for self-care in a hostile America. A couple of smart, light jokes are strategically placed throughout (it is a comedy show, after all).
When Meyers states that he wishes he had a safe space, Ruffin bluntly replies that he already does: America. As a white, Christian man living in America, Meyers does not need a safe space, and having someone tell him that on his own show is particularly poignant. He allows himself to appear ignorant on the air and to seek answers for that which he can’t possibly know from his own experience. Ruffin takes the lead and ends up the unequivocal hero of the story.
All network late night hosts are held back by their limited points of view. Even the sharpness of Colbert’s monologues cannot combat such identity-based limitations (plus, he has a tendency to talk over his guests). By handing over his desk, his mic, and ultimately his air time, Seth Meyers is the only host of network late night TV that has rightfully earned his slot.