Wednesday, August 6, 2014

I Love James Corden, But He Shouldn't Be the Newest Late Night Host

James Corden has been hired to replace Craig Ferguson as host of "The Late Late Show"

Four months ago, when David Letterman first announced that he was retiring from The Late Show, Alexandra Petri of The Washington Post wrote a satirical piece recommending to CBS who their next hire should be: “A white guy named Jimmy. There are two places that Jimmys belong: on ice cream cones, and behind the desks of late-night shows.”  While CBS tapped Stephen Colbert to replace Letterman, it was yet another straight, white guy named Jimmy to whom they turned to fill Craig Ferguson’s chair at The Late Late Show, British comedian and actor James Corden.

Look, I like Corden.  I haven’t seen a great deal of his work, but he plays one of my favorite recurring Doctor Who characters, Craig, and he was positively fantastic in Hulu’s The Wrong Mans, which he also co-wrote.  Corden also has a Tony Award for his lead role in One Man, Two Guvnors and is portraying The Baker in the forthcoming film adaptation of Into the Woods.  This is a long-winded way of saying that the man has chops.  He’s a good actor with a sharp, well-honed comedic voice and I’m sure he’ll be great as host of The Late Late Show.

Despite my confidence, however, after the announcement came through Tuesday morning I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of regret that yet another late night hosting gig was going to yet another straight, white man.  A number of smarter, more eloquent writers than I am wrote a number of smarter, more eloquent pieces on this exact subject when Letterman announced his retirement.  I’m not going to try to duplicate their work or go into the myriad people who would be qualified to host a late night show.  Instead, I would like to talk about why I, as a straight, white man want to see somebody other than a straight, white man host a major network late-night show.

I’ve slowly been coming to the realization that about ninety percent of current pop culture is targeted directly at me, a white male in his mid-thirties.  I mean this not only in the sense that so many films are trying to trade on my nostalgia (comic book movies, Transformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, hell even Boyhood, etc.) or on the feelings and emotions men of my age are experiencing as we get married, have children, and try to figure out this thing called “adulthood,” but also in the sense that the vast majority of filmmakers today are white men in their thirties and forties.  Movies are being directed at me and men like me because men like me are making them. 

The turning point for me came this week as I sat down and looked at the people behind this year’s summer blockbusters.  Of the fourteen blockbuster films* released since April, all of them were directed by men and eleven were written solely by men.  Even worse, the only movie whose principal screenwriter was a woman, Maleficent, was widely criticized for its male director’s bumbling of what could have been an incredibly emotional and important feminist story.  Should it really be surprising that I’ve enjoyed so many movies this summer when they’re all written by and for people exactly like me?

* For these purposes “blockbusters” refers to any film that has earned or spent more than $100,000,000.

What makes film’s single-mindedness so frustrating is that television has made such great strides in recent years to introduce diverse viewpoints.  Don’t get me wrong, much of television is still very white and very male (especially in front of the camera), but I look at shows like 30 Rock, Orange Is the New Black, Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, Girls, Key & Peele, Broad City, Inside Amy Schumer, Trophy Wife, The Mindy Project and others and I see a wonderfully diverse group of storytellers.  And it’s not just diversity for diversity’s sake.  I would argue that in recent years television has surpassed film as the preeminent storytelling medium in large part because the proliferation of cable channels and their insatiable hunger for original programming has led to ever-increasing amounts of content – content that is exploring new forms, themes, and viewpoints.

Furthermore, not only is diversity in storytelling being encouraged in television (at least to a certain level), but its absence is becoming increasingly notable and lamented.  When Saturday Night Live debuted its 2013-14 season with six new white cast members (including five new white men) the criticism came almost immediately, not because the show needed women of color, but because the show was obviously, demonstrably worse for its inability to tell stories involving African-American women – a drawback it later tried to lampoon when Scandal star Kerry Washington hosted.

In January, SNL hired Sasheer Zamata to join the cast but, perhaps more importantly, hired LaKendra Tookes and Leslie Jones as writers.  While Zamata’s hiring made the most noise, it was Jones’s “Weekend Update” lament on the current state of her love life compared to her theoretical prospects under slavery that had the most lasting impact (“I’m six-feet tall and I’m strong…I would be the number one slave draft pick”).  [The following embedded video may or may not work.  If it doesn't, you can view it here.]

What is notable about this bit is not that it’s funny, which it is, but the awkwardness and uncomfortability of its humor.  You can almost feel the spine tingles of the (almost exclusively white) audience as it nervously laughs at Jones’s jokes.  It’s a difficult piece for the audience because it’s so unexpected, coming from a voice previously unheard from on recent years' Saturday Night Live.  This is diversity at its most potent: challenging the audience to see things from a different perspective, to feel what it’s like when a program isn’t speaking directly to you.

This challenging spirit would be perfect for The Late Late Show which, through the Tom Snyder, Craig Kilborn, and Craig Ferguson years, has never really managed to compete ratings-wise with NBC’s Late Night with Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Fallon, and now Seth Meyers.  In fact, The Late Late Show has always been keen on experimentation: First with Kilborn, whose The Daily Show was not nearly the phenomenon it turned into under Jon Stewart, and later with Craig Ferguson who eschewed many of the trappings of traditional late night television including the comedic sidekick, the house band, the scripted, long-form monologue, and the whole “being American” thing.  Furthermore, Ferguson’s Late Late Show has been consistently struggling in the ratings, regularly drawing A18-49 ratings between 0.2 and 0.4 (compared to Late Nights 0.5 to 0.6).  The risks posed by taking a chance on a non-white male host are basically nil.  Even if he or she tanks, it wouldn’t take that much to build back to where the show was.

It’s not surprising that CBS decided to replace straight, white man David Letterman with straight, white man Stephen Colbert, nor is it surprising that they decided to replace straight, white man Craig Ferguson with straight, white man James Corden.  But it’s disappointing because The Late Late Show is the lowest-rated of the late night shows (meaning there’s less risk with taking chances) and it’s the series with the most history of taking chances.  Instead of trying something new, though, CBS is replacing a straight, white Scotsman with a straight, white Englishman, barely even bothering to change their host’s nationality. 

Late night television doesn’t need a non-straight, white male host to show that it’s progressive or “keeping up with the times.”  It needs a woman, or a person of color, or a gay person to introduce a new viewpoint to the medium.  Television has made its critical bones in the last decade by featuring creative talent that doesn’t conform to the conventional norm.  Network late night shows are the last domain reserved solely for straight, white men; and it’s time for the reign of the Jimmy to end.

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