By Tanya Steele | Shadow and Act April 11, 2014 at 12:41PM
America could elect a Black President. But, we can’t hire a major network Black or Female late night talk show host?
When David Letterman announced his retirement, emergency flares shot through my Facebook feed. Friends, including myself, tossed out names to replace the late night institution that is David Letterman. Chris Rock, Dave Chapelle, to name two comedy stalwarts. Chris Rock had a talk show that ran on HBO for 5 seasons. Clearly, they are beyond qualified and a joy to watch.
When Arsenio Hall was King, he illuminated late night. He broke ground. Even the office of the presidency understood his power and reach. He was not only a talk show host, he had the ability to energize a voting base. This topic is comedy. I shouldn’t get too political here. But, Comedy, in America, has serious influence. The best comedy in America is political.
The best comedians are able to turn an eye to the culture, deconstruct it with a quick joke and make us laugh at ourselves. Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Whoopi Goldberg, the Wayans ‘In Living Color’, could tickle a funny bone until you thought you would damn near die from laughter. After my mother went to sleep, my sisters and I would put a Richard Pryor concert on and laugh ourselves silly. There was a knowing. And, even though his humor was beyond our years, we recognized the characters he created. We recognized his turn of phrase, his posture, his view of the world. We were affirmed through that funny man. Richard, Eddie, Whoopi, could access a place in us that we didn’t see in the culture. They signaled a truth, an earnestness, a clarity that was piercing.
I cannot be selfish in this delight. These comedians built a cultural bridge. Few things in network television expresses a Blackness without apology. Humor does that. It can be bold, incisive and illuminating. It can tell the culture about itself and cause it to reflect on its ills in one minute or less. In this, the Obama era, perhaps America is still too afraid to reflect on itself in this way.
I haven’t tuned in to a late night program in a while. Every now and again, I will see what is happening on Letterman. But, I always feel like there is a running joke that I am not a part of. The “schtick”, the “quips”, late night culture does not invite me to the table. There are deeper issues in the culture that go unaddressed. I see late night as a missed opportunity. The thing that America sees before it goes back to sleep.
Recently, I watched ‘Saturday Night Live’ to see Sasheer Zamata. Every time she comes on the screen, I smile. Simply because I see myself in her. In her hair, in her style, in her wit. I understand that her visuals are a rarity for network television. I’m a fan. And, I support all that she does. (Lately, I’ve been paying specific attention to the ways in which Black women are invisible in the big shows: Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy, The Sopranos. There’s an invisibility that I will address in another piece.) But, for now, Sasheer is the sum total for Black femaleness on late night.
We do get substitute Blackness. And, racist humor that is supposed to illuminate. I am learning that in order for Americans to be okay with race reflection, delivering “racist humor” is a safe way to go. Suey Park’s push back of Colbert was swatted away, again, by his brand of humor. I can be racist because it’s a joke. He’s a mirror, reflecting racism back to White folks. I get it. I do think it has been valuable for the culture. However, I got the joke the first two seasons. It has run its course, served its purpose. At least, to me. Apparently, not to other demographics. As stated earlier, I feel left out of the joke.
Jimmy Fallon and his co-opting of Black culture appears to be winning the day. We have ‘The Roots’, “not your typical house band”. But, a house band, nonetheless. Black folks have always been very good at providing the “support” entertainment. And, although we learned from Questlove that they do have a voice beyond simply playing music (they provide commentary through their musical selections), they’re still the support.
“Slow Jamming” the news has always been a tad offensive to me. Jimmy Fallon reminds me of the White guys who like to parody Black culture. They find Black culture interesting. Fun. Curious. But, don’t use their platform to deconstruct how the larger culture shapes Black life in negative ways. And, before any one jumps to inform me about his “charity” work, his “good deeds”, I would say that these “skits” are also his charity work. He has stepped into the “Black void” that was left by Arsenio. He has rebranded it and is doing quite well for himself.
Two of the best characters America has created are the Black comedian and the Female comedian. They have moved the culture forward and brought us together without our noticing because we were too busy laughing at ourselves. I love comedy. I love comedians. And, I want to see a Black or Female comedian take the reigns from David Letterman. It is clear, the audience is ready for it. America elected a Black President for goodness sakes. Is it too much to have a funny Black man or a Woman enter our homes, every night, in 2015?
Stephen Colbert should do the right thing- step aside and give that coveted spot to a person of color or a woman. I remember when Colbert won the Emmy and his team took the stage. All White. SMH. Don’t be duped into believing that only a White man can handle the Worldwide Pants. When you pull the curtain back and see the Wizard, you know that anyone can be the Wizard. It’s simply a choice. Instead of parodying racism and sexism, in the culture, Colbert should give that coveted platform to someone who, by his or her very presence, will invite us to shift our mindset in ways that another White man never will.