The summer of 2014 will likely go down in American journalistic history as one of the most news-heavy summers in decades. Ukraine, Gaza and now Ferguson have gripped the attention of those who cover and consume the news.
For those who consume news through comedy, it is no different. This summer, millions of Americans, especially younger ones, will have their understanding of these international and domestic crises filtered through the lens of political satire, thanks to the efforts of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and relative newcomer John Oliver. Stewart and Colbert are darlings of the left, icons of contemporary American liberalism. But neither has earned that status in one very important way: the majority of their guests are just as white and male as they are.
Colbert’s track record, in particular, is simply pitiful. This is both surprising and dismaying, given his status as one of the most visible liberal comedians performing political satire today, and the place he holds in the hearts of so many left-leaning American viewers.
Though the situation appears to be improving in writers’ rooms, the on-air underrepresentation of anyone who isn’t a white male remains acute. Of the 10 late-night comedy shows with the highest ratings, only one is hosted by a woman. All 10 hosts are white (and 20 percent of them are named Jimmy). This looks likely to change at the end of 2014, when The Colbert Report ends its nine-year run and Colbert takes over at The Late Show. Colbert’s time slot at Comedy Central will be filled by The Minority Report, to be hosted by The Daily Show’s longtime Senior Black Correspondent Larry Wilmore.
How Colbert’s place in the late-night comedy landscape will shift when he moves from cable to network remains to be seen. For now, however, he is highly influential. The “Colbert bump,” the effect created by having the host endorse a product or an idea, is demonstrable> In response to Amazon’s treatment of Hachette authors, the comedian urged his viewers to buy the debut novel by Hachette’s Edan Lepucki from other retailers. Lepucki’s California debuted at No. 3 on the New York Times bestseller list. Authors and actors promote their newest releases on these comedy shows, and they are a way for public intellectuals to establish and build their bona fides. Appearing on Stewart or Colbert bestows credibility and respect on many of the people with whom the hosts choose to converse.