It's Comedy, Not 'The Daily Show,' that Has a 'Woman Problem'

The Daily Show's women
The Daily Show's women

If you shoot at the king, you'd better not miss, the saying goes -- and, in comedy, there's no bigger king than Jon Stewart. Women's blog Jezebel centered The Daily Show host in its crosshairs not long ago with a lengthy article about the program's behind-the-scenes "woman problem."

Quoting a number of former Daily Show employees and other comedians who tried and failed to get work there, Jezebel writer Irin Carmon painted the show as a place where women have a hard time getting their work on the air, or don't feel comfortable, or are valued primarily for their looks.

Daily Show Women Respond: "We're Indispensable"

Much of Carmon's supporting evidence came in the form of first-person accounts of women who, having failed to attain the kind of success they wanted at The Daily Show, concluded that sexism was to blame. But how much weight should one give the subjective gripes of disgruntled ex-staffers?

Not very much, say the women who currently work at the show. They issued an open letter refuting the Jezebel article. "The Daily Show isn't a place where women quietly suffer on the sidelines as barely tolerated tokens," they wrote. "On the contrary: Just like the men here, we're indispensable."

Still, numbers don't lie, and the numbers in this case are fairly incriminating. Without a doubt, the show has far more male correspondents than female, and only two members of its large writing staff are women. But numbers also require context to speak the full truth, and the context here is all important: Those two female writers are two more than Jay Leno, David Letterman and Conan O'Brien were employing on their shows -- combined -- as of a few months ago.

Looking Like a Reporter

The sexism that exists here is the institutional sexism of the comedy world, against which Stewart has actively worked against by, for instance, making outreach efforts specifically aimed at female writers. But much as he might want to achieve perfect gender parity on his staff, Stewart wants even more to produce a funny broadcast that gets high ratings, which means taking the best offerings from a comedy talent pool that everyone involved agrees skews overwhelmingly male.

And what about the accusation that The Daily Show is willing to put funny-looking men on camera but prefers only cute women? That, too, is a function of institutional sexism -- in this case, of the TV news world, where men can have jowls and comb-overs but women must be forever blond and youthful.

"I don't feel like I got this job because I look great or something; I feel like I got this job because I look like a reporter," Samantha Bee, The Daily Show's longest-serving woman correspondent, recently told The Frisky, another women's blog. "I think that's actually a much more important component to this job than anything. We audition people a lot and, really, it's the people who can look reporter-y who seem to get the job." (Indeed, Stephen Colbert, certainly The Daily Show's most successful alumnus, got his start there in part because he was an actual TV reporter.)

In other words, as long as real-life female TV journalists tend to be above average in looks, the attractiveness of female comedians who play TV journalists will also tend to be above average. There are probably worse injustices for Jezebel to worry about.