The Daily Show is many things: progressive darling, alleged news source for America's youth, righteous media critique. And it's also a boys' club where women's contributions are often ignored and dismissed.
If Olivia Munn, the former videogame show host introduced to Daily Show viewers three weeks ago, survives her tryout, she'll be the first new female correspondent on the show in seven years. With the notable exception of Samantha Bee, who's been on since 2001, female correspondents have been a short-lived phenomenon. As fiercely liberal and sharp-eyed an observer as Jon Stewart can be, getting women on the air may be his major blind spot.
Television comedy, and late night in particular, can be cutthroat and transitory, and no one is particularly surprised when the men who host these shows turn out to be not very nice guys, as anyone who cared to pay attention to the David Letterman fall-out could see. Women are universally scarce, whether in the writer's room or on the air. And the environment on The Daily Show was arguably worse in the Craig Kilborn era: Back in 1997, the then-host was suspended after tellingEsquire,"To be honest, [co-creator] Lizz [Winstead] does find me very attractive. If I wanted her to blow me, she would." (Winstead quit not long afterward.) Nowadays there may be less overt frat-boy humor, but that doesn't mean the institutionalized sexism is gone.
Given its politics and the near-universal adoration with which it's met, the current iteration of The Daily Show is held to a different standard by the viewing public. But behind the scenes, numerous former female staffers tell us that working there was often a frustrating and alienating experience.
"What I was told when I was hired is that they have a very hard time finding and keeping women, and that I was lucky to get a one year contract," says Lauren Weedman, a comedian and writer who worked on the show as an on-air correspondent from 2001-2002.
This mentality arguably goes straight the top: The host and executive producer's onscreen persona is lovable mensch, but one former executive on the show tells us "there's a huge discrepancy between the Jon Stewart who goes on TV every night and the Jon Stewart who runs The Daily Show with joyless rage." (A representative for Comedy Central said they would be unable to participate in this story.)
The story of Stewart throwing a newspaper or script at the show's co-creator and executive producer Madeleine Smithberg out of displeasure with her work is an oft-told one among Daily Show veterans. Not long after the continued tension led Smithberg to quit in 2003, sources say Stewart refused to allow her onstage to accept the show's Emmy, even though her work contributed to the win.
Stacey Grenrock Woods was on Stewart's show from 1999-2003, longer than any other correspondent besides Bee. (She later chronicled the experience in her book, I, California.) She told me, "Did I feel like there was a boy's club there? Yeah, sure. Did I want to be part of it? Not necessarily. So it kind of goes both ways."
This mutual disdain is perhaps why so few women stuck around, whether by choice or otherwise. Weedman says that she knew her own days were numbered from the moment she was given the desk of Miriam Tolan, another female correspondent who did not yet know she'd been fired.
"When I was there they were always having auditions for women," she says. "I would see all these blonde women coming in-they'd give them the same copy they gave me the night before. And I knew I'd be fired." (She was.)
Overall, The Daily Show's environment was such that many women felt marginalized. "It was a place of just business," says one show veteran. "The business happened to be hilarious comedy, but you weren't allowed to enjoy it...Any sort of emotional vulnerability is like blood to a shark. And that is not great for women."
Misreading the culture could cost you. Adrianne Frost, who worked briefly as a correspondent in 2002, says, "I didn't know this at the time, but you needed to be too cool for school. I was being grateful and thankful….With a woman it comes off as 'needy, crazy, insecure.'"
After a single, well-received segment from Frost about a woman fighting for chicken's rights — which aired while Stewart was on vacation and Colbert was sitting in — Frost got a call telling her not to come back. She says James Dixon, the comedy agent who recruited her and still represents both Stewart and Colbert screamed at her, "'They think you're crazy. I told you not to be too friendly.'"
Maybe that discomfort came out of a double standard. Says Weedman, "The irony was that as a woman my comedy came from being kind of insecure, broken, needy, neurotic. And that works in a group of guys if you're a nerdy, insecure guy and you can all just banter away. But if you're a woman, it was harder for me to be that person without some support."
Stewart and his show do have their female defenders. Bee, for starters, has repeatedly said her gender has been no impediment. Allison Silverman, a former Daily Show writer who returned after a stint working for Conan O'Brien to launch and executive produce The Colbert Report, says, "I had a great experience at The Daily Show. Jon's given me nothing but support."
And Smithberg blames larger societal forces for the dearth of women on staff, onscreen and off.
"I don't think Jon is sexist," she says. "I don't think that there is a double standard at the Daily Show. I do think that by the time it gets to the Daily Show it's already been through the horrible sexist double standard of the universe. You're not hiring someone right out of school. By the time they get to the candidates of the Daily Show, the herd has been thinned by the larger societal forces." Of the greater talent pool of comedians, she said, "All that's left are white men and Aziz Ansari."
"The planet is sexist," Smithberg adds. "At least in comedy we don't have genital mutilation. That we know of."
The show's producers are somewhat aware they have a problem. Last fall, the writers' room went from being all male to having two women, a definite improvement. "We shook the trees a little," the head writer toldThe New York Times, and bringing on Olivia Munn would come out of the same impulse, according to numerous reports.
But two female writers do not a female-friendly environment make.
"The writers want to be able to write for a female reporter — but not too female," says Weedman. She says it was hard to figure out what that meant exactly. "I would pitch something like, can I do a segment on women's self help or on fitness. And they didn't want anything like that…Ed Helms got to have his mole removed [in a segment], but they weren't going to do, a women goes to the gynecologist. They felt like at the time it wasn't their audience."
According to Nielsen, the Daily Show's audience does lean male—about 60 percent. That's who producers seemed to have in mind when they hired Olivia Munn. Though it's far to early to assess Munn's performance based on her few seconds onscreen so far, her previous career path has led some to criticize The Daily Show for hiring someone better known for suggestively putting things in her mouth on a video game show (seen here) and being on the covers of Playboy and Maxim than for her comedic chops.
Munn was hired after an exhaustive search for a female correspondent that included many professional comedians. (Kristen Schaal is already an occasional contributor, but not a regular correspondent.) Executive producer Rory Albanese told the Daily Beast that producers were previously unaware of Olivia's drooling fanboy base: "We're stuck in a hard news cycle and we're nerdy. If she was on the cover of The Economist, we would have been like, 'Yes! Of course!'" It's hard not to conclude that looks mattered more for women than for men. Silverman jokes of Munn's hiring, "I just hope it encourages Wyatt Cenac to take his top off more often."
One female comedian who has auditioned multiple times for the show says, "Looking back, it was ridiculous of me to even prepare! Should I have gone to the gym more? Done Playboy? It's such a joke."
That might have helped. Says Weedman, "It kept being said to me by people who worked there — not by Jon but by producers — 'I think that the thing is that Stacy Grenrock Woods does well on the show because she's cute. And [former correspondent] Beth Littleford, she was pretty, and it just helps.' They were saying this to my face. They were trying to be honest."
One female correspondent says a producer summed it up for her this way: "Think of the Daily Show as your pilot boyfriend. He swoops into town, you have great sex, then you never know when you're going to see him again."