It's time for a non-white host of 'The Late Late Show'. Here's our critic's shortlist
This is how fast media change comes now: Moments after James Corden announced he was leaving his job as host of CBS' The Late Late Show in a year, social media began to fill up with messages – not about Corden's legacy in late night TV, but over who should get his job next.
And many of those messaging – myself included – say it's time for a non-white person to get that spot.
Objections to this idea will come, predictable as the sun rising in the East, from those frightened or resentful of so-called diversity initiatives. They will insist the only yardstick to apply here is how talented, funny and innovative a host may be.
But people of color know judging talent is often a subjective business. And many of us have seen our abilities unfairly devalued in such conversations; told that the lack of diversity in so many important levels of American society is just a coincidence.
We know there is sometimes something else afoot — something unspoken — which assumes, with little proof, what we can and cannot achieve.
Right now, the hosting jobs for late night shows on broadcast network TV are so diverse that ABC has a white guy named Jimmy (Kimmel), NBC has a white guy named Jimmy (Fallon) and CBS has a white guy named James (Corden). Since The Late Late Show debuted in 1995, it has had four regular hosts including Craig Ferguson, Craig Kilborn and Tom Snyder – all white males.
I refuse to believe that, in five late night shows currently airing on three different broadcast networks, there isn't one that couldn't be led by a talented performer of color and/or a woman.
The lack of diversity is 'kind of exhausting'
Cristela Alonzo is a standup comic and author who became the first Latina to create, write, produce and star in a network TV sitcom in 2014, when ABC debuted Cristela. When Corden's announcement hit the world, Alonzo's name was among those floated by fans as a possible replacement, prompting her to tweet: "someone send me the job application."
"It's kind of exhausting that we're in 2022 and we still have firsts," says Alonzo, who graciously connected with me over Zoom to talk about why there's such a thirst for increased diversity in network TV late night.
"When you're a person of color...you're forced to watch all of this programming, you have to find a way to connect with programming that really isn't meant for you," she says. "I really think now there's going to be a bona fide chance for someone that isn't white. I think we're long overdue and people understand that we're long overdue. Because that's what changes late night."
Alonzo says she turned down an offer to join The View and, separately, to develop a daytime talk show. But late night TV – where comedic giants like David Letterman, Jay Leno, Johnny Carson and Stephen Colbert have made their mark – sounds like a better fit, and she's asked her representatives to try and get her a shot at the job.
"We don't get s*** if we don't say things out loud...so all I want is a chance," she says. "People keep asking, 'How can we reinvent TV again?' By giving it to different people."
She's got a point. Late night TV shows, when they work, are molded around the sensibilities of their hosts. Jimmy Fallon is a glad-handing, fun-loving comic, so The Tonight Show features lots of games and friendly competitions. Jimmy Kimmel is a smart-alecky prankster, so the comedy on Jimmy Kimmel Live comes from that perspective.
When Arsenio Hall first hosted his groundbreaking syndicated late night talk show in the late '80s and early '90s, he created an environment steeped in Black culture, featuring the kinds of guests who were never booked on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show. These days, even though modern network TV talk shows have broadened their scope to feature a wider range of guests, there is still room for more.
(NBC did feature YouTube star Lilly Singh in her own show following the demise of Last Call with Carson Daly, making her the first person of South Asian descent to host a network TV late night show. But A Little Late with Lilly Singh aired in a really late timeslot – 1:35 a.m. EST — never really jelled with viewers and was canceled last year.)
So how might late night TV change on the networks, if a higher-profile show was developed from a non-white person's perspective?
Hope for late night TV diversity on broadcast isn't new
To be sure, there are late night talk shows elsewhere in TV – premium and standard cable channels, for instance — that feature non-white and female hosts. But the late night programs on ABC, CBS and NBC remain the pinnacle of the form; ripe for reinvention by a new voice.
We've been here before: When Ferguson left The Late Late Show in 2014, there was lots of hope in the industry (okay, maybe I was just the one with lots of hope) that CBS might not choose another white male for the gig, before Corden was announced.
But that was back in the day when Les Moonves was running things as CBS' old school CEO. George Cheeks, the current CEO of CBS Entertainment Group, is a biracial, forward-looking executive who has made diversity a bigger priority during his tenure. So I still have hope.
Some may say this genre is on its last legs, anyway. But Corden proved The Late Late Show could be a great proving ground for segments that could have an immense viral impact online and even become their own standalone programs, like Carpool Karaoke and Drop the Mic. Given that studies indicate Black viewerslead media consumption across multiple media platforms and are quick adopters of media technology, there's an opportunity here to find a host that speaks to a more active, online-savvy audience.
In the end, this isn't about being more equitable or fair, though hiring a person of color would help accomplish that. It's about making the show better by amplifying fresh voices and making the late night TV genre more successful by attracting new audiences.
The last two times this job came open, CBS had a succession of guest hosts fill-in before the permanent host stepped up. So, in addition to Cristela Alonzo, here's a few other folks I think might be good candidates for Corden's job or a guest hosting stint, when he leaves The Late Late Show sometime in 2023.
I float these names with no idea what the performers actually want to do or whether they are tied up in contracts which might make taking Corden's job impossible. So take every recommendation with a grain of salt.
Amber Ruffin, host, The Amber Ruffin Show
If you've watched Ruffin since her show debuted on Peacock in 2020, you've seen her slowly develop that space into a singular showcase for her quirky, socially relevant style. She's found a way to produce humor rooted in her sensibilities as a Black woman, but leavened with a sense of fun and a nerd-level love of pop culture. Ruffin has been pretty careful in her career moves and remains a writer on Late Night with Seth Meyers, so leaving NBC might not be her preference. But a critic can dream...
Trevor Noah, host, The Daily Show
He's an obvious choice for many reasons: He's already pulled off one brilliant succession, taking over the Daily Show from Jon Stewart and making it a home for his unique perspective as a biracial South African man, who also happens to be a super-talented comic and sharp intellect. His performance at the White House Correspondents' Dinner showed his brilliance with political punchlines. And he's on Comedy Central, which is a corporate sibling to CBS, both owned by Paramount Global. My only question is whether he might see The Late Late Show as a lateral move.
Hasan Minhaj, former host, Patriot Act
I never felt Minhaj's Netflix show got the attention it deserved, despite winning an Emmy and a Peabody award before its cancellation in 2020. He's another razor sharp comic with a keen intellect who did a great job crafting humor based on his perspective as the Muslim son of immigrants from India. He's also a former castmember of the Daily Show, which might help him connect with fellow alum, timeslot predecessor and Late Show host Stephen Colbert.
Ali Wong, star, Netflix comedy specials Baby Cobra, Hard Knock Wife and Don Wong
She's appeared in and written for shows like Inside Amy Schumer, Big Mouth and Fresh Off the Boat. But Wong is best known for her sidesplitting and edgy comedy specials, where she speaks frankly about her perspective as a wife (now divorcing), mother and woman of color. I have no idea if she'd even want to host a late night TV show, but I'd sure like to see the woman baller enough to film TWO standup specials while pregnant transform late night TV.
Roy Wood Jr., correspondent, The Daily Show
Not to spark any competition in the Daily Show offices, but Wood is one of the most distinctive voices on a show packed with comedy talent. He's another smart comedic mind with a herculean work ethic and experience developing shows that haven't seen the light of day yet. Personally, as a longtime Sunshine State resident, I'd love to see a brother from Florida A&M University become the first Black man to be the permanent host for a late night network TV show.
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.