In a live interview at the BuzzFeed office today, Stephen Colbert attempted to explain why he only employs two women and exactly zero people of color on his writing staff with a rambling and not all-too convincing monologue.
BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith asked Colbert specifically about diversity in his writer’s room for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
“And I’m wondering, at a moment when people are are talking a lot about diversity and performance in comedy, how do you think about your writer’s room in that context?”
Fair enough! Colbert’s response:
“I’m all for it. I’m all for it. I mean, I have a very white writer’s room. It is not intentional. I wouldn’t claim that there isn’t some unconscious bias that I don’t know about, but I don’t read who’s on the packet. I don’t look at the name. I don’t look at the resumé. I just read the jokes. If the jokes make me laugh then I go ‘Who is this person? We should call them.’ And you know, I’ve had a pretty stable writing staff for the last ten years. We haven’t had a ton of turnover. At least for one of these shows it’s actually one of the lowest turnovers. And you know, I’ve had mostly men but I’ve had five women write for me. Two of them are my favorite writers in the world.”
If two of the five women you’ve ever employed have been your favorite writers in the world, those seem like pretty good odds that perhaps you should try to hire more instead of treating this all like some unsolvable mystery!
In regards to the low turnover rate of his writers, I do see where he’s coming from. However, while loyalty is important, his jump to CBS and a brand new show was the perfect opportunity to change course a bit and become more diverse. Colbert did not do that. He’s expressed similar apathetic feelings towards creating diversity before, once responding to a question about diversity with a bad joke about astrological signs. The funny thing is, if you want to be different you have to actually be different.
“I’ve had very few people of color write for me and I don’t know why. It’s not intentional and I would like that to change. But I think it might be insulting to the person submitting to me if I hired them for that reason. But I would really like it to be the case because I think that we are missing some voice in America by not having that in the room. That there’s something I don’t understand about our country by not having that in room.”
This sort of shrug of the shoulders, I just can’t figure it out goddammit is so lazy and reductive and deeply frustrating. When you have someone as powerful and savvy as Stephen Colbert, who ostensibly wants diversity, treating it like some insurmountable feat, you’re suggesting that to some degree it’s not achievable. Consider all the resources he has at his disposal. If Colbert has no diversity on his team, it’s clear that he simply doesn’t want it or doesn’t want to put in the effort. Accepting an Emmy in 2014, he said, “I’m so proud of those guys…and one woman. Sorry for that, for some reason.”
For the record, simply being aware of someone’s race or gender and taking that into account during the hiring process is not insulting. It’s insulting that you believing simply factoring one’s race into a decision is insulting. Why are you not considering that a different background and set of experiences can be a uniquely valuable quality rather than a distraction? Further, this argument suggests that the candidate is in some way less qualified than others, so then you are hiring them just because they’re black or a woman. It goes without saying how incredibly condescending that is.
But boy, did I mention that Stephen is confused? I know he’s a smart guy but his response to the question was so bad that I have to believe he’s never actually sat down and thought critically about this issue because it’s really not that difficult to solve.
Contrast his writer’s room—17 men, two women, all white—with Samantha Bee’s new show, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, which employs a “50 percent female and 30 percent nonwhite” staff. Both apparently operate with a a blind submission process yet they yielded very different results.
Bee’s showrunner explained that one of the tactics they employed was casting a wider net—as a result, they got a wider range of talent. One must also consider the culture being bred by shows like Colbert’s. I have no doubt that for a non-white male, the idea of working with Samantha Bee felt like a much more inclusive, comfortable experience than walking into a notoriously homogeneous Colbert writers room.
And it’s easy to imagine a comedy writer not bothering to even submit to a show like Colbert’s because of the track record associated with his team. If you believe that he’s going to only hire white guys, why bother applying if you’re not that?
When you’re considering diversity you must also consider the barriers to entry for people of color and women. Not everyone wrote for the Harvard Lampoon and understands the comedy world and how it works. If you’re really about diversity, the hiring process might then involve a bit more effort like reaching out specifically to marginalized groups, encouraging them to apply and explaining the process.
Honestly, I find Colbert’s clueless to be a bit of a ruse. Clearly he’s aware of his diversity problem on some level—the leader of the show’s house band is black and of course, remember the DeRay interview?
A more genuine and much less laborious answer would have been an admission that diversity on his show is poor and he hasn’t done enough to make it better. Is that so hard?