Considering what a boys’ club late night comedy has always been, October 12, 2017 may go down as a historic day, as two new comedy talk shows hosted by women premiered last night: Sarah Silverman’s I Love You, America, which airs on Hulu, and Robin Thede’s The Rundown on BET. About eight minutes into Silverman’s show, she introduces a character named Mather, a generic white-guy late night host seemingly based on Jimmy Fallon. The joke is that Mather exists to give the viewers a sense of familiarity as they watch something that diverges from the typical stale tropes of late night. But while the network time slots are still exclusively white and male, it wouldn’t be surprising if that were to change soon, as Silverman and Thede’s shows both got off to solid starts and could easily build strong audiences as they develop.
Each show starts with a sketch to introduce the proceedings. In Silverman’s case, we get a musical number not unlike what we saw in Jesus Is Magic. Silverman cheerfully sings about how she loves every single race, gender, and religious group in the country and gradually realizes that while her intentions are good, her ideation is still problematic. This seems like a response to the critiques of how flippantly she discusses race in her act (the blackface episode of The Sarah Silverman Program probably wouldn’t air today) and is a fine example of her skill at self-deprecating humor. Meanwhile, Thede’s show begins with a bit about a hot guy at a cafe who turns out to be a Trump supporter. Thede decides that he’s not just hot, he’s “compromise my core beliefs” hot. So, she wears a MAGA hat and gets a Confederate flag tattoo, but it’s all for nothing because he’s married. (Clips of Thede’s show aren’t currently embeddable, but you can watch the whole segment here.) Silverman and Thede’s opening sketches both make the hosts the butt of the joke in clever ways, and each one is an excellent way of getting things started on a lighthearted note.
After a bit where Silverman illustrates the freedom of being on a streaming network by putting two naked people in the audience, we get into what appears to be the driving idea behind I Love You, America: Silverman’s desire to connect with people whose beliefs differ from her own. This manifests itself in a segment where she travels to Louisiana to meet a family of Trump supporters. The family reveals itself to have some unfortunate views (they support gay marriage, but at least one person draws the line at adoption) but don’t seem particularly hateful. A segment like this can naturally cause mixed emotions. The “Trump supporters are people, too!” line can be irritating to those who both remember the vitriol of his campaign and are negatively affected by his policies. At the same, though, it’s worth acknowledging that while racism was a big factor in Trump’s election, not all of the 62 million people who voted for him are ravenous hate monsters. It’s an engaging segment, and when Silverman tells one of the particularly right-wing family members “I think you’ll come around on the gays,” it’s hard not to think she may be right.
That line sets us up for the best part of I Love You, America’s first episode: Silverman’s interview with Megan Phelps-Roper, who left the Westboro Baptist Church five years ago after she was exposed to opposing views on the internet and no longer believes the hateful anti-gay rhetoric she had grown up with. Phelps-Roper almost cries at one point, but it’s a lighthearted interview, particularly when they talk of Phelps-Roper’s marriage to one of the people who initially called out her homophobia on the internet (“You married your troll?”). Silverman mentions that her show will feature interviews with guests who have “experienced change” – an intriguing idea that should lead to some fascinating conversations going forward.
The most impressive thing about The Rundown is how well-developed it is already. If Thede hadn’t mentioned that it was the show’s premiere episode, it would have been hard to tell. The segments are extremely professional in their production, and Thede is considerably more poised than most hosts are during their first show. In her monologue, Thede critiques ESPN for their decision to suspend Jemele Hill and makes a strong argument in her defense (which isn’t hard, because ESPN is clearly in the wrong). Elsewhere, she looks at the NFL’s ongoing problem with CTE, which she jokingly characterizes as a silver lining to the blackballing of Colin Kaepernick. Thede became a known name after a great run as the head writer of Larry Wilmore’s Nightly Show, and the talent she demonstrated there is on full display during The Rundown. Thede is charismatic, funny, and unabashed in her beliefs. Comedy Central canceled The Nightly Show too soon, but their mistake might be BET’s gain, because Thede has the potential to not only build an audience but also become the most prominent voice talking about racial issues in late night comedy.
As encouraging as the premieres of I Love You, America and The Rundown are, the fact they are on a streaming service and a basic cable channel, respectively, illustrates the hurdles that women still face in the late night world. Between these shows, Full Frontal, and Netflix’s Chelsea, there are more women in the late night circuit than ever before, but the Big 5 on major networks still are exclusively white and male. That said, if these shows build on the strength of their excellent first episodes, that could change quite soon. Network TV can’t be resistant to women hosting late night shows forever – not with how funny and Silverman and Thede are.