Madeleine Smithberg and Lizz Winstead, creators of The Daily Show, celebrate the show’s 25th year with an anniversary episode on the 19th of July. During her time as the executive producer of the show, Smithberg was responsible for casting Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell and Mo Rocca to name a few. She went on to earn a Peabody and Emmy award for her work. What makes these achievements even more remarkable is that comedy is a highly male-dominated industry.
Gender biases, like the belief that women are naturally less humorous than men, limit women’s access to opportunities and pay. Gender stereotypes also place increased pressure on women to perform to a consistently high standard and avoid confirming negative beliefs about their capability.
When The Daily Show started in the 1990’s it was the first political satire show of its kind. Smithberg says no one had any real expectations for the show to live up to. “That is what made the show. Without fear of failure, we just sort of figured it out by throwing spaghetti at the wall until we found the perfect recipe,” she says.
Winstead not only co-created the show, but she was also a former head writer, drawing inspiration for the show from her early career in stand-up. During her time as a comedian, Winstead realized what a ‘radical act’ it is for women to have something to say and expect people to listen. “For me, it’s always just been about, the fact that no one is asking women, ‘Hey ladies, you know, we need more of you to take center stage and have some opinions and run some things.’ You just have to do it yourself. No, one’s asking for us to topple the patriarchy,” she says. To succeed Winstead encourages women to have the confidence of a ‘mediocre white man’ and be willing to try.
After receiving a LinkedIn notification, Smithberg realized she was coming up to her 25th anniversary with the show. At first, she thought it was a mistake, but then it dawned on Smithberg that she had in fact created a show, which has influenced the social culture over 25 years. Now more than ever; Smithberg believes that women have an opportunity to follow in her footsteps. “If you want to write, then write. And keep writing. Don’t give up. Now with YouTube, there really are opportunities to create content and get your stuff out there. So just do what I did. Ignore the obstacles. Follow every opportunity. And don’t cry in meetings.”
Given the barriers women face breaking into the entertainment industry, it can be challenging to know where to start. This is why Winstead says it is essential for women to remain open to possibilities. “Don’t let people tell you that you can’t have your passion, but also don’t think that you fully understand what your passion is because until you live life to the fullest, you’re not going to crack open those doors,” she says. This is also advice that Winstead lives by. In addition to her work in comedy, in 2015, she founded Abortion Access Front, a reproductive rights organization. Proceeds from the anniversary show, which will feature original correspondents, will support Winstead’s foundation.
While Smithberg and Winstead have broken barriers, the industry still has a long way to go to become truly equitable. According to the latest inclusion report from the Writers Guild of America, white men accounted for most of the senior decision-makers on television shows in 2019, like showrunners and executive producers. Racial and ethnic minorities comprised just 18% of these roles.
Winstead says the industry must be held accountable for the lack of diversity. “There are no excuses anymore. Make sure you have a strong executive team, including people of color and women, because they are the ones who are going to be hiring other folks. But it is not just about hiring people of color. It is about empowering leadership of color and women so that they are the decision-makers and can set the narrative,” says Winstead.