Joan Rivers was widely considered the first female late-night host when she began hosting Fox’s The Late Show in October 1986.
However, nearly forty years before Rivers took that job, there was another woman who had, in fact, pioneered the genre and become the first late-night host: Faye Emerson.
Emerson, who was born in Louisiana in 1917, came before Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Dick Cavett or Johnny Carson and was really the figure who created an entire genre of television that thrives today with the likes of Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon.
Deadline explores her story, how CBS’ Kelly Kahl was instrumental in preserving her legacy, how she paved the road for the likes of Chelsea Handler, Samantha Bee and Lilly Singh and how a scripted series about her life is now in development.
The Faye Emerson Show began airing on CBS on October 24 1949 in local East Coast markets before the network moved the 15-minute show, which regularly aired up to 11pm, nationwide in March 1950. In 1950, Emerson also hosted a similar show on NBC called Fifteen with Faye for about six months before committing the CBS show.
Emerson was a Hollywood star who had appeared in Warner Bros movies including Murder in the Big House and Hotel Berlin; there are a couple of conflicting reports as to how she got her own show. One suggested that she started developing her own show following the popularity of her guest spot on Diana Barrymore’s shows, while agent Priscilla Moore has previously said that she approached Emerson with the idea of placing her as the star of a variety show sponsored by Pepsi.
“Faye was officially the first late night TV talk show,” Maureen Mauk, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, tells Deadline.
Mauk is a former television exec who spent ten years working in Standards and Practices at Fox before moving to Madison and starting a PhD program. Her thesis ‘Politics Is Everybody’s Business: Resurrecting Faye Emerson, America’s Forgotten First Lady of Television’ is set to be published next month by the Journal of Cinema and Media Studies.
Mauk was able to go through Emerson’s archives, donated by her son, which included the kinescopes of her shows, and thanks to a donation by CBS’ Kahl, the university was able to preserve and digitize the archives.
She explains that the medium of television was so new, and was taking its lessons from radio, that in 1949 there was no “gendered setup”. “Women were very much part of the act,” she says. “Then the men noticed, they realized that this seemed a good idea, and essentially took over.”
Emerson’s show was considered radical for its time as it combined political conversations, such as U.S. relations with China, war with Korea, nuclear arms, and equality for women with guests such as Frank Sinatra, Frank Lloyd Wright, Tennessee Williams and Édith Piaf.
“Then the very next day might be clowns. They would do a very simple show about the circus and have some founders from the circus come in. She had one with Doris Lilly and Arthur Little, Jr. about how to marry a millionaire, some famous boxers, and then she would bring on the representatives from the women’s Air Force and the women’s Army Brigade. She had a really great mix of a lot of different types of people,” says Mauk.
In fact, her friend Steve Allen, who would go on to co-create and host The Tonight Show, was also a guest (see clip).
Formerly married to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s son Elliott Roosevelt (above), after an introduction by Howard Hughes, Emerson, who once interviewed Stalin on a trip to Russia, was not afraid to talk politics on the show or discuss the United Nations or Red Cross.
However, her freethinking status or intellect was not much covered in the wider press, where she was often reduced to her looks – being called the ‘High I.Q. in the Low-cut Gown’ or ‘putting the V in TV’ in referencing to her plunging necklines.
Mauk compares Emerson to Chelsea Handler and Samantha Bee. “Faye was a woman ahead of her time, and so is Samantha. Samantha Bee has never been afraid to speak up on politics and use her platform to do the right thing and say the right thing. She was a stealth feminist just like Samantha Bee. You know, I think late night, especially cable, has evolved towards satire and political parody, but as far as some of the coverage and political hotspots of covering what was happening in the world on that day, they’re very similar,” she says.
Part of Emerson’s story and how she was the first lady of late-night television is set to be covered in a new documentary series for CNN. Cream Productions is producing The Story of Late Night, exec produced by Bill Carter, author of The War for Late Night and The Late Shift, which will debut this summer. The show’s first episode highlights Emerson’s contribution to the form. Showrunner and director John Ealer tells Deadline that Syracuse professor Robert Thompson led them to Wisconsin to talk to Mauk about the “pioneer.”
“Our eyes exploded because none of us had heard of her,” he says. “In an era where we’re constantly and appropriately looking to evaluate ourselves and do better with representation, we took very seriously the obligation to do that in late night history. Maybe the first late night imprint on the moon was a woman and that’s pretty amazing.”
The Faye Emerson Show ran until June 22 1951, ending reportedly because Pepsi wanted a non-live program that would make station clearances easier.
As the networks realized the value of late-night to advertisers, many of the women involved in evening broadcasts, such as Arlene Francis, Kate Smith, Dinah Shore and Betty Furness, moved to daytime. This shift was what essentially led to late-night shows being hosted by men for the next thirty-five years.
Emerson herself, after a stint hosting a CBS travel show Wonderful Town, remained on television in guest appearances on the likes of I’ve Got A Secret, and even The Tonight Show, but she never moved to daytime. Instead, she kept campaigning for Democratic politicians, including John F. Kennedy, as well as a number of other causes, and in 1963 took a year off to travel, ending up on the Spanish island of Majorca, where she stayed, largely until her death on March 9 1983, three years before Rivers’ debut on Fox.
Her legacy is somewhat complicated. She was nominated for the Academy of TV Arts Most Outstanding Personality in 1951 alongside Groucho Marx, Richard Lane, Alan Young and Sid Caesar and there are rumors, denied by the Academy, that the original statuette was designed to look like her. She also has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, although, in a cruel twist of fate, one of them has a typo in her name.
Mauk is keen that Emerson’s story is not forgotten. Along with her TV producer husband, Hayden Mauk, who previously used to work with Jimmy Kimmel and now runs production company All Is Well Entertainment, they have partnered with writer Teresa Sullivan to develop a scripted drama based on her life. “We want to bring her and her story back to the platform that she once dominated,” she says. “Her story really should be out there, and you see Mrs. America getting produced, and bringing these women’s stories to light in this way. Faye Emerson is such a powerful character, so I think we can relate to her today in just what it means to be an outspoken woman of any generation, in any decade, and dealing with the pressures from patriarchy.”
You could well imagine a Margot Robbie or a Reese Witherspoon, who both run female-focused production companies, playing, and producing, Emerson.
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