Saturday Night Live: Show Us the Funny (Women)

When 88-year-old Betty White hosts Saturday Night Live on May 8, 2010, it won’t be because the producers had the bright idea to invite the veteran comedienne.

It’ll be thanks to a grassroots campaign among fans, conducted via Facebook. The odds an adult has a Facebook or MySpace account are 1 in 2.08, but for a person 55 or older, they’re only half as high: 1 in 4.17.

As the first SNL host hired explicitly through popular demand, Betty White will also have the distinction of being the oldest person to host the show in its 35-year history. She blows away the record set by another host who also landed the gig in an unusual way—80-year-old Miskel Spillman, who won the show’s only “Anyone Can Host” contest and appeared on December 17, 1977.

Saturday Night Live has made some surprising hosting choices over the years. Sprinkled among all those professional entertainers—the actors, comedians, musicians, and athletes—you’ll find former White House press secretary Ron Nessen, civil rights activist Julian Bond, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, and professional rich guy Donald Trump.

But while hosts have come from many walks of public life, the observant viewer might notice a strong skew in favor of men. By the end of the 2009-2010 season, men will have hosted about 482 episodes; women, about 194. Based on those rough numbers, then, the odds of a show being hosted by a woman are just 1 in 3.48.

This season, SNL’s 35th, is shaping up to be something of an outlier in terms of male-female ratio. If the season finishes up as planned, it will have featured 12 male and 11 female hosts. Such parity doesn’t happen often. The first five seasons featured 78 male and just 26 female hosts. The strike-shortened 1980-1981 season had equal numbers (six of each), but the show went back to its old ways the following year, with 13 men versus just six women. Season 10 marked a new low, with only two female hosts out of a total of 16.

Glenn Close, Mary Tyler Moore, Dolly Parton, and Geena Davis combined for an unprecedented four-women-in-a-row streak in 1988-1989. But that season’s final ratio was 14-to-6.

Then, finally, 26 seasons in, as a new millennium began, came a seeming breakthrough: 10 men, 10 women. Monologue after monologue we saw them: Kate Hudson, Charlize Theron, Calista Flockhart, Lucy Liu, Jennifer Lopez, Katie Holmes, Julia Stiles, Renée Zellweger, Lara Flynn Boyle, Mena Suvari…could it be that things were finally turning around for the funny girls?

The following season’s ratio was a not-bad 12-to-8, and after a skewed 14-6 28th season came another 10-and-10 campaign—if you count Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey as just Jessica Simpson, which seems reasonable. That historic 29th season included a record-setting five-in-a-row streak for women, with Jennifer Aniston, Simpson, Megan Mullally, Drew Barrymore (who also holds the youngest-host record, having appeared at age seven back in 1982), and Christina Aguilera. The season climaxed with the double-whammy of Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, so if you count them as two, you can figure in Lachey and still end up with an even 11-11.

But for the next five years the show reverted to its old testosterone-soaked ways, and if the current season raises hopes again, they’re hesitant hopes. With its projected 12-to-11 ratio, the 35th season of Saturday Night Live might go down in history for something besides the YouTube-inspired, nearly-nonagenarian presence of the beaming Golden Girl. Betty White might just be capping off the season that launches Saturday Night Live into a glittering future of gender parity.

But we wouldn’t bet on it.

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