Back in October, SNL cast member Kenan Thompson said he was no longer willing to dress in drag to play black women on the show. The show had just announced its sixth casting in a row without adding an African American woman to the lineup.
Thompson’s announcement highlighted the fact that SNL had not had a black female cast member since 2007 when the brilliant comedian Maya Rudolph left the cast to work in film and prime-time television. Thompson, who joined the cast in 2003 and is now the senior cast member, is well known for his portrayals of Oprah, Whoopi Goldberg, Jennifer Hudson and Maya Angelou.
Yet until Thompson made his declaration, nothing was said about it by anyone who could make a difference. For the intervening six years, since Rudolph’s departure, no one said a word. Having debuted in 1975 on NBC, SNL is one of the longest-running shows on TV and remains a key player in satirical political TV. SNL played a major role in the 2008 presidential primary and election, with its depictions of Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Sarah Palin. And the show also had those candidates guest, as well as Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain. Many pundits alleged that Tina Fey’s devastating portrayal of Sarah Palin turned the candidate into a laughing stock, despite her massive popularity.
So SNL is not just another TV show. Since SNL is live and does address timely political and social issues, when there are only three people of color in the cast–Thompson, Jay Pharoah and Nasim Pedrad the race question should have been raised long ago.
In April 2012, Kate McKinnon was added to the cast mid-season. McKinnon was the first out gay cast member since Terry Sweeney and Danitra Vance both left the cast in 1986.
Minority casting, then–not a strong suit for SNL. The show’s last Latino cast member was Horatio Sanz, who also left in 2006 after eight years on the show.
It was Thompson’s public statements that drew attention to the issue, however. And Thompson didn’t hold back. When asked who would play black female characters, he said, "I don’t know.We just haven’t done them. That’s what I’m saying. Maybe [Jay Pharaoh] will do it or something, but even he doesn’t really want to do it."
But Thompson didn’t lay blame on the show’s long-time producer, Lorne Michaels. He laid it on black women. Thompson said there are "never any quality black female comedians that audition" so that’s why there are no black women part of the cast. "It’s just a tough part of the business. Like in auditions, they just never find ones that are ready."
It was that comment that led to the furor. In the show’s 39 years, there have only been four black female cast members: Rudolph, Vance, Yvonne Hudson and Ellen Cleghorn. Hudson and Vance were only on a single season; Cleghorn for four seasons.
Pharoah said the lack of black women was an issue and said of the show’s producers, "They need to pay attention. I believe they need to follow up with it like they said they were going to do last year."
Follow up they did. After poking fun at themselves for not having a black female cast member during the Nov. 3 episode where Scandal star and Emmy nominee Kerry Washington hosted. The show opened with Washington playing Michelle Obama, who suddenly had to leave so that Oprah Winfrey could visit with the president. Kerry reappeared as Winfrey, then dashed backstage to morph into Beyoncé, while appearing appropriately put out with all the dashing being asked of her.
While the skit was playing, SNL ran this statement on screen:
The producers at "Saturday Night Live" would like to apologize to Kerry Washington for the number of black women she will be asked to play tonight. We made these requests both because Ms. Washington is an actress of considerable range and talent and also because SNLdoes not currently have a black woman in the cast. As for the latter reason, we agree that this is not an ideal situation and look forward to rectifying it in the near future … unless of course, we fall in love with another white guy first.
After holding an unprecedented open audition specifically for minority women, the show announced on Jan. 6 that stand-up comic Sasheer Zamata would be joining SNL.
Zamata, like McKinnon, a regular performer at Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in New York City, has also appeared on Comedy Central’s Inside Amy Schumer. She debuted on the Jan. 18 season opener of SNL. That episode was hosted by hip-hop star and actor, Drake, and unlike many new cast members, Zamata was in nearly every sketch, whether she had lines or not.
Zamata and Drake were good, but it was not one of the show’s best episodes. In an effort to play to the race issue, the two were forced into unfunny sketches that went nowhere and often Zamata looked like a token, which is exactly what the show was pretending was not the case.
Comedy often fails and SNL is known as much for unevenness as it is for brilliance. The larger question in the SNL race debacle is: Why did it take a public statement from one of the show’s only players of color to prompt a change?
Two days after the announcement that Zamata had been added to the cast, SNL announced it had added two black female writers to the show’s writing team. LaKendra Tookes and Leslie Jones were among the women auditioning for the cast during SNL’s one and only casting specifically for minority women after the Thompson controversy blew up.
Jones is an actress and stand-up and was a finalist for the cast-member spot SNL created. She had her own comedy special, Problem Child, on Showtime in 2011 (which begs the question of how SNL couldn’t find her till 2014).
Tookes is also an actress/comedian and has performed at the prestigious iO West.
The larger question still remains, however, and it’s not just about SNL–SNL is just the oldest and most public venue.
Where are the people of color in comedy? On the same episode where Zamata debuted, one of the night’s most successful moments was Nasim Pedrad’s brilliant portrayal of Arianna Huffington. Pedrad was more Huffington than Huffington, just as earlier in the show, McKinnon was a perfect Justin Beiber.
One of the issues the late Danitra Vance complained about during her brief tenure at SNL was that she always got shunted into stereotypical roles for black women. Zamata has said she hopes to just play women, not just black women.
The addition of two black women writers will no doubt help. If all your writers are white men, it’s hard to even know what should be addressed from a black perspective. But a quick glance at comedy TV shows a very white, very male, very straight landscape which has not changed much in the years since SNL first debuted, making stars of some black performers like Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock while later falling into a pattern of white guy comedy.
As exciting as the addition of Zamata is, she is now under a pressure no other cast member is to "achieve" since she has been made the quintessential minority hire–hired specifically because she is black. It’s a burden that should not be on her, but on the producers, but should she not be stellar, the criticism will be succinct: Thompson was right, SNL was right: black women aren’t ready.
It’s an outrageous onus to put on any performer and a difficult entry Zamata will have to make. One show in, she stood up to the pressure admirably. But the message must not be lost: white guy comedy has to make room for the full range of comedy. It’s been 20 years since In Living Color ended its four-year run on FOX. Two stellar black comedians are on CBS’s The Talk, every day–Sheryl Underwood and the amazing Aisha Tyler. The show also boastsJulie Chen and out lesbian Sara Gilbert, so it is a predominantly minority lineup with Sharon Osbourne being the only straight white co-host.
But The Talk is an exception to the TV landscape rule as a quick glance at sit-coms and Comedy Central makes clear. As Zamata, Tookes and Jones make SNL less white, TV comedy should take a lesson from this very public debacle. America is nearly 50 percent people of color. It’s way past time to represent the other half of America on TV, because the racism, covert or overt, just isn’t funny.
Victoria A. Brownworth is an award-winning journalist, editor and writer. She has won the NLGJA and the Society of Professional Journalists awards, the Lambda Literary Award and has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. She is a regular contributor to The Advocate and SheWired, a blogger for Huffington Post and a contributing editor for Curve magazine and Lambda Literary Review. She won the 2012 Moonbeam Award for historical/cultural fiction for From Where We Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth. Her novella, Ordinary Mayhem, won Honorable Mention in Best Horror 2012. Her novel, After It Happened will be published in fall 2014. @VABVOX