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SNL Diversifies Its Cast. Now to Diversify Its Characters

It's good that the show cast an African-American woman. Now it needs to find a range of roles for her

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Heidi Gutman / ABC / Getty Images

The calls for Saturday Night Live to find itself a black female cast member were loud enough that Saturday Night Live itself had to echo them, running an opening sketch late last year in which guest host Kerry Washington had to play Beyoncé, Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey. Today, news broke that SNL had finally hired its first black female star since Maya Rudolph — Sasheer Zamata — giving it someone to (potentially) play Beyoncé, Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey.

All good. The next step will be making sure Zamata has someone to play besides Beyoncé, Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey.

Impressions, for better or worse, have been SNL’s bread and butter for decades; pretty much everyone in the cast needs to do them (Rudolph had a famous Oprah) and presumably so will Zamata. It’s one reason that diversity on SNL matters for practical reasons and not just social ones: you need people who can play everyone in the wide world of public figures.

(MORE: Kerry Washington Helps SNL Skewer Its Lack of Diversity)

But what will make Zamata’s hire worthwhile, for her and for the show, is making sure that she gets written great, memorable characters who aren’t black female celebrities as well. It’s the difference between being an African-American woman SNL star (a funny performer who is black and female) and being the African-American woman SNL star (a performer who’s specifically there to be black and female). That may seem like semantics, but it’s also about what real diversity on a cast means — giving a performer like Zamata the kind of range that the show’s most successful white men have had (and white women, and black men like Eddie Murphy).

It’s the kind of range you see on a show like Key & Peele, which over three seasons has gone from a clever change of pace to an unmissable comedy show. Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, neither of them needing to be “the black guy” (or rather the mixed-race guy) on the show, have created themselves a wide range of characters. Some are famous black figures (President Obama); some have race as central to their character, but in a tangential way (Key’s substitute teacher to a class of white kids); some are just fantastic, weird, non-race-specific creations (Peele’s portly, lonely nerd Wendell).

SNL will be a little more diverse now, and that’s good. And it’ll be a great thing if the range of roles Zamata gets is diverse too.

MORE: SNL Is Finally Adding a Black Woman to Its Cast

16 comments
chadx
chadx

ABOUT TIME!!!!!   So they final hired an Asian and Hispanic comedian too. I'm glad to here that because diversity doesn't simply mean blacks get on the pay roll. It seems to me that blacks are so negrocentric that diversity means adding them to the mix and that's all just as racism is only a one way street and only whites can be racist. It's easy to fall in to that trap when we have a racist leadership.

LAW
LAW

I really just hope she doesn't play any stereotypical black female roles. I'm so tired of all of it. Its time for it to end. I was embarrassed to see Kerry Washington playing one of those roles it must've been embarrassing for her too. 

ThomasGraham2
ThomasGraham2

Diversity?  When was the last time SNL had an Asian-American cast member?

Poppersci
Poppersci

James--when did you become YouTube's TV critic?. You're getting its audience. smh.

passionatepiper
passionatepiper

Retract this stupid demeaning ignorant headline. Which country in Africa is she from? Why aren't there more Latvian american transsexuals or Bolivian american dwarfs on SNL? If you want to break down barriers you might try referring to new cast members as people rather than making a point about differences in race and gender. If we are going to give some ridiculous status to someones ancient roots then we should all be called african americans or simply primates.

ChristopherMcElree
ChristopherMcElree

Why does SNL need to feature Beyoncé?  Or Oprah? Is she still relevant? Why not feature Luke Bryan? Only Eminem and Justin Timberlake sold more albums last year. No the closest they came was Brad Paisley, and that's only because LL Cool J was involved. 9 of the top 20 music moneymakers in 2013 were country acts. But you go on and ignore these folks and the people who identify with them. Wonder why nobody watches this crap anymore? Every show has to be the freaking United Colors of Benetton. Well people don't live that way.

Network's efforts to 'diversify' their casts overshadow already weak writing and often poor acting. People really tend to stick to their own ethnic groups in the real world. There's nothing wrong with that. Have shows with mostly or all Black, Asian, Hispanic, or Native casts. I loved Bernie Mac and George Lopez's shows. Chico and the man was great, and I still watch All In The Family, and the Jeffersons. That's how people live. Also, I'll clue you in...most folks don't look like catalog models either. Get some regular people. At least hire people based on their ability and not their ethnicity or their good looks. Every modern show I try to watch is totally phony, multi-ethnic pc garbage. No 120lb 5'4" woman can physically handle a 6'3" 200lb man. Half the female marines can't even do 3 pull ups for crying out loud. I'll stick to shows like the Sopranos that don't suffer from the pc disease. Those folks were all good actors that looked like regular people. You never felt like the characters spent time making sure their friendship circles were ethnically 'balanced'. That's how people live. It's hard suspending disbelief when every scene is fundamentally not believable.

Next step indeed. Outside of Michelle Obama, who can this woman play? Maxine Waters? Donna Brazile? Are they famous enough for viewers to recognize? Beyoncé and Oprah have to be worked in because there ISN"T anybody else. If there is, then WHO? 

srjohnson2
srjohnson2

I think this girl is funny and will do great on the show, but why exactly is SNL the only show basically getting bullied into adding a cast member? Seems like a weird target. It's on at 11:30 on Saturday. Why not go after some monster hit on CBS first? Who is the black female lead in NCIS again? Or who is the hilarious black female nerd on Big Bang Theory? Those shows have ratings that put SNL to shame, but there's no backlash against them.

atmosphericvortexengine
atmosphericvortexengine

I await the day that the media calls for diversity when it impinges upon Jewish representation in arts and entertainment.


Imagine if we counted how many whites in Hollywood were Jewish versus non-Jewish. And then - as in the case of the missing black female comedians in SNL - called for more token white gentiles.


Well we can keep on imagining it, because if such a call were made it would be lost in the fringes of the internet and would never be printed in Time.

meddevguy
meddevguy

What a shame -- with all this PC pressure, we'll never know if she was the best comedienne Lorne could find.

MagicMIke
MagicMIke

We wish her good luck.  There are obvious things missing from this "picture" but the killer bees are the free-beez.

WienersPeener
WienersPeener

Awesome. I will tune in whenever I need a dose of the PC police (barf). For comedy I'll stick with Youtube.

Wardie
Wardie

@passionatepiper

Exactly!

Also, how much of the cast is Jewish in relation to the Jewish population of the US? Does that get mentioned too? Are Christians and Hindu's being unfairly 'discriminated' against as well?

I am so tired of the asinine BS. They may as well have used the headline "Freed Slave Permitted to Star on Hit Comedy Skit Show"

Is the author of this stand-up peace of 'journalism' aware that the President of these United States is a black guy? 


statetheobvious
statetheobvious

@ChristopherMcElreeYou're a hypocrite. You want SNL to have more characters who can do country stars and more average-looking people. Because that's what YOU like. That's a group you belong to, and any show that doesn't have overweight people or country music is discriminating against you and is in the wrong. There's no possible way no one who can do a Luke Bryan impression is funny, or there are no talented average-looking comics. You attribute it to SNL being racist, because there's no other possible way people who look like you and like the things you like just can't make it on their merits.


And it's unrealistic for people to have friends of different ethnic groups (seriously? Are you trolling?) but it's somehow realistic for people from big cities in blue states to hang out with people who know who Brad Paisley is? I can assure you the former is far more common than the latter.


You want affirmative action for groups you relate to and you belong to. You decry other people who want the same thing for themselves.

gilgamess
gilgamess


@ChristopherMcElreeInteresting points.  I don't work for the show, but here is what I think.


1. Beyoncé sells a LOT of records, so it's a good bet that SNL will book her.  Many years ago, SNL booked "The Voices of East Harlem" who are, to this day, pretty obscure, so it is apparent that they can book who they want, but they go for the big money.


2. Why not a lot of Country?  I am guessing that the answer is the fact that the show is New York-based.  NYC is a radio market that went seventeen years without a Country music station.  Is that indicative of USA's taste?  No.  Is it a reflection of the area from where the program originates?   Yes.  By the way WNSH, is ranked 22nd out of 37 stations.


3. "....every show has to be the freaking United Colors of Benetton".  Sometime ago, there were only three major networks, so as other voices grew stronger, there was pressure to be everything to everybody.  SNL made a HUGE deal over hiring a Gay man, Terry Sweeney. At the time, however, there was no "Brokeback Mountain" or "Glee", so it was a big deal.  The sad thing (my opinion) was that the writing let Sweeney and the rest of the cast down during his tenure.  I agree with your point as to diversification could be a mask for poor writing, but if you have to churn out that much material year after year, why not try something novel?  SOMEtimes you end up with interesting approaches to art.  Case in point: Garrett Morris was known for singing, dressing in drag and his character Chico Escuela.  Not a very distinguished run, but Eddie Murphy came along and went on to bigger things.


For me, do you know two shows that raised an eyebrow for me as a child?  "Here Come the Doubledeckers" and "The Bugaloos".  I didn't know guys that looked like me could speak with English accents!  That was cool to me.

Is this diversity the sole reason why SNL's writing suffers?  It's hard to say.  I have a few theories.  One is talent.  Marilyn Suzanne Miller and James Sweeney are great writers.  You can't just run out and find that level of genius.  Also, it is my belief that the level of writer changes when you deal with writers who want to write books and end up writing movies, former movie writers that end up "slumming" and writing for TV.  The skill sets are different, but the aspirations are different, too.  We have some writers who write for TV that have based their craft...on what they have seen on TV.  Some are great, some are...well, y'know.  It's not easy to find a good writer and SNL is one of the few variety shows left around and TV's audiences are so scattered, the best writers don't have to work for NBC, CBS, ABC or FOX.  They can work in cable, and Joss Whedon has shown with "Dr. Horrible..." that you can bypass TV and go to YouTube.  The pendulum swings both ways.  When I was growing up, I was thrilled to see people of any color have good speeches, be the romantic lead, live until the end of the show or movie or, heck, BE in some of these shows.


Many of the "PC-Egad!!" arguments that I see lack historical context.  You can take any piece of good work with a questionable line or character out of context and say, "Now that wasn't so bad, was it?", but putting this back into context you see the great show with a housewife and then you see ALL of the housewives.  You see one show with a colored maid that makes you laugh, but in the context of the times, you see brownskin service by the metric ton.  You get the picture.


4. As for looks, I agree.  The pretty folks get a lot of jobs and the pretty women seem to, in many cases, hang around some pretty "average"-looking guys.  And that's showbiz, I'm afraid.  It's also, sadly, our culture.


5. Who can this woman play? Well, she worked with the Upright Citizens Brigade, which also saw the likes of Amy Poehler, so I hope she can play quite a few people.  John Belushi was Albanian and I cannot think of too many famous folks from Albania, but he played a lot of characters, not all of them based on impressions.  Yes, he did imitate William Shatner, but he loved doing characters, such as Sissy Spacek's abusive husband.  He is also remembered for his Samurai, being a Blues Brother and the Olympia Restaurant guy ("Cheeseburger, cheesburger...")


So, if a dumpy (his words) Albanian can make us laugh, why not this woman.  Save your vitriol for after you have seen her work.  If you don't care for it, get a job writing for SNL.  You will therefore have one more job with them than I've ever had.

xmanni01
xmanni01

@srjohnson2 - so every show on TV has to have somebody from every ethnic group?  How bout BET - BLACK entertainment television?  Are they going to diversify and change their name? 

xmanni01
xmanni01

@meddevguy - exactly...  How bout we diversify in the NFL & NBA w/more Asians, Mexicans etc?  Oh cause then it will hurt the poor BLACK folks.  He should have stood up and said he will hire the most qualified person.  Phuck the PC BS.