Yesterday’s announcement from Saturday Night Live that Kerry Washington will make her debut as host on Nov. 2 was, of course, greeted with glee from Scandal fans — but the news is drawing a more complicated reaction at the same time.
That’s because on Monday, TVGuide.com published an interview with SNL cast member Kenan Thompson in which the comedian was asked about the lack of diversity among his colleagues, specifically the fact that there are no black, female comedians on the show (and there have only been four in its history):
Instead of blaming showrunner Lorne Michaels or the series, which currently only employs three actors of color out of 16 cast members (Thompson, [Jay] Pharaoh and the Iranian Nasim Pedrad), Thompson blames the lack of quality black female comedians. “It’s just a tough part of the business,” Thompson says. “Like in auditions, they just never find ones that are ready.”
Unsurprisingly, the idea that there just weren’t enough candidates — especially when put forth by a comedian who is himself African-American — drew near-instant criticism and suggestions for people who prove Thompson wrong. (Jay Pharoah’s suggestion is Darmirra Brunson; check out some of her work here.)
“@LBeesKnees:Dying to know what you think: @Salon Kenan Thompson’s explains SNL’s lack of diversity http://t.co/LSkWQKdynS” yeah he’s dumb.
— Aisha Tyler (@aishatyler) October 15, 2013
Considering the timing, skeptics have suggested that the Kerry Washington announcement — the show’s decision to feature a woman well known for breaking racial barriers — was meant specifically to calm fans whose anger about diversity on the show was stoked by Thompson’s comments. (It seems unlikely that she was cast within the last two days, and this timing, about three weeks in advance, is fairly standard for SNL‘s hosting announcements, but it is possible that the current firestorm inspired the exact moment the news was announced.)
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And Thompson also told TVGuide.com that he would no longer dress in drag for the show (having previously played Maya Angelou, Jennifer Hudson and others) and that Jay Pharaoh doesn’t want to either. Which means that, should they hold firm, the issue doesn’t stop with a lack of black cast members. He’s also saying that will be no black, female characters (barring those portrayed by a host like Kerry Washington, which wouldn’t be very many since as— TVLine’s Michael Slezak points out — the hosting history isn’t very diverse either).
There’s a hint in the original interview that Thompson and Pharaoh’s move may force SNL‘s hand, since producers will have to cast someone to do those impressions. And his decision not to do play those parts is not what’s controversial; people are upset because Thompson passes the buck on the reason behind the homogeneity of the cast, refusing to place any responsibility with the show and its producers.
There’s no counter-argument to the fact of SNL‘s lack of diversity; just count the cast members and it’s clear. There’s also no rebutting the existence of many talented and successful African-American comediennes, and the odds that, were casting one of them a top priority, it’s likely one could be found who would be “ready” for the show. But it’s also the case that the show’s producers don’t operate in a vacuum.
As Alyssa Rosenberg at Thinkprogress points out, one casting director with first-hand knowledge of trying to find black, female comedians publicly responded to Thompson’s remarks by saying that, actually, yes, it is hard to find performers who would be ready. The issue, she clarified, is not with the readiness but with the finding. She cites (anonymously) troubles with the contract terms for one comedian considered a great candidate for SNL.
It’s also likely that larger comedy-sphere issues are affecting SNL‘s casting problems — two thirds of this year’s new cast members come out of the Upright Citizens Brigade world, one that has race issues of its own. UCB’s classes are expensive and, as was detailed in a February New York Times article, the theater provides comedians with exposure but does not pay them; it’s been suggested by some comedians that the lack of financial compensation deters diversity. (There’s evidence that UCB and NBC both want to see improvement in this area — they offer a diversity scholarship, providing a full year of UCB classes to one person, hoping to attract “women and people of diverse backgrounds.”)
As comedian W. Kamau Bell told Salon last month, the need to diversify at SNL and other comedy stalwarts isn’t just about who they hire but about who makes up the pool of potential talent. Bell also noted that diversity of perspective is important, that having comedians of various backgrounds — not just black and white — leads to jokes of various styles that speak to a wider array of audience members. The gist of it is that any place that so predominantly draws from any one group of people is likely to stick individuals who don’t fit into that group into token or translated roles, parts that see the minority group through the eyes of the majority, rather than for themselves as people.
So maybe there’s something more concerning than the fact that, if Thompson and Pharaoh won’t play women, Saturday Night Live will have no impressions of famous black women. A truly diverse SNL would be one where a black, female comedian also plays characters who require her acting ability and sense of humor, not just her race. And, though it’s only temporary, who better to do that than Kerry Washington?
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