On Monday, Yahoo News ran a headline about how a certain television series had “hired a black woman.” If that headline was used in any other situation during the past 30, even 40 years, it would be ripe for ridicule. Yet the TV series in question is Saturday Night Live, giving that comically blunt bit of display copy a sad, desperate air of legitimacy.
The late-night NBC show, brainchild of Canadian icon Lorne Michaels, has a terrible track record when it comes to hiring minority performers. There has been just one black woman in the cast during the past five years (Maya Rudolph), and before her … well, you have to go back to 1995, the last year of Ellen Cleghorne‘s four-season run. And before that, just two more black female comedians graced the show’s stage: Yvonne Hudson (1980-81) and Danitra Vance (1985-86).
Although the show’s diversity issue has been bubbling up time and again over at 30 Rock, things came to a head when Kenan Thompson, one of SNL’s two current black cast members, gave an interview to TV Guide this past fall. Defending the show’s mostly white cast, Thompson said that there just weren’t any funny black women around for SNL to hire. “It’s just a tough part of the business,” he said. “Like in auditions, they just never find ones that are ready.”
It didn’t take long for the media firestorm to nearly consume SNL whole. In a slightly desperate attempt at meta-apology, the show mocked itself with a Kerry Washington-hosted episode during which the Scandal star was pigeonholed into playing every famous black woman alive, from Michelle Obama to Oprah Winfrey (she drew the line at Beyoncé, as any non-superhuman would). To show just how “in” on their unique casting process they are, producers even ran a faux disclaimer after the sketch, reading in part: “SNL does not currently have a black woman in the cast …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.” Hilarious, no?
But should a TV show—or movie, or play, or anything else produced for the ostensible purpose of expressing creativity—feel compelled to take on certain performers because of a diversity-first mandate? It’s a complicated issue, made all the more slippery due to the very nature of comedy, in which prejudices and taboos are routinely contorted into all sorts of otherwise offensive positions. If you were to ask any working comedian what quality should come first in a performer—talent or colour?—the answer will always err on the side of entertainment.
Still, looking at the track record of SNL—one of the longest-running network shows in history—it’s shocking, and more than a bit depressing, that the majority of its cast could easily camouflage itself against a beige wall. The comedy world has produced scores of talents of varying ethnicity over the past 50 years, yet only a few (Eddie Murphy, Maya Rudolph, Tracy Morgan and, to a certain extent, Garrett Morris and Tim Meadows) were incubated on SNL‘s hallowed sound stages.
Will Sasheer Zamata, the show’s new hire, usher in a new era of late-night diversity? Her CV is strong enough—she has the all-important Upright Citizens Brigade background, a seemingly crucial SNL requirement since the late ’90s—and the buzz is impressive. But so, likely, was the talk behind Cleghorne, and Hudson, and if you’re wondering where exactly they are today, you are sadly not alone. (Vance passed away in 1994.)
While Zamata has her work cut out for her—like any newbie SNL player— her place in entertainment history depends, for now, on how the writers and producers utilize her talents. She may be the best performer to ever hit the show, but if she’s stuck playing Michelle Obama or Rihanna week in and week out, the rest of the world will never know.