For 13 years, CBS has operated its Diversity Sketch Comedy Showcase out of a basement at the CBS Studio City lot, giving underrepresented writers and actors an opportunity to create and perform a theatrical sketch show in front of prominent industry players, including potential managers, agents, and casting directors.
Designed to highlight straight and LGBTQ writers and actors from marginalized communities as well as women and those with disabilities, participants enter into the program hoping to land jobs and business representation. But in the wake of the resignation of the program’s director last month over accusations of sexual harassment, Vulture has learned that the five-month-long program’s issues go deeper than that. Participants say the program often leaves participants feeling dejected and bullied at the hands of leaders who view them stereotypically and insist that their work revolve around outdated racist, gender-based, or homophobic tropes.
The program, which runs annually from September to January and culminates in several days of performances in a Los Angeles theater, came under fire last month when director Rick Najera resigned the post he’d held for 13 years, after CBS investigated sexual-harassment complaints against him. According to a network statement, CBS had already taken “remedial action” Najera in March after receiving a previous complaint. In an October 27 press release, Najera said he and his family were “heartbroken and confounded by deliberate and cruel defamations … it’s unbelievable that a diversity program I directed and we supported for more than a decade would be twisted against me.”
But the problems at the showcase — which has included 402 actors and 263 writers, and boasts successful participants including two-time Emmy winner Kate McKinnon, Randall Park, and Tiffany Haddish — date back to its inception. All of the 20 writers and actors who spoke to Vulture about their experience said they applied and auditioned for the unpaid positions because of the potential career gains and networking opportunities it offers, despite warnings from previous participants that the environment would be, at times, toxic and personally challenging. The vast majority spoke to Vulture under the condition of anonymity because they feared speaking out could affect their livelihood or relationships. From demanding that black actors participate in sketches about slaves to asking Latina actresses to “slut it up” to body-shaming both men and women, Najera and Fern Orenstein, the showcase’s producer and casting director, who is also CBS’s vice-president of casting, repeatedly defied the program’s primary purpose, the participants unanimously agreed.
“It seems fundamentally paradoxical,” said actor Bobak Cyrus Bakhtiari (Silicon Valley, Homeland) who participated in 2015, but was cut before the showcase was presented. “They had very idiosyncratic ideas of what it meant to be gay or black or brown. Maybe if it was 1988 in Cincinnati, that would be what serves the mass culture machine. Or maybe they didn’t get what the purpose of the diversity showcase is. There was an important job description that was left out, and they were like, Yeah, we’ll just fucking rack up some brownie points on racism here by enhancing the racism.”
Although the L.A. comedy community has openly discussed what the participants describe as the showcase’ reductive sketches and tokenizing of people of color for years, it took an unlikely advocate to call attention to it at CBS. After living in Los Angeles for seven years and hearing about the program from her peers at Upright Citizens Brigade and other corners of the comedy scene, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend co-creator, star, and executive producer Rachel Bloom said she felt an obligation to get involved. Because her show is produced by CBS Studios, Bloom was invited as a guest to this year’s showcase, which made her want to talk to executives about what she’d heard, she told Vulture.
“It’s kind of an open secret that it is a bad experience,” said Bloom, who never participated in the showcase. “I’ve heard these stories for years, but it just looked like nothing had ever been dealt with. So I looked into, how do people go about complaining about this?” Bloom spoke to a human-resources representative and posted directions on Facebook for participants who wanted to complain.
“The stories I’ve heard, and that pretty much almost anyone in the L.A. comedy community has heard, were less about sexual harassment and more about racism, homophobia, sexism, and body-shaming,” Bloom continued. “I’m not saying the harassment didn’t happen, but my email never named anybody because it wasn’t just one person at the showcase that I heard about. I work for CBS and all the stories that I heard — and this is not just me being corporate — honestly weren’t representative of the studio I work for. I work for really lovely people.”
The way the showcase is run, participants say, flies in the face of its mission to help empower and elevate talented people of any background in an industry that notoriously favors white men and relies largely on cronyism in its hiring practices. CBS itself is often cited for its lack of people of color or women in lead roles and in key positions behind the scenes of its shows, but the network is hardly an industry anomaly.
To participate in the program, actors undergo rigorous auditions and callbacks; writers submit sketch packets and are interviewed. Those who are selected — 80 to 100 in total — are expected to dedicate themselves full-time to the program, writing and rehearsing daily until the sketches, actors, and writers that make the cut for the showcase are chosen. None of the participants are paid, and food and water is not provided.
“It was like a demented concentration camp,” Bakhtiari said. “I’d have to be in these scenes for a long time and then run to the bathroom to chug water or go up two stories to get some water out of a fountain. It just seemed like a program they didn’t want to fund, but wanted to have it be ethnically savvy for some industry reason.”
One female writer who participated in 2015 says she’ll never forget Najera’s and Orenstein’s introductory remarks on the first day the group met. Other participants who were present also recalled the comments. “Looking around, you may have noticed there are many white male writers,” Najera noted. “You may be asking yourself, why are they a part of the diversity showcase?” Orenstein completed the thought: “We just want to make sure the show will be funny.”
Comedy, certainly, is subjective. But the type of laughs that Najera and Orenstein pushed seemed to many in the program old-fashioned at best and offensive at worst. Actress Kristina Wong, who performed in the showcase in 2008, referred to it as a “modern day minstrel show” in a Facebook post.
Orenstein, for example, tended to call people by their ethnicity instead of their names, several participants said. Jewish women were called “Jew Girl” and Latinas were known as “Mexican Girl.” She deliberately confused actors of the same ethnicity with one another in an attempt to throw them off their game, they said. In the case of one 2015 sketch involving two black actors, participants say Orenstein wondered aloud why there were no bank-robbery or mugging scenes for them. The following year, Orenstein pushed for a sketch that depicted Souplantation as a real slave plantation, but Tiffany Smith-Anoa’i, CBS’s executive-vice president of diversity, inclusion, and communications, who began overseeing the showcase in 2015, nixed it.
Generally, Orenstein demanded that Latino characters have “Ricky Ricardo” accents, gay men twirl across the stage and lisp, Asian actors “act foreign,” and black actors “black it up.” Nicole Byer, who performed in the 2013 showcase, declined to be interviewed for this story, but within weeks of the final performance, she created a sketch titled “Be Blacker” for UCB Comedy Originals, which other participants say depicted her showcase experience.
“I’m sure in their minds, it was just being provocative and edgy,” said an actor who participated in 2006. “But in a lot of our minds, it felt minstrel-y and kind of humiliating.” That year, there was an airport-security sketch involving a disabled actor who was placed inside a bin as she went through security. “I’m actually a little shocked that they’re still doing it the same way as when I was doing it because it was really bad,” he added. “It was really bad.”
For a while, Wong says she tried to give the showcase leaders the benefit of the doubt. “I assumed from the experience, this was just CBS’s way of giving actors of color a small taste of how fucked-up the rest of Hollywood is,” Wong wrote on Facebook. “But in the years since that showcase, I’ve learned that … it is possible for people of color to be treated with respect and work in a productive environment where they can succeed together.”
Actor Tess Paras, a recurring player on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and a series regular on a future Amazon series, wrote a sketch that made it in the 2014 showcase that she is still surprised was allowed in. In “Typecast,” a parody of Lorde’s “Royals,” Paras and two black actresses sing about playing tropes like “the white girl’s nerdy friend” and “the white girl’s other friend… who is sassy.” It received a standing ovation at every performance.
“That was a very bold thing that happened,” Paras told Vulture. “I think it was one of those — what is she saying? Is she being sincere? Tonally there was a wink there, but maybe just the people in the know got that. I was very scared, to be honest with you.” Paras remembers receiving a note at a rehearsal a week before the live shows asking her to recast one of the roles because she shouldn’t have two dark-skinned black actors in it. “And I said no,” Paras said. “That’s what this sketch is about! It’s about colorism even within racism. I had to stand my ground.”
Some participants said they weren’t sure if Orenstein and Najera’s intentions were malicious; one male writer from the 2016 showcase posited that they were more “ignorant and stubborn.” But they criticized them for perpetuating the backward thinking they claimed was pervasive in Hollywood. Orenstein and Najera routinely advised actors that they had to play to their stereotypes before they would be given opportunities to do more in the industry. “They were always pushing us to be whatever we were on the outside, and any time there were any smart, subtle, intellectual sketches presented, they would be like, That’s garbage,” said a writer and performer from the 2012 showcase. “Of course, we know from watching TV and going to the movies that there are those kinds of roles. It was reinforcing [stereotypes] instead of showcasing that we can do more. That was heartbreaking, because this is the network that appeals to most of Middle America.”
“This is the problem as far as opportunities for actors who aren’t traditionally represented – how can these people be the gatekeepers?” added a now-prominent actor who participated in the showcase. “Close-minded people, with very traditional ways of seeing who gets these opportunities, have no place running a comedy diversity showcase.”
While hardly any of the participants directly challenged the leaders, sometimes they would let their discomfort be known. For example, when Orenstein insisted that an Indian actor needed to work at “Bombay Gardens” instead of Pizza Hut in a skit, or exclaimed after an audition, “I like you but we’ve already got a fat girl. We don’t need another fat girl, right everyone?” the room would erupt in groans. Participants who witnessed these scenarios said Orenstein always responded with some version of, “Oh you guys, you’re so sensitive.” For a while, participants vented by sending tweets from a “Shit That Fern Says” account that has since been deleted.
Bakhtiari says he skipped some rehearsals because he was tired of being the designated terrorist in sketches and was eventually cut out of the program. “Rick and Fern have one very similar quality, and that is that they felt like their interpretation of what works is some sort of absolute truth that guided their thought process,” he said. “When I challenged her or Rick, it was like sticking an ice-cream cone up their ass. They would freak out. So I stopped talking.”
One of the most common complaints against Orenstein is that she body-shamed participants — many recalled her doing this publicly to actors such as Saturday Night Live’s McKinnon and comedian Justin Rupple — and impressed upon them the need to lose weight. (McKinnon, who declined to comment for this story, referred to Orenstein as one of her “L.A. moms” in her Emmys acceptance speech this year.) “Fern constantly reminded us that she cast the original Baywatch, and I think that was her physical standard for women,” a female writer from the 2014 showcase said. “Yet there was a weird math, in which beautiful and sexy women couldn’t be too beautiful and sexy and still be considered funny.” The writer also voiced a complaint echoed by many, that Orenstein “harangued all the average-weight actors to lose 10 to 20 pounds, and bragged to us that she starts eating disorders.”
As for the allegations that first put the showcase in the news, several women who spoke with Vulture said they were “creeped out” by Najera, who sometimes flirted with them or touched their backs or arms when he spoke to them. Sometimes, they say, he went further, commenting on their looks — one female writer in the 2013 showcase said he glared at her breasts while making an off-color joke. A writer who participated in 2016 says he told her she was too good-looking to be a writer. “Generally people just said, ‘Oh, he’s gross.’ But, you know, women consider that to be kind of par for the course,” she said.
Another writer who participated in 2013 felt Najera was “grooming” her by constantly complimenting her, wanting to sit next to her, and asking to spend time with her outside of the showcase. “When the Harvey Weinstein story came out, this came to the forefront of my mind, and I realized it was all so unacceptable,” she said. “The fact that I didn’t leave and I got an agent out of this experience made me feel so guilty. Rick definitely messed with my head.”
Participants in the current group say they learned Najera had left when they read about it in Variety. The next day, Smith-Anoa’i and an HR representative addressed the group but said they couldn’t legally discuss why Najera had been forced out. “That was pretty inappropriate in my opinion,” said a female writer in the current group. “I think we all deserve an apology or some kind of explanation.”
Najera, who is out of town for a performance, declined to speak with Vulture for this story; CBS also declined Vulture’s requests to interview Orenstein and Smith-Anoa’i. But in a statement, a CBS spokesperson detailed some of the corrective measures the network has taken since the first complaints against Najera were lodged earlier this year. Last week, CBS hired actors Stephen Guarino and Grace Parra, who performed in the showcase in 2011 and 2013, respectively, to replace Najera as co-directors. The network declined to make them available to Vulture for interviews, and would not comment about Orenstein’s status in the program.
“We are aware and appreciate the concerns that have been expressed in this story,” CBS’s statement to Vulture reads. “Over the past eight months or so, since the first word of this came to our attention, we believe CBS has taken significant steps to address individual behavior. We have introduced a wide range of cultural sensitivity training for all Showcase leaders, including seminars on micro-aggressions and unconscious bias. Those efforts will continue. We are also excited about the Showcase’s new leadership and committed to building on its outstanding track record of opening doors for its many talented performers in an environment that invites creative risk-taking while respecting race, gender, national origin, ethnicity, ability and sexual orientation.”
Parra and Guarino met with the group last Friday, and according to participants who were present, they said they intend to promote a different culture within the program. “Everyone seems very pleased and that they’re a good hire, like they have good intentions,” said the writer. “At least, it seems that way.”
Some of the participants who spoke to Vulture said that, in the end, the grueling experience was worthwhile because of the opportunities they got as a result. This year, for example, 12 actors secured managers or agents because of their work in the showcase, according to CBS. One woman likened it to the gains from “going to war,” while another actor spoke of the lasting bonds he made with his 2006 group.
“You know how people have that relationship to New York where it’s so horrible most of the time, but they survived it and you love it ’cause it was so hard?” said an actress and writer from the 2012 showcase. “It was kind of like that, where we all left and felt like we went through this crazy, abusive thing together. We’re stronger for it, and we’re glad it’s over, so we’re just gonna joke about it now.”