Let’s Talk About SNL’s Diversity Problem

Kenan Thompson has been taking a lot of heat this week for a comment he made in a TV Guide interview about SNL’s lack of a black female cast member, despite the recent hiring of six white performers. Following Jay Pharoah’s rather blunt remark to theGrio that “They need to pay attention” and cast a black woman like Darmirra Brunson, Thompson had a more ambiguous response:

Instead of blaming showrunner Lorne Michaels or the series, which currently only employs three actors of color out of 16 cast members (Thompson, 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.”

Following the comment was a frenzy of articles, tweets, and talking heads furious over Thompson saying that there aren’t any black women out there who are talented enough to be on SNL. (It should be noted that Thompson didn’t say those words exactly; rather, he seemed to imply that the black comediennes who have auditioned for the show lately simply haven’t made the cut, as has been the case for any number of hilarious performers over the years.) The responses were far less nuanced. Buzzfeed ran an article titled “4 Black Women SNL’s Kenan Thompson Should Meet,” and one of those women, Nyima Funk (a Second City veteran who has auditioned for SNL in the past) posted a video that mocked Thompson’s statement by suggesting the only way she could be ready for SNL would be to transform herself into a white man.

The lack of diversity on SNL has always been a thorn in the paw for the show’s progressive fan base. Since SNL premiered in 1975, only 15 black performers have been in the cast (and only two Latinos and zero Asian-Americans), and only four of those black performers have been women: Yvonne Hudson (1980-81), Danitra Vance (1985-86), Ellen Cleghorne (1991-95) and Maya Rudolph (2000-2007). Since Rudolph left, viewers have complained that SNL has no one to play zeitgeist celebrities like Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, or Beyonce – not to mention a wealth of original black female characters. In the past, Thompson donned drag to play Whoopi Goldberg and Star Jones, but he now refuses to play such roles.

SNL’s casting process is notoriously secretive, leaving outsiders wondering why the show hasn’t diversified its cast. Is it, as Thompson suggested, simply a matter of the SNL’s producers being unable to find black women who are “ready”? How is that possible when those of us in the alternative comedy scene know hilarious black women who have auditioned, only to be mysteriously rejected? Is anyone ever “ready” for SNL?

In fairness, we can’t make any accusations without knowing the gatekeepers’ motives. Still, the ongoing lack of a black female in the cast continues to baffle viewers. In hopes of shedding some light on this controversial issue, we took a look at the comedy communities that feed talent to SNL, crunched some numbers, and made some interesting discoveries.

The major comedy theaters that SNL recruits from aren’t very diverse, either.

Let’s do some math. Currently, SNL’s cast contains 16 performers: eight white men, five white women, two black men, and one Iranian-American woman*. (Nasim Pedrad’s Middle Eastern ancestry technically classifies her as “white” in modern racial definitions, though because we’re examining ethnic diversity, it would be to our benefit to define “white” as persons with European heritage.) This makes the cast 18.8% non-white. That number is down from 35.7% in 2004, when five of the cast’s 14 performers were either black (Maya Rudolph, Kenan Thompson, Finesse Mitchell) or Latino (Horatio Sanz, Fred Armisen). What caused this drop? Perhaps we can look at the show’s traditional sources for new talent.

Last March, Splitsider looked into the comedy training grounds where many SNL cast members honed their skills to see which communities tend to be the most popular feeders of talent to the show. We found that a nearly half of all cast members started at improv/sketch comedy theaters like the Second City in Chicago (as well its sister-schools, the iO Theater and the Annoyance), the Groundlings in Los Angeles, and the Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB) theaters in New York and LA. In the past decade, only two cast members have been hired from standup (Jay Pharoah and Brooks Wheelan), with the rest having backgrounds in improv and sketch. So with SNL relying so heavily on these communities, it’s worth looking at them again… specifically, how diverse they are.

The communities and alumni bases of Second City, the Groundlings, and the UCB are so extensive that it’s difficult to measure a sample group. So we narrowed our scope by examining each of the theater’s current performers. For the Second City, we looked at Chicago’s current Mainstage company, the ETC company, and the touring companies (US, Canada, and the cruise lines). For the Groundlings, we looked at the Main Company, the Sunday Company, and all other performers doing shows at the theater in October 2013. For the UCB, we looked at the Chelsea theater in New York and the theater in Los Angeles, tracking all the UCB performers scheduled for shows in October 2013. Note that this does not take into account these theaters’ training centers or alumni, or in the UCB’s case, its theater in the East Village. It does, however, give us a sense of who is representing these communities on stage in front of audiences right now. Also, (spoiler alert) the prevalence of white performers in these communities over other ethnic groups – black, Latino, Asian-American, etc. – is so huge that the results are best conveyed into categories of “white” and “non-white.” This isn’t meant to suggest that all non-white races are the same, but simply to show that the major improv and sketch theaters in this country are even more whitewashed than SNL is.

(The numbers have been scaled to give you a sense of the ratio of white to non-white performers in these communities. So, for example, for every one non-white female Second City performer, there are five white females, and about six white males. Non-white women make up about 7.3% of the current performers in that theater community.)

While the disparity between whites and nonwhites may make some people in these communities cringe, it shouldn’t come as too big a surprise. The Second City has been better than most when it comes to diversity – by practice, the theater casts companies with a balance of men and women, with few exclusively white casts. But despite the Second City’s extensive community outreach and diversity program, the decisive majority of the performers in the community are white. This trend is reflected in the Groundlings – currently, both the Main Company and the Sunday Company are all-white, with black and Latino alums doing other shows at the theater. The UCB similarly has a reputation for mostly white performers, though its lower diversity rate is likely a result of its greater number of house teams and performers.

It’s not exactly clear why minorities are so underrepresented in the improv and sketch communities, though it’s likely the answer is less institutional than it is cultural. These theaters aren’t blind. They have taken steps to diversify and have been somewhat successful. Both the Second City and the UCB training centers offer diversity programs to incentivize ethnic minorities to take classes. And although affirmative action is not an official policy at any of these theaters and comedic talent always comes first, it is clear that directors are excited to see minorities taking classes and auditioning for teams, and they try their best to assemble diverse casts. In fact, most theaters we spoke to noticed an increase in the number of minorities registering for classes over the past decade, and an increase in those performers being cast on house ensembles. Furthermore, every year, these theaters put up “showcases” for Lorne Michaels and other SNL producers, which feature a mix of the theaters’ top talent – and an array of ethnic backgrounds.

And that only covers some of the major talent streams into the SNL audition process. With Brooks Wheelan getting cast this year, standup is obviously still a reliable stepping stone to an SNL audition. Most of the black performers on SNL over the years have come from standup (Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, Tracy Morgan, and Jay Pharoah, as well as writers Hannibal Buress, J.B. Smoove, and Michael Che), perhaps because standup, as opposed to improv or sketch, forces a performer to hone his/her comedic voice and stand out as an individual talent, allowing black performers to better make their mark and not get lost in the crowd of a large improv/sketch community. SNL has also proven to be fairly savvy about the world of online videos – its hiring of Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett of Good Neighbor, and before them, Andy Samberg and his fellow members of Lonely Island and CollegeHumor’s Sarah Schneider as a writer, tells us that SNL has its ears to the ground all over the place. Indeed, the popularity of Jay Pharoah’s impressions on YouTube were a major factor in his landing a job on the show.

So yes, the pool of performers SNL looks at every year is mostly white, but with the gradually diversifying improv and sketch communities, as well as the channels for performers of color in standup and online, how is SNL not seeing any black women? And if SNL is seeing them, why doesn’t the show seem to want to hire them?

SNL does not feel an overwhelming need to diversify.

SNL has weathered its share of controversy – far worse than this current “crisis.” When In Living Color and MADtv hit the late night airwaves in the 1990s with colorful casts that appealed to more diverse demo groups, SNL was criticized – by both the media and its own cast – for its lack of diversity in the staff, as well as in the subject matter of its sketches. A scathing New Yorker profile in 1995 described the show’s writers as predominantly white, sheltered, Ivy League-educated men – an attitude echoed by Ellen Cleghorne (an In Living Color alum and one of the four four black female cast members in SNL history):

Pale, overwhelmingly male, and raised on comic books, the main writers are very short on experience in the world beyond pop culture. The most productive young writer, David Mandel, 24, still lives at home with his family. Mandel grew up worshiping the show, collecting old SNL scripts and memorabilia at bookstores, and memorizing dozens of sketches. He went on to Harvard, where he says he devoted more time to the Lampoon than to his academic work.

“There’s only one writer who didn’t go to Harvard or Yale or Cornell or Brown,” Ellen Cleghorne says, overstating the case only slightly. “There’s no black writers on the show — this is 1995, and I feel like I’m in a really bad sci-fi movie where all the black people already got killed, and I’m next. I’m not a separatist, I’d like to be able to jam with somebody who’s had the same experiences I find funny.”

The show cleaned shop in the year that followed, with several staff members either leaving or getting fired (including Cleghorne, who left SNL to star in a short-lived WB sitcom). But SNL hired no new black writers or actors to replace them, leaving Tim Meadows as the only minority cast member until Tracy Morgan was added a year later.

SNL’s answer to MADtv and In Living Color was to stay the course and further brand itself as a pop culture-driven New York sketch show with a lot of funny white people. Lorne Michaels’s willfulness to ignore political correctness in racial casting bordered on stubbornness at times — he cast the half-Venezuelan Fred Armisen (under skin-darkening face makeup) as Barack Obama, and despite critics claiming the caricature amounted to blackface, Armisen played the role for four seasons, even for a year after Jay Pharoah joined the cast. Michaels explained his decision to The Washington Post in 2008:

Michaels said that the show auditioned “four to five” actors for the Obama role, including Thompson [and Donald Glover and Jordan Peele]. And the winner, he says, was based on merit. “When it came down to it, I went with the person with the cleanest comedy ‘take’ on” Obama,” Michaels said.Michaels said he liked how Armisen caught the tilt of Obama’s head, the rhythm of his speaking style, “the essence” of his look. “It’s not about race,” Michaels insisted via phone. “It’s about getting a take on Obama, where it serves the comedy and the writing… . Believe me, when we read 40 or 50 pieces [for the show] on Wednesday, no one says, ‘This is a very good way of getting our political points across.’ We’re simply asking ourselves: Is it fresh? Is it funny? Fred just had best take on Obama.”

This quote gives us an insight into Lorne Michaels’s mindset. For him, SNL isn’t about diversity. It’s about comedy, pure and simple. He doesn’t care if his show accurately reflects the various racial groups in America, so long as it still gets laughs. And for the most part, Michaels has gotten away with this approach. All these years later, while its colorful competitors are long gone, eternally Wonder-Bread SNL is still bringing in big ratings, earning critical praise, churning out box office stars, writers, and directors that go on to dominate Hollywood, producing sketches that are among the most shared and talked about videos online, and remaining at the heart of American pop culture… all by sticking closely to Michaels’s blueprint. This isn’t an attempt to defend SNL’s hiring practices, but simply to try to justify why Michaels isn’t feeling any particular pressure to change the show’s image. The diversity for diversity’s sake argument doesn’t apply here; for Michaels, the fact that a black woman has broken through barriers and landed an SNL audition isn’t enough. She still has to be funnier than all the white people in the room.

Of course, anyone who performs comedy in New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles can name dozens of black women who are as talented as anyone currently in the SNL cast. The addition of a talented black woman to the cast is a necessary move — not because sketch comedy ensembles require racial diversity to function, but because currently, SNL is limiting itself creatively by not having someone who can play certain roles, like the First Lady. That said, we’re kidding ourselves if we think the casting process on SNL has ever been that simple.

This brings us back to Kenan Thompson’s statement to TV Guide. It actually makes sense, when it’s not being taken out of context. Yes, it was poorly-worded. (Honestly, has any new cast member — Thompson included — ever been “ready” to be on SNL?) But consider the first part of Thompson’s remark: “It’s just a tough part of the business.” If there’s one thing Thompson understands, after a lifetime of performing sketch comedy on TV, it’s how much a casting decision is purely a business deal. Sometimes, a deal makes perfect sense, but then the timing’s not right, or some small detail surfaces and unravels the whole arrangement. We don’t know what happens when Lorne Michaels sees a black woman audition, but we do know that he sees far fewer black women than he does white men, and if he feels no urgent need to diversify his cast, he’s going to make the easiest business deal possible.

It’s time we all stopped viewing SNL as the counter-cultural bellwether that we somehow convinced ourselves it was supposed to be. It’s a mainstream sketch comedy show with mostly-white performers, fed by mostly-white comedy training grounds, reflecting a broad, mostly-white comedy industry. Thankfully, that industry looks like it’s starting to change. Just don’t expect to see SNL leading the charge.

Erik Voss is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles. He has been writing about SNL for Splitsider since 2010. He hosts the Evil Blond Kid podcast and performs improv on the Harold team The Cartel at the iO West Theater.

Let’s Talk About SNL’s Diversity Problem