WASHINGTON, January 18, 2014 – “Saturday Night Live” has spent nearly four decades making fun of others. Showing it’s a good sport, SNL turned the tables on itself last November when actress Kerry Washington (“Scandal”) responded to the grumbles of the politically correct: SNL was not diverse. It did not have a black female comedienne to play roles such as Michelle Obama or Oprah Winfrey.
Cast member Kenan Thompson said he was done doing black drag.
Washington proved that she is as talented as we all think she is and it was one of the most memorable shows SNL has done lately because Washington is talented, funny, sharp, quick and really cute. Face it, she is a very attractive woman. Ever since Lucille Ball, we have loved a smart, funny and attractive woman.
So the show was being criticized for its lack of black female comediennes. With 137 cast members (repertory and featured players per Wikipedia), only 40 of those cast regulars have been women; of those 40 women, only four were black.
Make that five now that Sasheer Zamata of the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater has joined SNL mid-season. Her predecessors are Ellen Cleghorne (1991-95), Yvonne Hudson (1980-81), Danitra Vance (1985-86), and Maya Rudolph (2000-2007).
Kerry Washington’s hosting gig came several days after Lorne Michaels spoke about the lack of black women hired on his show, telling the Associated Press, “It’s not like it’s not a priority for us. It will happen. I’m sure it will happen. You don’t do anyone a favor if they’re not ready.”
And there in lies the proverbial rub. It’s not just about finding a specific, in this case, black, female comedienne. It is finding the cast which works together.
Consider the inaugural cast (1975-76) that included Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Chevy Chase, George Coe, Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris, Laraine Newman, Michael O’Donoghue and Gilda Radner. Nine cast members, three women, and one black man. I don’t think anyone noticed, or counted or questioned if color, or sex, made one comic better than another.
It was simply ground breaking, funny, edgy, brilliant – and memorable. If you were watching back then you remember The Bees, Blues Brothers, Roseanne Roseannadanna, Saturday Night Live Samurai, Brad and Lisa Loopner, Chevy Chase as Gerald Ford, and Mister Bill.
Or what about the 11th season (1985-86), which in the opinion of some was the worst of the show’s 38 seasons. The cast included Joan Cusack, Robert Downey, Jr., Anthony Michael Hall, Jon Lovitz, Randy Quaid, Terry Sweeney and Danitra Vance, the first back female regular.
Season 11 failed not because of its cast, because it was pretty stellar. Once again, no one applied the season’s failure to the fact that there were more men than women. Or due to the addition of the show’s first black comedienne. This season failed because of show creators Lorne Michaels and Dick Ebersole.
Michaels left SNL to “pursue other opportunities” returning in 1985 only to almost see the show cancelled following this disastrous season.
Announcing this last season with a cast without a single black woman, cast member Thompson said he would not be doing any more “black drag,” but acknowleding a lack of quality black female comediennes. “It’s just a tough part of the business,” Thompson says. “Like in auditions, they just never find ones that are ready.”
While lamenting the lack of talent to choose from, one wonders if Thompson has noticed that out of 16 cast members, he is part of a very small group of minority talent including Jay Pharaoh and Nasim Pedrad.
It is not scandalous, but it may be Michaels creates ensembles that he finds funny, not a prescribed politically correct mix. It’s what he tried to do in 1985: create a cast to follow Dick Ebersole’s star studded 1984-85 cast that included Jim Belushi, Billy Crystal, Mary Gross, Christopher Guest, Rich Hall, Gary Koreger, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Harry Shearer, Martin Short and Pamela Stephenson, without a doubt one of the show’s funniest groups.
Michaels may have learned his lesson. Funny is not dependent on a name, a star, a sex, a color — funny is funny.
He has now added Zamata, and while she may fit the need for a “female black comedienne” to appease the PC Police, watching some of her clips one has to believe that Michaels thinks she is funny.
Not because she is black. Not because she is a woman. But because she is funny.
And SNL is about funny. Not about black or white. Male or female. It’s about funny. It would be sad if critics and the PC Police reduced Zamata to a color or a sex, while forgetting that she has talent.