When Saturday Night Live added six new comedians to the cast this season, people were shocked that a black woman was absent from the roster. For the first time in SNL history, the show has gone more than five years without a black woman on its cast. Kenan Thompson blames the lack of diversity on subpar black comediennes, and ignited a firestorm when he told TV Guide, "... In auditions, they just never find ones that are ready." In response to the controversy, show runner Lorne Michaels sought to address SNL's lack of diversity by having Kerry Washington host last week's episode. And address it they did. In almost every sketch Washington's blackness was the focus; her roles were stereotypical, the jokes were cliché. This is an age old problem for black women on SNL. Could it be that the legendary show does come across talented Black female comics, and they just don't know what to do with them? If SNL had the chance to work with an Emmy-nominated actress and all they made her do was play the same archaic, stereotypical roles, then maybe the problem isn't the talent. Maybe it's not that black women aren't ready for SNL. Maybe it's SNL that's not ready for black women.
In 38 seasons, there have only been four black women on SNL, and they usually played one-dimensional characters that promoted negative stereotypes. Yvonne Hudson, the show's first black comedienne, never had any prominent or recurring characters. She played a maid, a nurse, a slave and a character listed on IMDB as simply, "Black Woman." Danitra Vance played Cabrini Green Jackson who, named after a housing project in Chicago, was a 17-year-old welfare mother that gave pregnancy advice. Vance also appeared in a recurring sketch called, "That Black Girl." Ellen Cleghorn's two main characters were Queen Shenequa and Zoraida. Queen Shenequa was a loud mouthed, neck rolling social critic who dressed in African garb; and Zoraida was an aggressive NBC page, who even asked Joe Pesci in one sketch, "What makes you think I wont cut you?" The angry, ghetto, maid tropes followed the black comediennes in every role. The only black actress on SNL that was not routinely typecast was biracial Maya Rudolph. Rudolph could pass for white, Latina and Asian; on SNL for seven seasons, she lasted the longest. Her ability to impersonate Lisa Kudrow, Lisa Ling and Beyonce undoubtedly contributed to her longevity on the show. As a black woman with fair skin, Rudolph was able to escape the stereotypical caricatures that her comedic predecessors could not seem to avoid.
On last week's episode, the SNL writers showed what they could do with a "ready" black actress: pigeonhole her. They took an Emmy-nominated actress and made her play a nagging girlfriend; a sassy, eye-rolling assistant; and a rage-filled Ugandan beauty queen. Why can't they create interesting and funny characters outside of race? How long will it take the SNL writers to learn that black is not a punch line?
Growing up, I didn't see many black women doing improv or sketch comedy; without YouTube I would never know so many of us existed. As an aspiring comedian, SNL was the end all be all. Some of my favorite female characters on the show were Pat, Debbie Downer and Mary Katharine Gallagher. It wasn't just that they were funny, quirky and eccentric; they were different and multi-dimensional. They were also all white. I rarely saw great, dynamic characters that looked like me on Saturday Night Live (or anywhere else in film and media for that matter), and the implication is that black women can't convincingly play those roles. Black women can't be the "girl next door," she has to be a homegirl. If last week's treatment of Kerry Washington is any indication, then the SNL writers still believe black women to be sassy, "ghetto" and angry. In 40 years, their perception of us has not changed. But the times have.
In 2013, the black actress isn't waiting around for the perfect role; she's creating it. When I watch television, I mainly see one kind of black woman -- the stereotypical one. But when I look on YouTube, the variety of characters that black women play is astounding. We're awkward, we're sophisticated and we're still hilarious.
If SNL isn't finding great black female talent, maybe it's because the characters we want to play don't fall in line with the caricatures they're used to seeing. Maybe it's SNL that isn't ready -- to be progressive, break tradition and have a writing team that isn't 95 percent white for once.
For almost 40 years, the SNL writers' room has been an all-white boys club. Black people are typically misrepresented on the show, because there aren't enough of us in the room to lend an authentic voice to the black experience. This isn't an issue of quota; I'm not saying SNL should institute some kind of affirmative action. However, as one of the longest running shows in history, SNL is a part of American culture. The show has a tremendous impact on the country's cultural conversation, especially as it concerns politics and major social issues. If a group of white men are dictating what is being said, then there are so many different perspectives missing from the discussion. A relic of the comedy community, the SNL writers' room needs to be more diverse for the sake of being true to the art form and the audience.
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