There’s a scene in Spike Lee’s 1989 film, Do the Right Thing where a character asks the Italian-American proprietor of a pizzeria patronized exclusively by African-Americans, why he only has photos of Italians on his wall of fame. The answer is not as important as the question.
I have no idea what the racial breakdown of Saturday Night Live’s viewer demographic is, but as a show devoted to skewering the entirety of pop culture, the 38-year-old program has been taken to task of late due to its almost embarrassing (in this day and age) lack of racial diversity.
When I was a kid in the 60s, when on all-white TV shows like Leave it to Beaver and The Andy Griffith Show were the norm, I recall when, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, the NAACP began putting pressure on TV networks to feature more people of color. While many New York-based TV shows like Car 54, Where Are You? and The Patty Duke Show were notable for their casting diversity or regularly featuring people of color in small roles, Hollywood by and large remained in whitewash lockstep until the threat of sponsor boycotts.
That was the late 60s. Yet, here it is 2014 and the issue of integration in network television programming is still something that can make headlines. Case in point: the recent brouhaha surrounding Saturday Night Live’s recent mid-season casting of the first black woman in seven years, Upright Citizen’s Brigade alumnus, Sasheer Zamata.
I say brouhaha because the very real issue of racial diversity never seemed to trouble SNL creator/producer Lorne Michaels until cast member Kenan Thompson gave an interview to TV Guide back in October stating that he was through picking up the slack for the lack of black women in the cast (Maya Rudolph left in 2007) by dressing up as women. Unfortunately, rather than taking his employer to task (a.k.a.,biting that hand that feeds him) Thompson went on to explain away SNL’s inability to include a single black woman in its current roster of six (white male) additional cast members as, "It's just a tough part of the business. Like in auditions, they just never find ones that are ready."
As words to those effect have been used for generations to explain away institutionalized racism and the lack of racial diversity in everything from the workplace to politics; a virtual shitstorm of press and internet discussion was launched, inciting Michaels to hold a shamelessly public audition specifically for a black female comedian (apparently blind to the implication that to do so gives subtle credence to the ignorance of Thompson’s statement).
Thus, under a spotlight of scrutiny and notoriety rare for an ensemble comedy show, comedian Sasheer Zamata debuts on SNL this weekend, and in doing so, takes on the obligation to portray every single pop-cultural black female from Michelle Obama to Nicki Minaj.
While lauding the show for correcting a troubling omission, Jet Magazine editor-in-chief Mitzi Miller responded to the mixed-message such a move could convey:
“I want this young lady to succeed. Our entire community wants her to succeed, because if she’s talented, then she deserves that, and we want to get behind her. But she’s always going to carry the stigma of, ‘You only got hired, you only got brought on, because of the color of your skin. And that’s not fair to anyone. This was a publicity stunt, it backfired, and now people are uncomfortable. And the bad thing is that this young lady is going to bear the brunt of it for the rest of her time there. No matter how successful she goes on to be, people are going to remember how she got hired. That’s going to be part of her history now.”
On the plus side, Saturday Night Live's recent (albeit less-publicized) hiring of two black female writers (LaKendra Tookes & Leslie Jones) at least gives hope that SNL’s humor might begin to sound a bit less like an evening spent in a Midwestern frat house.
Lorne Michaels would do well to take a tip from that old PBS children’s program The Electric Company. Here was an ensemble cast as diverse as you could get, and everybody played everything. They mixed up racial couples, they cast women in non-traditional roles in skits…in short, they were inclusive and diverse, yet they made it about the people, not the color. They did the right thing.
So, while I’m not crazy about the way SNL responded to something they should have addressed themselves and still need to look into (has there EVER been an Asian cast member?); knowing how the entertainment industry works, corporations being pressured into doing the right thing is better than allowing the status quo to persist, unquestioned, while we wait for television to wake up to the fact that it is no longer 1965 and that it would be nice if the world depicted on television looked more like the actual world we live in. We're not in Mayberry anymore.