Does ‘Saturday Night Live’ Have a Diversity Problem with Cast Members and Hosts?

By October 17, 2013
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SNL - Logo

Even if you’re a fan of “Saturday Night Live,” you might not have realized that longtime cast member Kenan Thompson has decided he’s done cross-dressing after playing characters like Whoopi Goldberg, Maya Angelou, and Jennifer Hudson. So what does that mean for seeing any portrayal of black female celebrities on the show?

Well, the question was recently posed to Thompson in an interview with TV Guide, and he replied, “I don’t know. We just haven’t done them. That’s what I’m saying. Maybe [Jay Pharaoh] will do it or something, but even he doesn’t really want to do it.” So if the only two black members of the cast don’t want to cross dress to include any black female characters and impersonations on the show, will any new talent be hired to fill the gap? It doesn’t sound like it’s an immediate plan, but why weren’t any hired in the recent round of six new cast members? After all, the new hirings included five white guys and one woman who looks white, but actually has a Hispanic background (we’ll get to her later).

Thompson doesn’t blame Lorne Michaels, and instead says, “”It’s just a tough part of the business. Like in auditions, they just never find [black female comedians] that are ready.” Of course, this resulted in a series of rebuttals from the likes BuzzFeed and Essence, each offering their own suggestions of people they think would fit right in as cast members of “Saturday Night Live.” TV Line even went so far as to call Thompson’s logic flawed, calling it a variance on the misogynistic claim that there aren’t many funny women out there, and going on to criticize the show for not having more female hosts who are black, or of any other ethnicity for that matter.

These criticisms have fallen hard on “Saturday Night Live” and Kenan Thompson. After all, as TV Line points out, “Of the 90 episodes the show has aired since Season 35, only two black women (and four women of color in total) have hosted: Gabourey Sidibe (April 2010) and Maya Rudolph (February 2012), along with Latina A-listers Jennifer Lopez and Sofia Vergara.” That’s a fair point, right?

SNL - Maya Rudolph

And as far as cast members go, the sketch series has only had 15 black cast members out of a total of 137 cast members, and only names like Eddie Murphy, Tracy Morgan, Chris Rock, Damon Wayans, Maya Rudolph, and arguably Tim Meadows rode that wave to much bigger fame. But is this the fault of “Saturday Night Live” and producer Lorne Michaels? Personally, this issue seems to stem from show business in general, and their lack of letting black talents rise to larger fame on the big screen. Let me explain…

For all the famous black celebrities there are in film, television, music, and other sects of pop culture, there are dozens more white celebrities. Knowing this, it seems like “Saturday Night Live” hires limited numbers of black comedians because when it comes to shining a light on African Americans in pop culture, there’s simply less to lampoon. That’s not to say this isn’t a problem, but it’s hardly the fault of “SNL” or Lorne Michaels.

The same logic can be applied to the claim of significantly less non-white hosts taking the spotlight. The series is known for going after the biggest names in pop culture, and we live in a society that doesn’t have an overwhelming number of A-list African American stars, simply because studios don’t often give them major motion pictures or TV series to lead. It’s seen as a risk, and while that’s still a sad fact about show business, it’s still not something we should blame on “Saturday Night Live.”

Yes, “Saturday Night Live” needs at least one female black cast member, but it’s hardly a reason to go on a tirade. “Saturday Night Live” could be more innovative and progressive if they allowed more black talent, but at the end of the day, their lack of inclusion seems to come from a place of sad practicality in a society that hasn’t yet African American actors, comedians, musicians, etc. flourish nearly as much as their white coutnerparts.

SNL - Jay Pharoah - Kenan Thompson

Again, the late night sketch series definitely needs at least one female black comedian. After all, with names like Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama and certainly prominent in the spotlight, we’re missing out on entire arenas of pop culture. Jay Pharoah does a killer Jay-Z impersonation, but we don’t have anyone who can play his wife, Beyonce Knowles. Pharoah himself told theGrio, “They need to pay attention.” The cast member even suggests Darmirra Brunson from Tyler Perry’s series “Love Thy Neighbor” as a future “SNL” player. Pharoah says she would be a good addition, “Because she’s black first of all, and she’s really talented. She’s amazing. She needs to be on SNL. I said it. And I believe they need to follow up with it like they said they were going to do last year.”

However, the same argument can be made for Hispanic cast members and hosts as well. After all, there had never been a Latino cast member on “Saturday Night Live” until Horatio Sanz and Fred Armisen came along. Noel Wells is the only other cast member with that kind of background as she comes from Hispanic-Tunisian descent. That’s just one-third of the number of African American cast members. Despite a growing Latino population in the United States, why aren’t there more Mexican American cast members? Again, it’s a numbers game, and without a breadth of popular figures in American, “Saturday Night Live” doesn’t entirely need that much diversity.

SNL - Horatio Sanz - Fred Armisen

Saying that a show doesn’t need diversity might sound ridiculous, but when that show is consistently representative of pop culture in America, it only makes sense. Is it right? Absolutely not. But there’s not a whole lot “Saturday Night Live” can do on its own to fix a problem that has been rampant in show business since…well, forever. Our society is progressing, sure, but not as fast as we all wish.

And who knows, at the end of the day, even with a number of suggestions coming from various sources online, maybe there aren’t enough people who are ready for “Saturday Night Live.” After all, many seasoned comedians have tried their hand at being a cast member, and plenty of big name actors have tried their hand at hosting. But live sketch comedy isn’t the same as shooting a movie, or a sitcom, or performing stand-up comedy. It’s an entirely different animal. Even those who have failed to flourish on “SNL” have gone on to huge careers. Names like Robert Downey Jr. and Sarah Silverman once joined the ranks of the series, only to falter in Studio 8H, but then go on to fame in other arenas.

There might be a great variety of black female comedians, or Mexican, Asian or Middle Eastern comedians that look great in YouTube sketch videos and know how to act in front of a camera, but don’t have the writing skills to work on “Saturday Night Live.” There’s also an immense amount of pressure that comes from putting together an entire live sketch comedy show in just one week, and maybe even these championed comedians can’t handle that. The lack of diversity is definitely an issue, but we’re just trying to say it’s a bit more complicated than what many are making it out to be.

How do you feel about the diversity at “Saturday Night Live” over the years? Do they need more ethnic cast members? Sound off below!

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Ethan Anderton
Some of his favorite films include Ghostbusters, The Empire Strikes Back and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, while his favorite TV series include LOST, Mad Men, 30 Rock, Parks & Recreation, Arrested Development and Saturday Night Live.