Why Isn't There More Diversity In Comedy? 6 Rising Comedians Tell Us Why
Frankly, as a newbie to the NYC improv scene, I am tired of hearing the same exhausting excuses for the lack of diversity in comedy (or in media, generally). Take Jerry Seinfeld, for example, who broached the subject during his now-infamous interview with BuzzFeed last week. When asked about his position regarding diversity in comedy, the Seinfeld legend responded, "I have no interest in gender or race or anything like that, but everyone else ... with their little calculating 'Is this the exact right mix?' — to me, it's anti-comedy. It's more about PC nonsense than 'Are you making us laugh or not?'"
Really Jerry? Really?
For me to understand the comedy world that I love so much, I frequent many writer's panels, Q&As, and more and find that most, if not all, of the people onstage are white males. I always feel like that girl obsessed with race when I routinely ask, "Why is there such a lack of diversity in comedy?" The answer I always get? Something along the lines of "I don't know. It's not like I am trying to hire only white people."
The last time I asked this question was during last year's New York Comedy Festival at the Behind the Scenes at The Colbert Report panel. The Colbert Report is hands down one of the funniest and most intelligent shows to have ever existed, so when I saw the army of white men parade onstage, my heart sank. I knew there wasn't much diversity behind the scenes of the Comedy Central program, but seeing all the writers at once was jarring, to say the least. So, of course, during the Q&A portion of the evening, I became that girl that brings down the mood, asking Colbert, "Why is there always this common denominator in comedy?"
"What, that we're white? No, actually, some of us are Jewish," he joked. Colbert continued, "I don't know why that is. I don't say 'Bring me men.' I don’t know what race the person is when I’m reading the jokes. I’m just trying to see whether it makes me laugh ... I don’t know if there are a lot of African-Americans or Hispanic people applying for a job for my show or other shows, and maybe my tastes don’t match up or they didn’t have a funny packet, or maybe they’re not applying. I don’t get stats on that. The agencies send us people, or we ask around for people. It would be wonderful to have a diverse writing staff; I’m very lucky to have this staff. They were all so deserving.”
A familiar response to a question that has to be asked all too often.
As I continue my quest to find a more realistic excuse, I asked some writers, improvisers, comedians, and performers in NYC and L.A. why they think there is such a lack of diversity in comedy. Here is what they had to say.
Seinfeld, time to take some notes.
Image: Jemal Countess | Zimbio
Desiree Proctor (Writers Guild of America)
I think, when talking about diversity, you first have to ask what defines someone as “diverse.” You’re probably thinking, “Duh, Des! That answer is totes obvy.” Weirdly, it’s not obvious when it comes to joining a writing staff as a “diversity writer.”
It’s also something I ask myself. Am I diverse? My mother’s side of the family is Cuban. When my mom was a kid in Florida, the Cuban Missile Crisis happened. It wasn’t an easy time to associate oneself with Cuba. Cubans were attacked and harassed. There are still signs in Tampa banning Cubans from swimming in lakes, remnants of that era. My mother’s family stopped her from speaking Spanish. They tried to assimilate into American culture as quickly as possible. Because of this, a lot of traditions weren’t passed down to my mom and in turn not learned by me. Since I’m not 100 percent Latina anyway and I’m pasty as the Pillsbury Doughboy, do I even count as diverse? Is being diverse about skin color? Culture? Ancestry? Or is having a vagina enough to qualify me as diverse in Hollywood, where penis rules the writing room?
Studios and networks started diversity-writing programs to counterbalance this white, male dominated industry. However, most programs don’t consider being a woman “diverse.” To me, this makes no sense when statistics show the lack of ladies on writing staffs and even less women as show runners. I do know a white male writer that earned a diversity staff position because of a heart condition. Yea, I’m still trying to figure out the logic there.
To be honest, though, I’m grateful my writing partner (who is a half-Cuban lady) and I didn’t get our first staff writer job as diversity writers. Weirdly, there’s a stigma sometimes attached to that one “diversity writer” on the staff, the idea that the writer only got the job because of that person’s diversity, not talent. Beejoli Shah expressed it best in her Defamer article “In the White Room With Black Writers: Hollywood’s Diversity Hires.” I recommend you check it out. When my writing partner and I initially began pursuing the diversity positions, a friend of ours from college (who represents writers) gave us a solid piece of advice: Don’t introduce yourself as diverse, introduce yourself as a writer. The diversity is a bonus later.
Image: Sabrina Weisz
Vickie Toro (Comediva, 'Lesbros')
Otherness, thanks to centuries worth of social training, tends to be read as political, regardless of intention. A Tyler Perry movie, for lack of a better example, can tackle relationship issues in the same way a movie comprising solely white people does, but there will still be that critic from the New York Times who refers to it as a “race film,” just because Perry’s characters are predominantly not-white.
So how do you create comedy as a person of color — or, in my case, a queer woman of color — without running the risk of losing audiences who are convinced on some subconscious level that they can’t relate to me at all, even if I don’t specifically address issues of sexual orientation, gender, or race? Should I have to tailor everything I write to avoid alienating The White Man? Why should I have police my identity and voice, when great comedy comes from seeing ordinary experiences through a unique lens?
Image: Sabrina Weisz
Akilah Hughes (Upright Citizens Brigade, HelloGiggles)
I think the lack of diversity in comedy stems from the way shows and recruiters find their talent. A big part of going to UCB is paying $400+ for a class, and minorities are statistically less likely to be able to foot the bill. While scholarships do exist, and I know lots of people who have received them (myself included) I am still usually the only person of color in my classes. Shows find a lot of their talent from schools like these, and the fact of the matter is that most of the people who attend are white men with disposable income. Does that necessarily mean they aren’t funny? No. But they sure have a bigger platform on which to share their talent due to their fat pockets.
Also, I think a lot of shows and movies think that one black person or POC is enough (and sometimes too many) while simultaneously fitting every white man who’s ever made a pun in with a shoehorn. There are loads of talented people of color waiting for their chance, they just don’t have nearly as many chances.
Image: Nikki Petty
Suzette Simon (Upright Citizens Brigade)
I’m not sure why there is a lack of diversity in comedy, but I do want to applaud SNL for hiring Sasheer Zamata. I was actually more excited when Jay Pharoah became Obama. It sent a message that blacks are finally good enough to play blacks again. Comedy is so dominated by men that sometimes I forget I’m black and feel oppressed for just being a woman.
Image: Philip Mauro
Eddison Wilkinson (Stand-Up Comedian)
Validation is one factor that keeps a comic going. The laugh from the audience that reinforces the notion that someone can relate and empathize, is what makes comedy special to performers. Therefore, when a person from a marginalized group performs in front of a heteronormative, white audience and the material is not connecting; you become frustrated finding your niche. Personally I found an internal struggle with incorporating parts of my culture into my material, while still hitting on the universal truths in life (and avoiding hacky stereotypes). I’ve found that in order to connect with audiences, you have to become a Mary Poppins of comedy. If your material is subversive, you have to find the right sugar before you can feed it to an audience.
Image: Eddison Wilkinson
Jaclyn Perlmutter (New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, Peoples Improv Theatre)
I think a good place to start with this question is discussing the popularity of Daniel Tosh, Dane Cook, Seth McFarlane, and others in that same ilk. Their sophomoric comedy is typically misogynistic, xenophobic, and just plain mean-spirited.
But there are promising signs that this frat boy humor is becoming obsolete. A salient example: Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s Golden Globes’ hosting was lauded by critics, but Seth McFarlane’s Oscars duties received criticism across the board.
That being said, I think it’s easy for me to underestimate the popularity of Tosh-O etc., because I don’t watch those shows, nor do I know people who do. It’s also easy for me to overestimate the popularity of cable shows like Key and Peele and Broad City, since both are popular among my peers, but draw a relatively small audience compared to a network show like Family Guy, which has been on for 12 seasons.
Image: Phil Chernyak