'Saturday Night Live's Diversity Issue Might Actually Force the Show to Be Better
There's been heaps of hullabaloo surrounding the latest chapter in the "Saturday Night Live is a Diversity Nightmare" saga. It's an argument neither side is winning because nobody seems to want to compromise on the issue. Thankfully, the conversation's being ignited in a productive way thanks to not-so-sunshiney comments from cast member Kenan Thompson and Scandal star Kerry Washington's hilarious turn as host of the long-running late night comedy bag. So it's time for Lorne Michaels to listen up (I'm sure he never gets unsolicited advice from random writers on the Internet): The time has come to stop doing what you've always done. The opportunity for a revitalized Saturday Night Live is here!
But it's not just the Internet that is calling for change, it's the cast. Jay Pharoah — one of only two black performers out of a cast of sixteen — was up first, calling out Michaels and NBC for failing to follow through on their promise to hire a woman of color.
"They need to pay attention," Pharoah tells theGrio. "Her name is Darmirra Brunson… Why do I think she should be on the show? 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."
Emphasis on the last part is our own, but it signals to the problem: they say they'll do one thing in the afterglow of their season finale — idealism notched up to 12 before the realities of television-making sets in — only to fail to do so following the pressures of things like marketing, ad sales (which, let's be real, ultimately makes the decisions: If they can't sell the airtime, head honchos get angry), and that vast middle ground of small screen watchers who like "the way things are" and are slower to accept change than the more liberally-minded folks who create it.
It's a scary prospect, to suggest to the man who's arguably THE comedy-maker in television (and scarier still for a wannabe television comedy writer. Please don't blacklist me from TV, Lornie-Lorne. I've got so much to give!) that maybe what's worked so well in the past needs to disappear via a long walk off a short pier. And maybe that means going against one's gut, the numbers, the expectations, and making some scary decisions; like hiring a newer-than-new band of diverse performers and writers. It's Lorne's show, after all. He call the shots — especially when you consider how terrified most people are of him and his clout.
Which is perhaps why the series' other black cast member, Kenan Thompson, defended Michaels' hiring actions. His comments on Michaels' lack of diversity on the series — "It’s just a tough part of the business ... Like in auditions, they just never find ones that are ready." — show a tone-deafness to the comedy community at large that only comes with being a part of a very big machine like SNL. (It likely also stems from a fear of pissing off the man that signs your checks.) Not to mention the fact that Thompson should be scared at the prospect of a black woman being on the show: after all, what will the writers have him do if he's not dragged up in some Oprah or other woman-of-color costume?
Saturday Night Live thinks it knows what's best for itself and for TV and the audience, and in many, many ways that is probably quite true. But just imagine a world where Saturday Night Live isn't just a reactor, but rather an innovator? What if they actually took a risk and ventured out of their casting comfort zone?
The truth of the matter is this: you can't have you cake and eat it, too. Michaels has been noted for his desire to ensure that cast members are a bit more experienced in order to ensure their success on the program. In an interview with the Associated Press, he stated he's looking for performers with "some seasoning and won't be overwhelmed by the pace and attention [that comes with being a cast member] ... You don't do anyone a favor if they’re not ready." But any cook will tell you: too much seasoning and all you get is a big, muddle-flavored mess of bland one-noteness.
And the comedy overlords don't do the medium any favors by sticking to the same ol' shit, either, like hiring from the same few comedy houses out there. Or only hiring white people. It is a medium that thrives on its cutting-edginess, its newness. It's ability to give a voice to an otherwise ignored experience. And what could be newer (and more refreshing) than a completely original and never-before-seen-on-TV point of view on comedy? If that's what you want, you won't get anything fresher than in the voices of the underrepresented and underserved populations of our very mixed-up society. I mean, just look at politics.
Sure — there are tons and tons of talented comedians to go around. Heck, 60 percent of my friends are comedians. I get it. But sticking to the hallowed grounds that SNL knows with blinders on means eliminating the possibility of diamonds in the rough, or —more apt still — ignoring so many severely invisible parts of the population. There are so many American experiences that don't have voices on television. And if you go that route and bypass their exits on the superhighway of ha, think of all the talent missed out on. All the voices and points of view so desperately needed on television are there — it's just a matter of taking the risk. Risks the show had no problem taking in its early years, but became far scarcer as the years wore on.
You remember risk, don't you? That thing that drives creativity?
With streaming series becoming all the rage — and with them, far fewer hoops to jump through and morality police with which to answer — television has to work extra hard. Harder than ever, really. But what we're seeing is fear: instead of the marketing driving the business, the business is desperately trying to drive the market. To tell the people what they want to see, rather than vice versa. To force feed the audience what it believes it wants (based on data mined from researchers and marketers alike) is a surefire way to get them to resent you, and — oh look! — people are starting to resent you, SNL.
But perhaps the most egregious error of all was Michaels' passing of the buck, telling the Associated Press that "It’s not like it’s not a priority for us ... It will happen. I’m sure it will happen." As if it wasn't up to Michaels himself! It's bullshit, plain and simple. The article went on to discuss the "specific needs" of the network with its huge cast turnover last season, but considering there hasn't been a black woman in the cast since 2007 — isn't that a bigger need than getting a few more white boys in to replace Jason Sudiekis, Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, and the soon-to-depart Seth Meyers?
No one is saying that Lorne Michaels doesn't know what he's doing — he very clearly does — but what if even he surprised himself and did something he normally wouldn't? What if Michaels made a decision he wasn't 100 percent sure would be a certified hit choice in the name of creativity and risk-taking? Then, by golly, we might just have ourselves a show with a bit of color, a bit of diversity, a bit of variety — and maybe even more viewers.
Because look what happens when the series brings a black actress onto the scene: she rakes in most impactful numbers than even Miley Cyrus in her post-VMA twerk frenzy.
Saturday Night Live is always at its best when it has something to prove. All of that was evidenced in Saturday's episode of the sketch show — one of its strongest of the season. So why not prove to the world that you're more than just a hotbed for twenty-something white comedy nerds and instead branch out a little bit more. The world isn't run solely by old white men anymore, so SNL should try and do what any creative comedy troupe would do if they weren't on TV: get ahead of the curve.