Entertainment

10.17.13

SNL's Kenan Thompson and the Invisible Black Women of Comedy

Saturday Night Live’s Kenan Thompson—you know, that guy who dresses in drag as Whoopi Goldberg—pissed the Internet off by saying that black female comics weren’t ready for the sketch comedy show. Does he have a point?

Saturday Night Live regular Kenan Thompson told TV Guide that the lack of women of color on the show came down to a lack of qualified candidates. Not a smooth move.

He said: “It's just a tough part of the business. Like in auditions, they just never find ones that are ready."

Cue Internet firestorm.  Refinery 29 ran a piece titled: “Kenan Thompson says Black Women Just Arent Funny Enough.”

Over at Jezebel, in a post titledKenan Thompson Blames Black Women for Lack of Black Women on SNL,” Madeleine Davis called out some great stand ups and improv actresses of color, including Sasheer Zamata, Nicole Byer of Girl Code, Michelle Buteau, Franchesca Ramsay, and Jessica Williams.

But while there are a few great women of color working in sketch comedy that deserve attention, improv vets say Thompson isn’t totally off-base. Unlike in stand up where there are far more women of color, in improv, their presence is sorely lacking. It’s a numbers game. And the numbers don’t look so good.

“There is a long and proud tradition of black women in standup comedy specifically, dating back to and before Moms Mabley, so women of color have long had at least a few notable women to model themselves after in the standup world,” says Aisha Tyler, the actress and comedian who is now a co-host on The Talk. “Not so much so in sketch and improv.”

Joe Wagner, who directs UCB’s monthly live sketch comedy night, “The Midnight Show,” agrees:  “Black female sketch performers may be the smallest subset of comedic aspirants.”       

Wagner points to UCB’s roster of performers online, and says simply: “You’ll see a pattern.”

Indeed, a cursory glance at UCB’s site reveals only a handful of women of color on the performer pages in both Los Angeles and New York’s Chelsea UCB division—out of hundreds of people.

The lack of available candidates is a bottom-up problem, and not necessarily a top-down problem. “Organizations like the Groundlings, Improv Olympic, and the Upright Citizens Brigade are farm teams for SNL,” says Tyler.

“It's an assembly line,” says Chloe Hilliard, an up-and-coming African American New York City-based working stand up comic.

Hilliard calls the improv world, “Avalanche white.” She cites the “expense” of training in improv schools as at least one reason for the lack of diversity. Indeed strengthening your funny bone at a place like UCB’s Training Center.

“I got a diversity scholarship for one course at UCB and have to reapply for each class I want to take,” says Hilliard, who has her first television appearance on Thursday on Gotham Live. “Do I stop my progress as a working stand up to study at UCB for six years?”

But if there aren’t any women to begin with in the pool, then, says Hilliard, “we aren't in the running or conversation. The lack of diversity in improv is well-documented.”

‘It would be nice not to have every black female character on the show played halfheartedly by a curvaceous man in tragic drag.’

Indeed, SNL’s track record with women of color is even more abysmal than its track record with women in general and with people of color people overall. (There have only been four women of color in its 38-year history.)

Still, says Tyler, there are talented women working in the field, citing ladies like Jessica Williams, Ali Wong, Apama Nancherla, and Issa Rae. “Maybe they [SNL] could be doing a better job of recruiting women of color, which might feed the system in a more robust way,” she says. “But honestly, if SNL isn't finding funny women of color, they're just not looking hard enough. It smacks of laziness.” But, she allows, “SNL looks for unknowns, and both Jessica and Issa may have already risen past that point.” 

Perhaps the saddest thing about the lack of black women or other women of color on SNL are all the missed opportunities.

“It would be nice not to have every black female character on the show played halfheartedly by a curvaceous man in tragic drag,” says Tyler, referring to Thompson’s turns as female celebrity characters like Whoopi Goldberg, Patti LaBelle, and Maya Angelou.

The absence of black women on staff means that the show misses many moments in the pop culture zeitgeist. You can’t send up Rihanna or Beyoncé without a female African American cast member—unless you resort to blackface.

 “I think ultimately SNL would be able to tackle a wider range of issues,” says Keisha Zollar, who has been doing improv sketch comedy for 14 years and serves as the Diversity Coordinator of the UCB Training Center in New York.

“Yes, there are some sketches that are race specific. I think overall having a woman of color on the show you’d be able to play Michelle Obama, you’d be able to play Whoopi and Serena William—as a woman—there’s a whole range of characters that exist in media. You can have so many spoofable characters as well as original characters that come from a unique perspective.”

As with many diversity issues, it’s a vicious cycle.

“The question is ‘Why aren't there more?’” asks Wagner. “Is there something about the art form that doesn't welcome them in, or encourage more participation?—like girls in science.” 

(Wagner points out that he only has one [white] woman on his cast. “The reality of not purposefully going out to find them, because it's easier to pull from the scene that you know. Finding diversity requires effort.”)

“All of comedy has long been a boys' club,” says Tyler. “I don't know that active sexism has discouraged women of color from joining, so much as the culture of comedy itself can look and feel exclusionary without anyone ever spelling it out explicitly. The culture is a tough nut to crack and the language, socialization and tempo can feel very masculine; you need to know yourself and be utterly confident in that kind of an environment.”

Zollar says that since UCB’s diversity program’s inception in 2009, things are improving—the school is retaining more female students of color.

“The goal is to increase opportunities. We have a scholarship program. We have meet ups and offer places for people to practice for free,” she says. “Anecdotally many people of color were being asked to engage in practice groups and other groups less frequently. We wanted to address that and give them a place to play.”

As with other fields, when there are no role models for women, sometimes it might not occur to people that they can pursue it.

“I think that because you literally see no black women on TV doing sketch, there's a whole generation of black performers that may not even consider it,” says Wagner.

Just as Barack Obama’s presidency has no doubt paved the way for future African American boys to dream of becoming president, a few high-profile sketch female comedy stars of color can lead the way.

“Growing up as a little black girl I never thought I could be a producer or a showrunner. I didn’t have models for that in my life, and not just because my family wasn’t in entertainment. I didn’t know that was possible,” says Zollar. “But then you see women like Tina Fey and you start to go, ‘Oh, that is possible.’ It’s a tricky situation. Sometimes you have to be the role model you need.”