Color

01.07.14

‘SNL’ Gets What the Rest of TV Should: Racial Diversity Means Quality

A former Saturday Night Live staffer on why hiring the first black female cast member in seven years is essential to keeping the show on top.

“Tragedy plus time equals comedy.” This famous quote that has been attributed to people from Woody Allen to Carol Burnett.

“More diversity equals better comedy.” This much less cited quote I think is even more relevant today. No need to Google who said this—I just did. (But I do expect it to become hugely famous-so save this article.)

On Monday, Saturday Night Live announced it had hired comedian and improv performer Sasheer Zamata to join its cast. The addition of SNL cast members usually gets a little press but this was not a typical addition. Zamata was added after a controversy erupted over the lack of black female cast members at SNL—the last being the amazingly talented Maya Rudolph who left in 2007.

Adding diversity to a comedy show—or to any show for that matter—simply to fill a quota would be wrong. But as a comedian and as someone who worked at SNL on the production staff from 1999-2007, I can tell you that greater diversity truly does equal better comedy.  Authentic voices representing different backgrounds only enhance the comedy stew. So instead of one-note comedy bits, we see nuanced ones that resonate as being truthful—which in turn is better comedy.

We’ve all seen the panel of three white guys telling us “what the Arab world is really thinking.”

And I say this from first-hand experience. When I worked at SNL, I was the only person on the production staff of Arab heritage. Consequently, when writers were working on sketches that dealt with the Middle East—and believe me, there were a lot in the years after 9/11- they would often ask me questions.  Some were factual inquires. Others were: “Is this racist?”  If I sad “yes” they made sure to put it in the sketch. (Kidding!) 

Even cast members would seek guidance from time to time. Former cast member Fred Armisen had asked a few times about pronunciations of Arabic words when he was playing Saddam Hussein.  And with help of one of my cousins, we translated, “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night” into Arabic so that Will Ferrell could say it as George W. Bush to open a show.

The addition of Sasheer Zamata will undoubtedly add to the depth of the comedy at SNL. Putting wigs on black male cast members to play women can only take you so far.  For example, while SNL’s Kenan Thompson—who usually is charged with wearing a wig to play black female characters —is very funny, he could never have brought the “Beyonce” impression to life the same way Maya Rudolph famously did.

I hate to throw the water of reality on this otherwise great development, but the fight over diversity isn’t over because SNL added one black female cast member. Far from it.

There are still two huge diversity issues that need to be addressed: One, the horrific lack of diversity in both the entertainment field and in the world of cable news; And Two, that diversity does not just mean adding one black or Latino person to a show- diversity needs to be defined as broader than that so that the powers that be truly look to add other voices as well—including Asian, Arab, Indian, women of any color, Sikhs, Muslims, et cetra.

In the entertainment field, minorities are painfully underrepresented on camera.  A USC study looking at films from 2007-2012 found that 76.3% of all speaking characters in these movies were white. (Per the Census, 63% of the country is white.)  While 10.8% of the speaking characters were black, 5% Asian, and 3.6% were other ethnicities. (I’m in the “other” category.)

The stats are equally bad for minority writers.  Of the over 1,700 writers working on the 190 broadcast and cable shows in 2011-2012 season, only 15.6% were minorities. And women were only 30% of the writers.

Cable TV news shows also don’t come close to reflecting the true diversity of our nation. For example, Media Matters looked at the guests on prime time cable news shows in April 2013 and found people of color were almost invisible, women were woefully underrepresented, and ethnic minorities were truly nowhere to be found. (We have all seen the panel of three white guys telling us “what the Arab world is really thinking.”) And the diversity in the newsroom has been stuck at an embarrassingly low 12-13% for almost a decade

The benefits of diversity in comedy are the same as for news coverage. The more authentic voices included means a better product for the audience.  I have found that people—regardless if liberal or conservative—want to hear diverse points of view, even if they ultimately disagree with them.

I know, this article started out as a feel good piece congratulating SNL’s newest cast member Sasheer Zamata on achieving the dream of every comedic performer. So let me end by wishing her—and the others at SNL a great second half of the season.  Millions are looking forward to seeing Sasheer kick ass.