SNL: A White Man’s Game

A picture from auditions

Back in 1975 when Saturday Night Live started it was a revolutionary program that changed American comedy. The show has a long legacy that will always live in television history. Their comedy skits are part of American culture. Actually, let me rephrase that. Their skits are part of white American culture. Saturday Night Live’s lack of diversity is as legendary as it’s Weekend Update segment. Their most notable diversity success has been the rise of women in the past decade thanks to Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Molly Shannon amongst others. It’s sad that women represent diversity. Saying “We’re diverse because we have women” is just like saying “I’m not racist, I have black friends.” As Tina Fey said, “Only in comedy does an obedient white girl from the suburbs count as diversity.” (Bossypants, 2011) Beyond females, SNL’s diversity record gets very beige very quickly. Granted, there has been a consistent string of black male performers but they always feel more like a token character.  

Although this has gone on for decades, it seems the public has finally started to notice. News has come out recently that Saturday Night Live is doing secret casting sessions for a black female comedian. When the new cast members were announced for this season, there was an obvious lack of minorities of every kind. All of the new hires were the whitest of white boys. The show came under fire for not having any women of color on their cast and Lorne Michaels and the execs at NBC are now under a lot of pressure to make an Affirmative Action hire. Reportedly the new cast member(s) may join the show as early as January.

This is a great example to show why Affirmative Action is sometimes needed. I don’t think the producers of SNL are consciously trying to keep their staff the Aryan brotherhood it has become. There have been many quotes from Michaels and other producers saying the only thing they look for is if you’re funny.  While that idea has good intentions, there is also deeply embedded problems. The people making the hiring decisions are themselves white and their sense of humor tends to stay within a very specific mold. So when a black, Hispanic, or Asian comedian auditions, are they not hired because they aren’t funny or are they not hired because the white executives think they aren’t funny? If given the chance could they make the diverse public laugh just as hard as anyone else? It’s almost as if they don’t know there is another point of view or opinion. They don’t know what they don’t know. SNL is oblivious to it’s natural bias toward a very specific mold of comedian. Tina Fey shares a real life example of this in her book Bossypant’s when she talks about her struggle to get female voices heard in the male dominated atmosphere:

“The very funny Paula Pell had written a script called Kotex Classic. It featured women in the cast enjoying fun modern gal activities while giant sanitary napkins poked of their low rise jeans. I kept bringing it up in meetings only to be told that it would be too difficult to produce. Paula and I weren’t sure what that meant. Steve Higgins finally sat us down and asked us to explain. ‘How would we see it? Would the girls have their pants off? Would we see blood?’ And that is what Oprah would call an Aha Moment for me. They didn’t know what a maxi pad belt was. It was the moment I realized there was no institutionalized sexism at that place. Sometimes they just literally didn’t know what we were talking about.” 

I’m glad to hear Saturday Night Live is trying to make an effort to become more inclusive even though it is just a token gesture. Do I think this is a signal of real long term change for the not ready for prime time players? No. But like all long fights, the steps are small but meaningful.

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