Last October, when Saturday Night Live cast member Kenan Thompson told TV Guide that he would no longer be dressing in drag for the series, the interviewer asked about the lack of black actresses featured on the show. TV Guide seemed to be operating under the assumption that the absence of available actresses necessitated Thompson’s portrayal of black women (and, for the record, I find this to be a rather naïve oversimplification, but that is a discussion for another time). Thompson replied that many of the African American women who had auditioned simply were not ready. His comments sparked criticism from both social media and traditional media outlets.
As opposed to TV Guide’s question (where are all the funny black women?), the real question seems to me to be: why is SNL a (white) boys club? As one of the longest running sketch comedy shows on television, SNL has had ample opportunities to expand its roster to include people of other races and/or genders in its nearly forty-year run; however, to date, SNL has only featured five African American female cast members.
In the accompanying video clip, the ladies of The View are shown weighing in on this hot button issue and originally express outrage over the assertion that there are no funny black women who are ready for SNL. However, they end their segment with host Whoopi Goldberg telling African American female comedians that if they don’t show up to audition for SNL “it’s on you.” This sort of statement effectively removes the blame and responsibility from Saturday Night Live (and other media outlets/organizations, for that matter), and places it squarely on the underrepresented and marginalized collectives in question. By calling on black women to rise to the challenge of “the gauntlet being thrown down” (or “get yourselves together,” as host Sherri Shepherd expresses it), both she and Goldberg (perhaps inadvertently) imply that the problem is them—not the casting directors and producers over at SNL, but rather all the funny black women who seem to have gone MIA.
Thompson’s remarks ultimately resulted in the midseason addition of Upright Citizens’ Brigade member Sasheer Zamata to the SNL cast. However, while hiring Zamata is certainly a step in the right direction, it must also be equated to the age-old formula for gender diversity in the media—“just add women and stir.” For real progress to be made, perhaps we should be talking about the structural and institutional barriers facing African American women (and other marginalized groups) in the pursuit of a career in sketch comedy.