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Diversity, Demographics, and 'Saturday Night Live'

Where are the black women on SNL? And, for that matter, where is everyone else?


The 39th season of Saturday Night Live premiered September 28, replete with a half-dozen new faces. Five out of the six newly-minted featured players—Beck Bennett, John Milhiser, Kyle Mooney, Mike O’Brien, and Brooks Wheelan—are white and male; a fact a number of critics were quick to comment on.

Salon’s Prachi Gupta called itSaturday Night Live’s race problem.” The Wall Street Journal’s Christopher John Farley described Season 39’s freshman class as “incredibly un-diverse.” Even cast member Jay Pharoah added to calls for a more diverse SNL, pointing out the show’s particular lack of black women. “They need to pay attention,” he toldThe Grio. “Her name is Darmirra Brunson.... Why do I think she needs to 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.”

The 2010 U.S. Census reported that 38,929,319 Americans identify as African-American. That’s roughly 12 percent of the national population. Out of the 16 performers on the current season of SNL, two are African-American: Kenan Thompson and Jay Pharoah. Together, they compose 12 percent of the cast—almost a mirror image of American demographics. Yet, SNL has only ever featured four black, female performers: Danitra Vance, Ellen Cleghorn, Yvonne Hudson, and Maya Rudolph. The latter, who is biracial, was expected to play roles as ethnically various as Donatella Versace, Barbra Streisand, Lisa Ling, and Oprah Winfrey. Rudolph left the show in 2007, and producers have failed to select from any number of talented, black, female comedians to fill the void.

SNL won’t transition into this new demographic era without a more diverse set of performers, who can, as contradictory as it sounds, satirize with dignity.

“It’s a tough part of the business,” said Thompson in an interview with TV Guide. “Like in auditions, they just never find ones that are ready.” Thompson, who is known for his cross-dressed spoofs of famous black women like Mo’Nique and Whoopi Goldberg, isn’t trying to corner the market on black female impersonations—in fact, he’s recently vocalized a refusal to perform in drag on any future episodes. But his defense of SNL casting practices holds little water in an entertainment industry rife with talented black female comedians. The problem isn’t that black women aren’t “ready” for SNL, it’s that SNL isn’t bothering to find them. As degrading as it might be to respond to such a ludicrous claim with a list, here it goes: Nicole Byer from MTV’s Girl Code, the Upright Citizen Brigade’s Sasheer Zamata, Michelle Buteau from VH1’s Best Week Ever, and stand-up comics like Phoebe Robinson or Franchesca Ramsey, to name a few.

The show’s record of underrepresentation extends beyond African-American women, too. Latinos compose 16 percent of the national population, but only three have ever graced the stage at Studio 8H in the show’s 38-year history: Horatio Sanz, Fred Armisen, and newcomer Noël Wells. Wells, who is one-quarter Mexican, is SNL’s first and only representative of a culture that now composes 64 percent of the Hispanic-American community and 11 percent of the total U.S. population. It’s also worth noting that SNL has only ever featured one performer of East-Asian descent—the aforementioned Armisen, who is one-quarter Japanese.

SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE’S CAST has never reflected the American demographic reality, though. And to be fair, that has never been its explicit mission. Since its birth in 1975, SNL has been dominated by a white, male perspective—an appropriate slant considering the early years’ intended audience: young, white men. Ron Becker, an associate professor of media studies at Miami University in Ohio and co-editor of the upcoming essay collection Saturday Night Live and American TV, described that era to Salon as being about “a baby boomer, white, male counterculture fighting an older generation of white male comedy. It was more a generational counterculture, and had very little to do with racial diversity.”

Chris Rock, one of SNL’s most visible African-American alumni, left in 1993 to join the cast of In Living Color—a sketch-comedy show created by Keenan and Damon Wayans that ran from 1990 to 1994, with a predominantly African-American cast and viewership. “I wanted to be in an environment where I didn’t have to translate the comedy I wanted to do,” Rock said in a 2011 interview with Marc Maron.

If even the most mainstream African-American comedians feel the need to translate their material for white-majority audiences, does SNL have an onus to cast non-white performers? To reflect the demographics of both the American populace and entertainment landscape?

The answer is a resounding yes.The showis an institution of American popular culture and, to some, progressive politics. The current face of progressive politics is a black man, our president. The most powerful and highly paid female celebrity is a black woman. Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is a favorite to win the Oscar for Best Picture in 2014, Scandal is one of the most-watched shows on television, and Beyoncé Knowles has sold over 118 million records worldwide. Telemundo co-hosted a 2012 presidential debate, Miss America is of Indian descent, and K-Pop acts sell out the Staples Center in Los Angeles. SNL either adapts to a rapidly diversifying America—demographically, politically, culturally—or it forfeits any kind of national credibility. Like in 2008 when producers cast Armisen (who is of mixed German, Venezuelan, and Japanese descent) to play the nation’s first black president, despite the fact that Thompson had been with the show since 2003. Admittedly, Armisen may look more like Obama (it’s the ears), but it wasn’t until September of last year that the mantle was passed to Jay Pharoah, whose impression is far superior.

Of course, adapting the demographics of SNL presents as many problems as solutions. Any active diversification efforts on the part of executive producer Lorne Michaels would encounter a few obstacles inevitable to any evolving organization. First, how do you consciously recruit performers of color without falling into the omnipresent trap of racial tokenism? Second, as the necessary definition of diversity extends beyond the traditional black/white dichotomy, where do various intersectional identities begin and end? Given the complexity of American demographics, it’s simply not possible to recreate our intricate identity politics on screen with total exactitude. Is it offensive, for instance, to assume that Chinese-American viewers would be satisfied by a Korean-American hire? Do gay men feel represented by lesbian performer Kate McKinnon? Who identified with Maya Rudolph? African-Americans? Black women? Or only tall, biracial Jewish women from Southern California?

MICHAELS IS THE ULTIMATE decision-maker when it comes to casting SNL each season, but his decisions are hardly arbitrary. He’s produced the show for almost four decades—the man knows his audience, and their affinities, conscious or subconscious. “The audience is implicated in this,” says Ron Becker. “If critics think segregation is a problem on the show, it’s also a problem with viewers. We tend to seek out comedy that speaks to our senses of what’s funny, however we define that. We don’t seek out comedy that’s not for us.”

Maybe cultivating a more diverse cast is putting the horse before the cart—the cart being a more diverse audience. But could a more diverse audience be attracted without a diverse cast? Probably not. Still, with an undisputed monopoly on televised sketch comedy, can’t SNL take a chance? It outlasted In Living Color, as well as MADtv (1995-2009), and dodged a recently killed reboot of In Living Color on Fox. Plus, it’s not just that viewers won’t have anything else to watch at 11:30 on Saturday nights. If SNL’s current viewership is as progressive as it’s supposed to be, they won’t be turned off by a more diverse cast. If they are, perhaps they’re not an audience Michaels is interested in courting anyway.

Still, the motivation to diversify SNL isn’t just philosophical. There’s a practical (albeit slightly cynical) impetus too: The audience that SNL was originally created for—white men—is literally shrinking. Surely, if the writers have learned anything from the GOP politicians they so lovingly lampoon, it’s that exclusionary institutions aren’t nationally sustainable. The country is more diverse than ever before, and the demographic trends driving diversification show no signs of plateauing. The U.S. Department of Commerce’s Minority Business Development Agency reports that the annual purchasing power of minorities is roughly a quarter of the nation’s total consumer spending, and it’s projected to nearly double by 2045. That percentage is rising at a faster rate than that of white consumers: Between 2000 and 2012, the buying power of African-Americans rose 73 percent, outstripping white spending by 13 percent. The Selig Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia reports that the $1.2 trillion Hispanic-American market is larger than the entire economies of all but 13 countries in the world. SNL may be a tent pole of American pop culture, but it’s first and foremost a network television show supported by advertising revenues. And as advertising executives continue to invest more enthusiastically in the expanding minority market, they’ll start to favor shows that can demonstrate minority appeal.

If Lorne Michaels wants a slice of that pie, let alone to maintain any sense of relevance for SNL, he must accommodate this shift in national culture and economy—away from a perspective dictated by the taste and sensibilities of white men and toward one that is more attractive and relatable to minority viewers. Of course, that would also entail a significant reformulation of content. No more drag impersonations of Maya Angelou or white women assuming Latina stereotypes. Simply put, SNL won’t transition into this new demographic era without a more diverse set of performers, who can, as contradictory as it sounds, satirize with dignity. Putting a wig on Kenan Thompson isn’t going to cut it anymore.