In 2013, Keenan Thompson’s inflammatory comments regarding Saturday Night Live’s diversity issue became a viral, inescapable news story. In an interview with TV Guide, in which Thompson said he would no longer play the roles of black women, Thompson was asked how the show would handle black characters in its skits going forward. Thompson replied, “It’s just a tough part of the business. In auditions, they just never find [black women] that are ready.”
People were understandably upset. Aside from being both offensive and inaccurate, Thompson’s comments don’t focus on the real issue. With those comments, not only did Thompson place blame on women and not show runner Lorne Michels, they ignore the fact that SNL’s diversity issue isn’t just caused by the lack of black women, but by the lack of black people in general.
SNL is currently in its 40th season and, since its inception in 1975, has had more than 500 hosts. Only 51 have been black. Furthermore, the show has had over 100 principal cast members, a dozen of which have been black. Once you add gender into the equation, the figures become even more abysmal: out of the 51 black hosts and only 10 have been women, and out of the 16 cast members, 6 of them have been women. I’m not trying to suggest that SNL’s gender problem is worse than their race problem, or vice versa; however, when looking at the numbers, their gender issues are far more apparent.
The severe lack of black women on SNL has been detrimental. Throughout the years the show has struggled to maintain consistent ratings and, despite SNL’s almost virus-like ability to stick around year after year, many critics maintain that the show hasn’t been funny in years. And it’s no wonder when you’re isolating over half of America’s population by employing mostly white and mostly male individuals. People watch TV to be entertained and are entertained by things, characters, and situations they can both recognize and relate too. So, when the majority of the world can’t relate to those things, characters, and situations they struggle, or just altogether stop tuning in.
In an attempt to regain sinking ratings, SNL attempts newer story lines with different perspectives. However, instead of bringing on hosts or cast members to play these new characters, the show tries to fill the roles using their current cast. This process has forced black males Kenan Thompson and Jay Pharaoh to portray various black female celebrities and other characters, which are often depicted in offensive, stereotypical ways. It’s hard to manufacture relatable comedy without utilizing the individuals you’re trying to relate to. However, instead of issuing a mea culpa and employing more black women, showrunner Lorne Michels has consistently denied the show’s diversity issue and still fails to bring on more black women as both hosts and cast members. However, things are slowly looking up.
During its current season, not counting the 40th anniversary special, SNL had its 10th black female host with Taraji P. Henson, of Empire fame, and added Leslie Jones as a cast member. Along with late 2013 hire Sasheer Zamata, it appears that things may be looking up for black female comedians. Furthermore, with Jones doing double duty as a writer, there are increased opportunities for relatable story lines and genuine, funny depictions of black women. However, SNL’s diversity issues cannot be reconciled that quickly. Though the show has both a race and gender problem, they can’t be handled the same way, nor can they be handled separately. They can’t represent women and continue to fail blacks, nor can they focus on race but leave women behind.
These diversity issues intersect with the show’s gender imbalance and, if SNL ever hopes to make its 50th anniversary special, Michels needs to steer the show in a more focused, genuine direction. Black people are funny. And so are women. Let them be seen.