Saturday Night Live’s Race Problem
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
Entering its 39th season this weekend, “Saturday Night Live” has become one of the longest-running television shows in American history. The sketch comedy show, which established itself in the ’70s as edgy and countercultural, continues to thrive in an industry ruled by neurotic executives and fickle audiences, pulling in higher ratings on Saturday nights than any other show on television. But with the recent departures of Bill Hader, Fred Armisen, Jason Sudeikis and, in upcoming months, Seth Meyers, the show is going through one of the biggest shakeups in its history, gambling on six new members who will hopefully be able to carry the show forward.
Brooks Whelan, Noël Wells, Kyle Mooney, Beck Bennett, John Milhiser and Mike O’Brien, hand-picked by “SNL’s” creator and producer, Lorne Michaels, are conspicuously homogenous: All six performers are white. Five are men. Four hail from comedy school and the Upright Citizens Brigade.
Despite its purported edginess, “SNL” has faced criticism for its lack of diversity since its inception, said Ronald Becker, an associate professor in Media, Journalism, and Film at the Miami University of Ohio and co-editor of the upcoming collection of essays “ Saturday Night Live and American TV.” According to Becker, early “SNL” was 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 or gender diversity, or gender sensibility in comedy.”
But good comedy, as so many comedians will tell you, is honest. And diversity in comedy is essential to honesty, especially in a country that’s more diverse than it’s ever been. Andrew Alexander, the CEO of one of the most prominent comedy breeding grounds in the country, Second City, realized the importance of diversity on the stage when he witnessed the Los Angeles race riots in 1992. “I went to see our improv set,” Alexander told Salon, “and it was six white actors trying to struggle with how to creatively and comedically talk about the riots. They were having a real challenge because it was all white and there was no racially diverse individual in that cast to give us that point of view to make the comedy work authentically.”
“SNL’s” all-white, predominantly male casting call got some minor criticism, but many defended the decision by arguing that the cast of 16 performers, which currently includes three people of color (and six women), approximately reflects the demographics of a nation in which white people are the majority. (Though, according to the Census Bureau, not for much longer.) This logic is a common defense within the industry. Alexander also argues that there isn’t a large enough pool of minority comedians to pick from: “I think any producer will tell you that they would like a bigger pool to draw from. I think we’re just a reflection, so I assume that people who are producing television shows do wish there was a larger pool to draw from.” (NBC declined to comment on “SNL” for this story.)
But people who complain that the pool of minority comedians in America is too small are “looking at the country club pool. They’re not going to the public pool,” said W. Kamau Bell, host of the nightly FX comedy show “Totally Biased,” which tackles politics, current events and race and is produced by “SNL” alumnus Chris Rock.
The diversity problem becomes much clearer when you look at it not from an audience’s perspective, but from a comedian’s. Bell’s goal as a child was to be on “SNL,” citing Rock and Eddie Murphy as inspirations. But as his comedy developed, he started to wonder, “Huh, how come there are only ever one or two black people [on SNL]?”