By Albert Lin
One aspect of the new season of Saturday Night Live is no laughing matter: the lack of representation in the cast.
Following the departure of longtime stalwarts Andy Samberg, Kristen Wiig, Jason Sudeikis and Bill Hader during the summer, executive producer Lorne Michaels had a chance to remake the show. Instead, he added more of the same: Five of its six new cast members are white men. The only exception is Noël Wells, who reportedly is of Hispanic and Tunisian descent.
That means that out of 16 cast members, only two are Black: Jay Pharoah and Kenan Thompson. (Iran-born Nasim Pedrad and Wells are among SNL’s six women.)
This doesn’t sit well with many, including comedian W. Kamau Bell, host of the FX show Totally Biased, who told Salon that people who claim that the pool of Black candidates is too small “are looking at the country club pool. They’re not going to the public pool.”
Michaels, who has not commented on the backlash, seemed to take a shot at his numerous critics in this sketch featuring Thompson and guest host Tina Fey. (Scroll to the 4:12 mark.)
Thompson started another round of debate this week when he defended his boss, telling TVGuide.com in a story that posted last week that the reason the show doesn’t have any Black women in particular is that “in auditions, they just never find ones that are ready.” That comment drew its own jeers, such as the tweet below:
I was on the L train today with 5 black women who are funnier than Kenan Thompson.
— Scarin Gloria Ryan (@morninggloria) October 15, 2013
Coincidentally, NBC announced two days later that Scandal star Kerry Washington will be hosting the show on Nov. 2. According to BuzzFeed, Washington will be only the ninth Black woman to host SNL in its 39 seasons.
A Longtime Problem
Of course, SNL’s lack of representation is nothing new. During its first 38 seasons, Saturday Night Live featured only 13 Black cast members, despite two of its most iconic alums (Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock) being Black. Producers have an astoundingly low rate of casting Black women, having hired only four Black women in nearly four decades, despite multiple openings almost every year. The most recent Black woman on the cast, Rudolph, left the show in 2007. (Rudolph’s mother was late singer Minnie Riperton of “Lovin’ You” fame.)
If Michaels is looking for suggestions, he only has to walk down the hallway at 30 Rock. Pharoah, who plays President Obama on the show—a role that in 2008 was controversially given to Fred Armisen, who is of German, Japanese and Venezuelan descent—told TheGrio.com that he has the perfect candidate. “They need to pay attention,” Pharoah said. “Her name is Darmirra Brunson. … Why do I think she should 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.” Brunson currently stars on the OWN show Tyler Perry’s Love Thy Neighbor.
Of course, SNL does no better with other underrepresented groups. As The Washington Post points out, Wells is only the third person of Latino descent on the show, after Horatio Sanz and Armisen. Armisen also checked the show’s Asian box, as he and Rob Schneider (who is one-quarter Filipino) are the only performers of East Asian or South Asian descent to have been cast members. That’s led to disjointed sketches such as this one, with Armisen playing Obama and Hader playing Chinese President Hu Jintao.