Despite being over a decade removed from his breakthrough television performance as the bathtub bound French translator Pierre Escargot, comedian Kenan Thompson still has a knack for making big statements that make little sense. No longer a fresh face to the sketch comedy scene, the Saturday Night Live veteran made headlines recently when he attempted to answer questions regarding the continuing lack of women of color on SNL’s cast. In a scene reminiscent of Thompson’s Nickelodeon prime, Thompson explained,
“It’s just a tough part of the business,” Thompson says. “Like in auditions, they (SNL) just never find ones (black female comedians) that are ready.”
Needless to say, Thompson didn’t need to be speaking French for the comedy community to respond with a collective, “WHAT?” The thought of one of the most well-known comedy brands in the world being unable to find diverse female talent that is “ready” didn’t sit well with a number of comedians. While some took it upon themselves to show SNL that quality black female comedians were not as rare as they would have the public believe, others took the opportunity to do what they do best; tell jokes.
But for all the discussion that emerged from Thompson’s comments, it is important to understand that SNL’s diversity issue is not new and far from unique. In the 38 years that SNL has been on air only 4 out of a total 137 cast members have been African American females. That is fewer black female cast members in 38 years than black female characters Kenan Thompson has played in his 11 years on the show. These numbers are compounded by the fact that over the same time period there were only 15 black cast members in total. When comparing the diversity of SNL to the comedy programs they often recruit from it becomes even more apparent that a lack of diversity is not isolated to SNL but prevalent throughout many of the field’s dominant institutions. In a study conducted by Splitsider.com, many of the renowned comedy theaters suffer from the same disparities in terms of gender and racial makeup as SNL.
Yet despite the long-standing systemic challenges preventing black female comedians from finding an audience with SNL, that has not stopped these talented women from finding an audience through other avenues. The failure of SNL to capitalize on diverse female talent has long been to the benefit of a variety of sketch comedy and stand up comedy institutions. Successful sketch comedy shows like, In Living Color, Mad TV and The Chris Rock Show seemingly thrived on showcasing black female comedians who were more than “ready” for mass audiences. Wanda Sykes, Kim Wayans, Kim Coles, and Debra Wilson are all established comedians who made their national debuts on diverse sketch comedy programs. Shows like Russell Simmons Def Comedy Jam, Showtime at the Apollo and BET Comic View also exposed the nation to variety of female standup comedians including such well-known names as, MoNique, Sheryl Underwood and Sommore.
Now while the success of the perviously mentioned shows and the subsequent success their female cast members speaks to the fact that diverse casting can succeed on television, it is the work being done by a new generation of black female comedians online that speaks to the sustainability of diverse comedic perspectives with large audiences. While select comedy clubs and institutions like SNL have long acted as a gate keepers of comedy, websites like youtube, twitter and most recently vine are providing comedians with a platform for directly reaching mass audiences and building their own following. From the critically acclaimed work of comedian and Awkward Black Girl Series creator Issa Rae, to the skits and productions by fellow rising stars Simone Shepard and Darmirra Brunson, black female comedians are using digital avenues to do what they have always done, make a path when others have been blocked.
When I look back on my childhood, one of my biggest regrets is that I never learned to play a musical instrument.
Now while some of you will reason that my failure to learn to play an instrument was a direct result of having something frivolous like a Gameboy glued to my hands (you may have a point), I like to think that it was partly due to the lack of proper musical inspiration. Sure I listened to music and yes, my early grade school education contained some rudimentary elements of music education, but as a child I never saw myself or to a greater extent, people who looked like me playing the instruments that my parents so desperately wanted me to pick up.
I share my personal tale of childhood regret not to generate any level of sympathy, but to introduce a reality of representation (or lack there of) that impacts more individuals than we may realize. While history is certainly littered with a number of immensely talented musical artists from a variety of cultural and social backgrounds, there are specific genres of music where the visibility of said diversity is less prevalent than others. An issue that can be compounded by popular media narratives, particular forms of music can seemingly be preordained for particular groups. One striking example of this is in the branding of classical music. Now while it is certainly not news that various social and economic barriers have contributed in keeping the makeup of classical music stagnant over the years, dominant media portrayals of the genre ignore the existence let alone the contributions minority artists have made in moving the genre into the 21st century. As a result, classical music not only becomes limited in its sound, it becomes limited in the composition of its artists.
Yet despite the one dimensional representation of classical music and it’s contributors, there are artists who stand to push the preconceived notions of the genre to the side. Two of these artists make up the musical group known as Charly and Margaux. Playing Violin and Viola respectively, Charly and Margaux are the perfect mix of classical skill and contemporary style. Based out of New York, these two masters of the strings add a level of depth and personality to any piece they touch. Initially making a name for themselves through live performances across New York, Charly and Margaux gained internet acclaim through a series of instrumental remixes of popular rap and pop songs. It was from their initial success that the duo has gone on to be featured on a number of projects, working with emerging artists like Nemo Achida to critically acclaimed musicians like Kendrick Lamar. Skilled composers in their own right, the duo utilized their growing online following to crowdfund and independently release their first album of original music entitled Laced followed by their most recent release entitled The Gallerina Suites.
The work of Charly and Margaux is significant not only for the technical contributions they make to the genre, but also for their ability to make a historically restricted genre attainable for a what has been a largely ignored audience. Their ability to collaborate with contemporary artists while remaining uncompromisingly dedicated their classical roots, helps expand the notion of what type of music can be created and by whom. So while my musical talent may never extend beyond 5th grade recorder lessons, Charly and Margaux and artists like them will ensure that a new generation has the opportunity to see themselves across the spectrum of creative spaces.
I have a confession to make. Despite being a relatively active consumer of media, I have never watched a single soap opera episode in its entirety. It is not that I have anything against soaps per se, it is just that I rarely have the opportunity to watch daytime television. And even on the rare occasions that I do find myself in front of a television at say 1 p.m. on a weekday, it is very difficult for me to not give my Nielsen ratings to such riveting programming as The Price is Right or Judge Joe Brown.
Now while my personal lack of interest in the suspense filled, plot twisting adventures of such shows as Days of our Lives, and The Young and the Restless is certainly nothing to give network executives cold sweats in the middle of the night, the overall decline that the soap opera genre has experienced over the last decade is. Once the undisputed leader of daytime television, soap operas are now struggling to keep pace with the ratings of unscripted daytime talk shows like Dr. Phil and court dramas like the aforementioned Judge Joe Brown. With virtually no new series in production and the list of running soap titles getting smaller and smaller, the genre now finds itself not only struggling for rating but for survival.
For a genre that is characterized by the longevity of its creative work and the fierce loyalty of its audience, how did we get to this point? A convergence of a variety of factors, from shifts in the makeup of the modern workforce, to the rise of online content alternatives, the decline of soap operas can really be explained by one simple fact. While the American audience has changed, soap operas have not. More than just a reliance on decade old themes and cinematography techniques, soap operas have failed to appreciate the shifts in the cultural make up of their existing audience and of the American population as a whole. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the longstanding lack of African American representation both in front of and behind the Soap opera camera. Despite statistical evidence collected by organizations such as Conde Nast stating that African Americans make up nearly 40% of the audience for such marquee soap operas as The Young and the Restless, the portrayal of black characters in leading roles remains slim at best.
It is with the issue of soap opera diversity in mind that actress, author and soap opera veteran, Victoria Rowell looks to create her own solution with her new project, The Rich and the Ruthless. An independently produced soap opera, The Rich and The Ruthless looks to provide the diversity in talent and content that Rowell believes audiences have been craving. A longtime diversity advocate, Rowell has spoken on numerous occasions about the importance of soap operas being reflective of the changing audience they serve and audiences being critical of the soap operas they support. Having launched an Indiegogo campaign to crowdfund her new show on August 29th, Rowell is literally putting that what she preaches into practice.
Now while it is unclear if Rowell will succeed in raising enough funds online to launch The Rich and the Ruthless in the immediate future, it is still a significant venture in that it once again highlights the ability of marginalized communities to take ownership of the creative content they enjoy. This is an issue that is not limited to African American audiences or to soap operas as a genre, the lack of diverse representation in media is something which can be changed if it is continually challenged through ventures like Rowell’s.