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.