Saturday Night Live May Not be Able to Find Black Female Comics, But Black Female Comics Are Finding Larger Audiences

Kenan-Thompson

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.tweet comic

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.

SNLDiversity

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.

“Ask A Slave”: Taking Ownership of The Slave Narrative

Stupid Questions.

They happen to all of us at one point or another. It’s inevitable. And despite our best efforts to surround ourselves with what appear to be sensible human beings, there  comes a time where we are forced to contemplate questions that simply defy all measures of logic and common sense.

Now while many of these mind-boggling questions focus on the most  mundane subjects, there are times where questions reflect more than a simple  lack of subject matter knowledge.  Often times the most damning questions are the result of  a dominate and often times inaccurate narrative long associated with specific subjects. These are the type of questions that actress and comedian Azie Dungey confronts in her new web series “Ask A slave”.

A former historical actor at the Mount Vernon plantation that was owned by President George Washington, Dungey plays the role of the Washington’s personal “House Maid” (also known as Slave in these parts) Lizzie Mae.  In this series the character of Lizzie Mae answers real questions that Dungey received during her time as an actor on the Mount Vernon plantation. Employing a sharp comedic wit that was prohibited during her time as an employee  at Mount Vernon, Dungey responds to such priceless inquires as,

“What’s your favorite part of the plantation”?

“How did you get to be housemaid to such a distinguished founding father? Did you see the advertisement in the newspaper?”

And the always classic,

“Where do your children go to school?”

Now while these questions may seem harmless enough to some, they speak to the challenges minority communities face when select narratives become dominate historical interpretations.   In creating “Ask A Slave” Dungie brings light not only to the challenges of communicating minority narratives in the past but also the challenges that persist even today.  Through comedy and this web-series, Dungie is able to expose a massive audience to a narrative that though often overlooked, holds much more historical validity than popular founding fathers portrayal.  And while “Ask A Slave” is far from the first media object to confront the subject of slavery and its often overlooked aspects, (Roots, Amistad,  12 Years As A Slave  etc.)  the very fact that so many still ask the questions featured in this series shows how much work is left to be done.