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Lack of diversity limits SNL's relevance


In an era with a pronounced emphasis on social issues and civil rights, it is always jarring when issues of race are confronted in the very mediums in which most of us seek escape.

On Nov. 8, Whoopi Goldberg said the recent flurry of controversy over Saturday Night Live’s lack of diversity is “15 years late,” after Kerry Washington, the star of ABC’s “Scandal,” hosted SNL.

Washington’s appearance on the show prompted criticisms about the cast of SNL: Throughout the show’s 38-year run, only four cast members have been black women.

Prior to the Nov. 4 broadcast, NPR’s Eric Deggans wrote on the importance of SNL recognizing the strengths of a truly diverse cast and hearkened back to SNL players of old.

“There's a long history in American entertainment of locking out talented performers of color by letting white entertainers play racial and ethnic minorities,” Deggans said. “In the 21st century, it would be nice to see a sketch comedy show with 16 cast members find a way to allow a Latino or black performer to play such characters, at least occasionally.”

The show’s handling of the issue was rather tongue-in-cheek, as Washington was asked to play Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey and Beyoncé, all in rapid succession.

It’s funny until we start thinking about how things are unlikely to change.

Salon’s Brittney Cooper was just one author who found the irony unamusing as she emphasized the issue was something to condemn and not to exploit for laughs.

“But I’d venture to say that Americans in general are the ones who aren’t ready for black women to step outside of the most narrow and stereotypical racial boxes that have been cast for us,” Cooper said. “Black women’s long historical status as a kind of grotesque amusement for the American public informs the way we understand and interact with black women performers today.”

Many believe the controversy is unwarranted and that including black women simply for the sake of including them also dismisses the issue of whether their talents merit inclusion on the show.

Should black comediennes even care? Is SNL still a relevant platform to reach audiences and launch their own careers?

The answer is yes.

SNL still holds a huge monopoly on comedy in America; With recent players including Andy Samberg, Kristen Wiig and Jason Sudeikis achieving success on the big and small screens, it’s impossible to refute how heavily the show permeates every aspect of comedy in Hollywood.

The aplomb with which Washington handled her appearance, in spite of the racial controversies readily apparent, further demonstrates that the show is in dire need of a diversity overhaul.

There are those that still maintain that the lack of minority inclusion is indicative of nothing other than the fact that these marginalized groups just aren’t as funny or prepared.

These are the same inane squabblings that comedy giants Tina Fey and Amy Poehler had to muddle through before they shattered the glass ceiling that still hovered over women in comedy only 10 years ago.

These same backward rantings are quickly put to bed when one looks at the career of SNL alumna Maya Rudolph, a woman of Jewish and African-American heritage, who became one of the most popular players during the show’s run and is now one of the most successful women in comedy.

“There's only one reason why (SNL producer Lorne) Michaels and his crew should care: If they do it right, it could put the show's finger right back on the pulse of what's happening now in American culture,” Deggans said.

We are a nation of different heritages and different humors. As long as SNL wants to remain relevant in the world of comedy, it must accept its responsibility to accurately reflect the diverse landscape of its viewers and this country as a whole.

Reach the columnist at llonghi@asu.edu or follow her on Twitter @lolonghi.


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