Ashley Collman, Daily Mail (London), December 16, 2013
Three black comediennes will take the Saturday Night Live stage at some point today to fight for a cast member position opening up this January–and one of them is a noted critic of the show.
SNL creator Lorne Michaels decided to break tradition and hire new talent midseason after facing criticism that the sketch-comedy show lacked diversity in its sixth year without a black female cast member.
A source at the show revelealed to the New York Daily News that NBC Universal Diversity Scholarship winner Natasha Rothwell, stand-up comic Sasheer Zamata and sketch comic Kerry Coddett were the three women who made the cut for today’s auditions. All three women are alumnae of the Upright Citizens Brigade–an improv troupe founded by SNL alum Amy Poehler. They made the cut after performing in a showcase in New York on December 2.
In November, Coddett wrote a scathing review of the show on the Huffington Post, responding to a comment from black cast member Kenan Thompson who said the show often auditions black females but finds they’re never ‘ready’.
Coddett pointed to the show hosted by Kerry Washington in November, saying perhaps it was the white male dominated SNL writing room that wasn’t ready to handle black female characters.
‘The SNL writers showed what they could do with a “ready” black actress: pigeonhole her. They took an Emmy-nominated actress and made her play a nagging girlfriend; a sassy eye-rolling assistant; and a rage-filled Ugandan beauty queen,’ Coddett wrote. ‘Why can’t they create interesting and funny characters outside race? How long will it take the SNL writers to learn that black is not a punch line?’
She continues to say that while she rarely finds black women playing outside stereotypes on TV, her fellow comediennes a creating new ‘awkward’, ‘sophisticated’, and ‘hilarious’ black female charaters on YouTube.
‘If SNL isn’t finding great black female talent, maybe it’s because the characters we want to play don’t fall in lilve with the caricatures they’re used to seeing.’
Coddett stated she doesn’t believe there should be some sort of affirmative action diversity quota put on the writer’s room, but that the white-male dominated group is becoming a crutch for SNL.
‘If a group of white men are dictating what is being said, then there are so many different perspectives missing from the discussion,’ she said. ‘A relic of the comedy community, the SNL writers’ room needs to be more diverse for the sake of being true to the art form and the audience.
Rumors that a new player might be added to the cast started last week, when Gothamist reported that auditions were held earlier in the month at the Groundlings theater for black female comediennes in LA.
The rumor was confirmed by SNL’s creator and producer Lorne Michaels who told the New York Times last Thursday that a black female cast member will join the cast in January – the first time Michaels can remember adding a cast member mid-season.
‘All told we’ve seen about 25 people,’ Michaels told the Times. ‘A lot of people we saw are really good. Hopefully we’ll come out of the process well.’
Michaels added that as many as two of the nine that made it to the final round could make it onto the cast in January.
But he says he doesn’t want to add too many women since the cast already has five. Right now, the SNL cast consists of five men and five women, with one female and six male featured players.
Michaels also revealed that he had vetted two black female players when he was initially hiring for the current season this past fall.
He saw the two women during a performance in Chicago, but their performances weren’t as strong when they were invited to New York for the final auditions.
‘Then when the deck got reshuffled and as we premiered we realized, it looks a different way,’ he said.
That’s when he started the unusual process of searching for a new cast member mid-season.
Michaels says he can’t remember ever adding a new cast member in the middle of the season, but says he has added players in March or April to get them into the last episodes of the season.
While many have criticized the show for not having anyone to play prominent black females like first lady Michelle Obama, Beyonce or Oprah, Michaels says that has nothing to do with his hiring decision.
‘That’s a weird sort of way of looking at it because you don’t judge comedy that way. Versatility is what we look for.’
This will be the first time since 2007 that SNL has had a woman of African-American heritage on the show.
The two current black cast members- Kenan Thompson and Jay Pharoah- were the ones to spurn the criticism this fall as they felt it was inappropriate that all impersonations of prominent black women meant that they would have to dress in drag.
As a result, there have been no sketches on the weekly program featuring First Lady Michelle Obama since Maya Rudolph left the cast in 2007.
‘SNL’ has had just four black women in its regular troupe since premiering in 1975, including Rudolph who is biracial.
‘It’s not like it’s not a priority for us,’ Michaels said in an interview with The Associated Press in early November. ‘It will happen. I’m sure it will happen.’
News of the invitation-only auditions that have been taking place in Los Angeles and Chicago broke when pictures of the prospective candidates backstage hit the internet.
Actress Bresha Webb said she was ‘honored’ to be one of the 11 black comediennes asked to audition on about two days notice in that instance.
‘It was an awesome opportunity even though it was such short notice but, if you stay ready you ain’t gotta get ready and we were READY!,’ she told TheJasmineBrand.com.
‘I can share that we all entered the Groundlings theater backstage having no idea what to expect. I had no clue who was apart of the showcase. Of course my comedienne friends (Tiffany Haddish, Beth Payne and Gabrielle Dennis) were there. And some talented ladies in sketch comedy were there that I had never met,’ she said.
Simone Shepherd, Lekendra Tookes, Azie Dungey, Amber Ruffin, Damirra Brunson, Nicole Byer and Mistry Monroe also auditioned according to Jezebel.
‘We were all very supportive of each other and there was no sense of competition or pettiness,’ Ms Webb said.
‘We were just happy that some new black women in comedy were being considered and given a shot. We even held hands prayed after the showcase. It was refreshing. The show was also sold out. It was packed to the max.’
Webb says she was invited to audition last summer, but was filming a television show and wasn’t able to perform.
One of the comediennes who auditioned in LA–Brunson–had a fan on the inside, as Pharoah has publicly lobbied for her to get one of the coveted spots.
‘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. And I believe they need to follow up with it like they said they were going to do last year,’ Pharoah told The Grio.
The timing of the announcement comes not only as a result of the criticism but also due to the high-profile departure of cast member and head Seth Meyers, who will leave in the New Year to host Late Night when Jimmy Fallon goes to The Tonight Show.