Monkey See
9:47 pm
Sat January 11, 2014

'Saturday Night Live' Takes A Very Important First Step

Originally published on Wed January 8, 2014 10:03 am

Saturday Night Live ignores so many perennial complaints — that it's stale, that it has a spotty history with women, that sketches are too long — that it was kind of surprising to hear in mid-December that it was holding not-very-secret "secret auditions" to find a black woman to join the cast. Cast members Kenan Thompson and Jay Pharoah had both been talking about it in different ways, but to have longtime SNL boss Lorne Michaels suddenly go for a midseason hire?

The next step came Monday, when we learned that Sasheer Zamata, an alum of the Upright Citizens Brigade system, would be joining the cast immediately. (I encourage you to poke around her site and especially her YouTube channel if you haven't seen her stuff. It's terrific.)

Whether this winds up meaning very much will depend on what happens next.

The worst outcome here would be the easiest one: This conversation now ends, because the show has demonstrated that it isn't unwilling to hire a black woman, that the door is not locked, and that there is no absolute rule against it despite the fact that it's happened only four times in 38 years. The hiring itself, without more, doesn't accomplish nearly as much for Zamata or even for the content of the substance of the show as it does for Lorne Michaels and the show as a PR problem.

After all, the primary reason to address diversity issues at a place like SNL if you happen to be in charge of it is not so that people won't say you're a racist. That might be the most pressing reason for you, but it's not the most primary reason for the show. The primary reason for the show, in addition to a hopefully genuine desire to provide equal opportunity, is that multiplying the perspectives of your creative staff multiplies the number of things they've thought about enough to be funny about them and, as an added bonus, can also help your other writers not drive into ditches while trying to navigate areas where their perspectives are limited. This emphatically does not apply to race alone — but it applies to it nevertheless.

Consider this piece Zamata did (which addresses racist language and therefore drops some of it, so be aware) about doing voice-over work in which she's asked to sound more "urban."

That bit has a point of view, and that point of view is informed not solely by the fact that she's a black woman, but certainly in part by the fact that she is. And the fact that she's bringing that point of view (among countless others, undoubtedly) to SNL is part of what makes the hire such a potential asset. That's not to mention the fact that Thompson and Pharoah had both had it with being responsible for drag portrayals of any black woman the show might want to portray. Those are the sorts of content considerations that make this so promising, not the idea that it quiets down people asking the question, "Is Saturday Night Live racist?"

That's true both because that question is about process and good faith rather than results and because one hire doesn't answer that question anyway. You can act in good faith and wind up with a lack of diversity, and you can act in bad faith and wind up with lots of diversity, so going back and forth about whether the show is excluding people on purpose or by accident or because they're not "ready" is, while an important conversation, quite a different one from whether the show is suffering from an imbalance of perspectives.

Maybe we can think about it this way: A lack of diversity in your cast is like a leak in your roof. It's common, you could let it go if you wanted to and probably proceed as a happy homeowner, but you'd have a sounder house if you were to fix it. And if your roof is leaking and your response is, "Well, I didn't make it leak on purpose; in fact, I've maintained it exactly the way they told me to," that really doesn't do anything about the fact that your roof is still leaking. That doesn't make the issue of whether you maintained it irrelevant; it just makes it separate. You can argue all day that it's not because you did anything irresponsible, and you can be wrong or you can be right; you still get wet.

It's one thing to acknowledge that diversity can be a difficult thing for even people of good will to address. It's another to mistake your process for your results and conclude that unless someone can find a specific complaint about your process that they can prove beyond a reasonable doubt, your results are de facto perfectly fine.

The hiring of Zamata is certainly an important first step, but that's all it is. The well-documented history of that show is littered with people whose tenures went nowhere — including some very talented folks like Sarah Silverman and Casey Wilson. (Michaels made the rather odd comment to the New York Times that he didn't want to add too many women because the show already has five. Five out of 17.)

The show is notoriously such a paradoxically competitive and collaborative environment that success depends both on learning to fiercely advocate for yourself and on finding people you can collaborate with successfully, including both other members of the cast and people on the writing staff. There are currently 17 people in that cast, including seven featured players. There's a lot of jostling. It can be very hard to tell from the outside whether people just don't work out, or whether they don't get support, or what.

If it doesn't work out for her, that isn't an argument against continuing to look, any more than the countless white dudes who didn't do much is an argument against hiring more. If it does work out for her, that isn't an argument against continuing to look, either.

This is thorny stuff to navigate. As Beejoli Shah recently documented at Defamer, the hiring is only the beginning, and a hiring that's viewed as being all about diversity where there's no follow-up can backfire on the person you hire. Zamata's chops aren't in much dispute; she seems to have plenty of support (she has even opened for one-time SNL writer John Mulaney, who wrote Stefon with/for Bill Hader) and everybody seems to acknowledge she's perfectly and fully qualified. So perhaps that's promising. (A funny note: It's a little bit tough to use the argument that they just couldn't find people, given that they've presumably known where to find Zamata since she was a finalist for a diversity scholarship in 2011 sponsored by UCB and, uh ... NBC Universal.)

They'll certainly write some stuff for her in the short term, but over time, it will be far more important whether they write for her and use her on the show than it is that they made the hire.

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