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Conversation About 'SNL' And Diversity 'Just Getting Started'

Meet Sasheer Zamata, <em>Saturday Night Live</em>'s new cast member.
Heidi Gutman
ABC via Getty Images
Meet Sasheer Zamata, Saturday Night Live's new cast member.

It may seem, now that Saturday Night Live has hired a black female cast member and two black female writers, that the conversation about diversity on TV's most influential comedy show is over.

But it's just getting started.

That's because the surprise move by SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels to actually address criticisms about the lack of diversity on NBC's storied late-night franchise brings with it a host of ramifications, like ripples spreading out from a rock tossed in a pond.

The first — and probably best — impact is a validation of the notion that diversity brings value to a TV show. Critics like me have long argued that reflecting America's racial and ethnic diversity in the cast of a classic show like SNL isn't just about fairness; it's about making the program better. Michaels' quick action in the face of public pressure to hire Sasheer Zamata, LaKendra Tookes and Leslie Jones seems to indicate he agrees.

Which means it's time to have a larger discussion. Because black women aren't the only important groups woefully underrepresented in SNL's cast. Since Fred Armisen left, the show hasn't had anyone with Hispanic heritage on the show — it has never had a Latina cast member — and it doesn't have an Asian cast member, either.

The National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts and the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda pointed out the show's sad history with Latinos in a letter to Michaels back in November.

Hispanics are the largest ethnic minority group in America. But they are tremendously underrepresented in mainstream TV shows, and SNL is no exception. How many great skits or bits is the show missing because it doesn't have performers or writers who know Latino culture? Time to close that gap as well.

SNL's move also validates another truth about diversity that's hard for some to accept: It often doesn't happen without deliberate effort.

If diversifying TV casts were easy, open auditions would solve every problem. But people of color are underrepresented in many of the traditional pipelines for talent, so SNL had to hold special auditions to find a black woman for their cast.

This isn't about lowering standards or making excuses to add a black face somewhere. It's about changing where and how you look for talent to find fresh faces wherever they may flourish.

Jay Pharoah, who now plays President Obama and Kanye West on the show, was famous before he joined the show for YouTube videos where he would cycle through impersonations of 50 different celebrities at a clip. Perhaps that's a lesson for where SNL's next great comedy talents might be found.

Finally, though it makes sense to worry whether Zamata will suffer from debuting under a bright spotlight, the circumstances of her hiring also mean SNL has some skin in the game. How bad would it look for the show to go to such lengths to hire a new cast member, only to see her fail on a national stage?

SNL is now invested in making sure Zamata gets a fair shot at success. This isn't a replay of the days when the show could hire someone as talented as Chris Rock and let him sit on the back bench; the entertainment world is watching to see if a woman of color can still succeed on the show, and neither NBC nor SNL wants to look like a hostile workplace.

This is all stuff more mundane corporate giants already dealt with years ago: placing value on staff diversity, finding new talent pipelines, mentoring staffers of color, making sure people of color aren't marginalized or forgotten once they're hired.

But for some reason, these are lessons many TV shows have managed to skirt or avoid. Until now.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.

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