A reader puts the hiring of Sasheer Zamata – the fifth-ever black female cast member – into perspective:
Complaints about the lack of talent may be legitimate, since only about 10-15% of comedians are female. Assume that rate holds constant among the 12.6% of Americans who are black and you end up with about 1.5% of comedians being black women. With 137 cast members in SNL’s history, the 15 black performers and 4 black women is more or less what you’d expect if they simply cast the funniest applicant available. You could try to change the ratios to improve diversity somewhat, but at the end of the day you can only find so much elite talent from just 1.5% of any population.
Tanner Colby looks back at the history of black comedians on SNL. He separates them into three categories: “a) The disgruntleds, the washouts, and the walk-offs. b) The ones who stuck around. c) Eddie Murphy”:
The disgruntleds and the washouts are the largest group.
Black performers who joined the show, never found their niche, and typically left in very short order or on not-great terms. Most of these players—Yvonne Hudson, Danitra Vance, Dean Edwards, Jerry Minor, Finesse Mitchell—barely even lasted long enough to make an impression before fading from cultural memory. White cultural memory, at any rate. Two of these performers, Damon Wayans and Chris Rock, went on to great fame elsewhere after chafing at the racial confines of the show’s characters and subject matter. Wayans was famously fired after ad-libbing in sketches against the express wishes of an enraged Lorne Michaels, and Rock left after two seasons as a main cast member, having never hit the stride he would find later as a stand-up.
Ellen Cleghorne [seen in the above video], the only black actress to last more than one season before Maya Rudolph, may have had the rockiest tenure of all. Hailing from the black housing projects of Red Hook, Brooklyn, Cleghorne endured the show at the height not just of its whiteness but of its frattiness, going up against the sophomoric boys club of David Spade, Adam Sandler, Rob Schneider, et al. After four seasons on the show, Cleghorne notched just one entry in the entire index of Live From New York, a reference from Molly Shannon simply noting the fact that Cleghorne was, in fact, part of cast.
Carolyn Edgar hopes that SNL’s 0ther new black women have a real impact:
The addition of [LaKendra] Tookes and [Leslie] Jones to the “SNL” writing staff is a positive sign that, despite the clumsy way “SNL” has handled criticism of its hiring practices, the show is looking to do more than just silence its critics. The importance of diversity in the writing room cannot be overstated. As wonderful as Kerry Washington’s recent guest host turn was, the Miss Universe sketch – in which Washington played Miss Uganda, relying on broad African stereotypes and a terrible Ugandan accent – might not have left the writers’ room had writers of color been there. One of the most damning critiques of “SNL” is that it is stale and unfunny. If Tookes and Jones are permitted to have full voice in the writing room to offer a diversity of perspectives on comic situations – and are not dismissed as mere “diversity hires,” the show as a whole will be better off for it.