Lack of black women becomes 'SNL' issue
This Oct. 29, 2013 photo released by NBC shows actress Kerry Washington, right, with cast member Taran Killam during a promotional shoot for "Saturday Night Live," in New York. Washington will host the late night comedy sketch series on Nov. 2. (AP Photo/NBC, Dana Edelson)
NEW YORK (AP) — Kerry Washington's turn as host of "Saturday Night Live" this week gives that television institution something it hasn't seen much lately: a black woman onstage trying to make people laugh.
The show's diversity has become an issue, pushed to the forefront by comments from the two black male cast members.
No black women are among the 16 repertory or featured players currently on the show. While Eddie Murphy, Garrett Morris, Chris Rock, Tim Meadows, Tracy Morgan and current cast members Kenan Thompson and Jay Pharoah have been major "SNL" players, the 137 people who have been cast members since the show started on NBC in 1975 include four black women.
The most recent, and most prominent, was biracial Maya Rudolph, who left in 2007.
Founding producer Lorne Michaels, who is still the show's top executive and generally keeps the casting process mysterious, said he's well aware of the issue and is on the lookout for black women as potential cast members.
"It's not like it's not a priority for us," he said in an interview with The Associated Press on Thursday night. "It will happen. I'm sure it will happen."
Pharoah told the website The Grio recently that he hoped the show would have a black woman in its cast, and he had a suggestion: Darmirra Brunson.
"Why do I think she should be on the show?" he said. "Because she's black, first of all, and she's really talented. She's amazing. She needs to be on 'SNL.'"
It's not clear whether she was ever considered, although it's currently a moot point. Brunson is a cast member on Tyler Perry's show, "Love Thy Neighbor," on Oprah Winfrey's OWN network.
Thompson, who Michaels said is as good as anyone who's been on the show, blamed a lack of quality black comediennes. "It's just a tough part of the business, like in auditions," he told TV Guide. "They never find ones that are ready."
That didn't go over well in the comedy community, with several people coming forth with suggestions for Thompson. "It was kind of an unfortunate, unthinking thing to say," said Miriam Petty, a Northwestern University communications professor and expert on black popular culture.
Sketch comedy troupes like Second City, the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater and the Groundlings are fertile ground for future cast members. Current players pass along recommendations, like when Tina Fey touted Amy Poehler. There are often specific needs: "SNL" was particularly seeking men this year because Jason Sudeikis, Fred Armisen and Bill Hader left the show, and Seth Meyers is soon to graduate to his own weeknight show.
Michaels said "SNL" is particularly interested in sketch comedy experience, a different skill than stand-up. He also wants to make sure that a new cast member has some seasoning and won't be overwhelmed by the pace and attention.
"You don't do anyone a favor if they're not ready," he said.
Two of the black women who were on the show — Danitra Vance and Yvonne Hudson — lasted only one season each during the 1980s, although Michaels said that wasn't necessarily an indication they weren't ready. The third black woman cast member, Ellen Cleghorne, was on from 1991 to 1995.