Over the Columbus Day holiday, Saturday Night Live star Kenan Thompson made headlines when he stepped into the debate about whether or not his show, which in its history has only featured four African-American women as members of the recurring cast, needed to add a black woman to the roster. “It’s just a tough part of the business,” Thompson told TV Guide’s Sadie Gennis. “Like in auditions, they just never find ones that are ready.”
It was a statement that seemed to suggest either an exceptionally shallow talent pool of African-American comediennes, or a low level of preparation or professionalism, and as such, Thompson’s analysis of Saturday Night Live‘s was met with both a lot of frustration, many suggestions of very talented, very funny black women he’s overlooked, and anger at SNL czar Lorne Michaels, who bears larger responsibility than Thompson for the show’s composition. None of these reactions are unreasonable. SNL has a long history of failing to cast African-American women that suggests larger issues in the comedy talent pipeline, and in Michaels’ use of his considerable power to bend the curve on the composition of the mix of comedians who get the benefit of a stint on SNL, itself a potential launching pad for even more significant opportunities. These are all things we need to discuss.
But one casting director, who goes by the handle HelloMocha*, hopped on Twitter to recount her own experiences trying to cast black female comedians for a client in recent months. And in addition to questions of individual availability, she raised a number of structural factors that might genuinely be making it more difficult for SNL and similar shows to find the kind of cast members they’re looking for:
If, for example, black women are getting locked into extremely restrictive contracts that make it difficult for them to audition for other parts until the life of those deals are done, that’s a significant factor, one reminiscent of the recording deals that stalled Darlene Love’s singing career, and something that’s worth taking into account. Maybe agents are representing clients in a way that’s intended to juice their own commissions, while minimizing the work they have to do on behalf of the women they represent–saying a client is offer-only might mean she doesn’t have to audition, but it also means less interim hustling for the agent–and hurting their prospects as a result. And maybe women who aren’t responding to query emails aren’t getting the support they need from their agents, or anyone at all, to manage the volume of correspondence and to sort out promising inquiries. HelloMocha’s experience suggests a range of practices it’s worth looking into, rather than just making more lists of potential candidates for SNL to consider.
If Saturday Night Live isn’t finding African-American women it wants to add to its cast, that may be true, but true for reasons beyond the state of the talent pool and bad luck. Maybe Thompson is throwing African-American women under the bus. Maybe Lorne Michaels isn’t looking hard enough. But it’s well worth looking around for larger structural factors, so the next time SNL is filling slots in its cast, they have fewer excuses to hide behind.
*Many thanks to Nichole for pointing me in her direction.