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Friday, January 17, 2014

‘Saturday Night Live’ Seeks Diversity With New Hire

Comedienne Sasheer Zamata will make her debut as a Saturday Night Live cast member this weekend.  Zamata is the first African-American female cast member since Maya Rudolph's departure six years ago. (Cate Hellman)

Comedienne Sasheer Zamata will make her debut as a Saturday Night Live cast member this weekend. Zamata is the first African-American female cast member since Maya Rudolph’s departure six years ago. (Cate Hellman)

This weekend, “Saturday Night Live” will debut its newest cast member, Sasheer Zamata. Zamata is the first African-American female hire in six seasons — since the departure of Maya Rudolph in 2007.

The mid-season hire has drawn lots of attention, coming on the heels of an interview SNL cast member Kenan Thompson did with TV Guide magazine, in which he said he would no longer be playing female roles, and if the show wanted African-American female characters, they could ask fellow cast member Jay Pharoah. Thompson went on to say that the show lacked an African-American female cast member because comediennes who had applied were not “ready” for the likes of SNL.

Pharoah responded saying there are plenty of comediennes out there, and SNL needed to do what it had been promising for years: hire an African-American female cast member.

Secret auditions for only African-American comediennes were held, but no one from the bunch was hired.

Critics have called the move a poor diversity practice on SNL’s part. But others are concerned about something else: the cloud this has put over Zamata’s debut and the pressure she will face on Saturday night.

Zamata is the fifth African-American female to be part of SNL’s cast in 39 seasons. There has never been a Asian or Latina woman in the cast.

Here & Now’s Robin Young speaks with Jet Magazine editor-in-chief Mitzi Miller about SNL’s diversity woes.

Interview Highlights: Mitzi Miller

On her disappointment in SNL

“The way it was handled — the midseason hire, then not-so-secret audition, then not using someone from the auditions, and the rush to hire two women of color to become writers — although ultimately it may help, it was a complete debacle.”

“I can’t really give them credit for this. It seems like they were making a point, like ‘Fine, here you go, we’ve done this.’ You don’t get lauded for doing things begrudgingly, and that’s what this feels like.”

On her concerns for Zamata

“I want this young lady to succeed. Our entire community wants her to succeed, because if she’s talented, then she deserves that, and we want to get behind her. But she’s always going to carry the stigma of, ‘You only got hired, you only got brought on, because of the color of your skin. And that’s not fair to anyone. This was a publicity stunt, it backfired, and now people are uncomfortable. And the bad thing is that this young lady is going to bear the brunt of it for the rest of her time there. No matter how successful she goes on to be, people are going to remember how she got hired. That’s going to be part of her history now.”

On the roles she’d like to see Zamata portray

“Personally, I don’t want them to skewer themselves over this. What I would like to see is her fully integrated into a different type of role. I would love to see her in a skit playing just a soccer mom — not a white soccer mom, just a soccer mom, as opposed to the hood chick or a Michelle Obama or an Oprah. I would love to see her just play a woman. If they’re able to integrate her into roles that are wonderful and funny that are not color attached, that would be a win for me.”

Video: When Kerry Washington was a guest on SNL, the show poked fun at its lack of diversity by asking her to play three different African-American women in one skit.

Guest

Transcript

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW.

So how should they handle it as Sasheer Zamata debuts tomorrow on "Saturday Night Live," the first black female cast member since Maya Rudolph left in 2007? Her hiring came after Kenan Thompson told "TV Guide" he no longer play roles in drag and suggested that fellow cast member Jay Pharaoh could take on that role to which Pharaoh said, the show needed to do what it's been promising for years, hire a black woman.

As the noise increase, "SNL" did what it does best, it skewered a show that would have no black female cast members. Actress Kerry Washington hosted and played them all, starting with First Lady Michelle Obama.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

TARAN KILLAM: So don't you think you should go and get changed?

KERRY WASHINGTON: (as Michelle Obama) Why?

KILLAM: So that Oprah can come in.

WASHINGTON: (as Michelle Obama) Oh, because of the whole...

KILLAM: Yes, exactly.

WASHINGTON: (as Michelle Obama) And Kenan won't...

KILLAM: No.

WASHINGTON: (as Michelle Obama) Well, in that case, I will leave. And in a few minutes, Oprah will be here.

KILLAM: Thank you, Mrs. Obama. Thank you.

YOUNG: What followed were secret auditions of black female comics. Many had been featured in black productions, Tyler Perry World. Sasheer was not in those auditions. Slate writes, she came from a largely white comedy troupe, and Variety skewered her hiring.

Let's bring in Mitzi Miller, editor-in-chief of Jet magazine. She's at WBEZ in Chicago. And, Mitzi, Variety called in a diversity travesty. You say what?

MITZI MILLER: I definitely did not like the way that it was handled. I agree that it was time. The diversity that as now black being affected everyone, the viewership went down across the communities of color. And I think that the remaining viewers didn't get a fair and accurate view of our communities and our voices.

But the way it was handled: the mid-season hire, the not-so-secret audition, then not using someone from the audition and the rush to hire two women of color to become writers - although ultimately, it may help, they way it was done was a complete debacle.

YOUNG: Well, you mentioned writers. Two female African-American writers were added to the staff, comedians LaKendra Tookes and Leslie Jones. And you mentioned the not-so-secret auditions. Comedian Kerry Coddett, was part of them. She wrote an op-ed for The Atlantic and said, maybe it's not that black women aren't ready for "SNL." It's that "SNL" isn't ready for a black woman. "SNL" has always been said to be something of a boy's club and a white boy's club at that.

MILLER: No, absolutely. But you could actually say that about all of television. It's a boy's club and it's a white people club. Think about "Friends," you know? America reflects that it wants to relax and see itself. And sometimes, it just doesn't see itself with us included. It took a lot of uproar for a "Girls," which was like a break-out show across all communities, to include a black character. And then he was only a temporary love interest. It's really difficult for me to believe, especially as someone coming from New York, that you can live in Brooklyn and never see black people.

YOUNG: What impact do you hope the writers have.

MILLER: I really hope that these two women can bring their perspective to all of the skits, not just for her. There are so many more viewpoints and perspectives in our American stories. And I just - I can't wait to see a different perspective than the one that we've been getting consistently from "SNL."

YOUNG: Well in Slate, in writing about all of these, went with the idea that you usually are only hired as a black on "SNL" - and this is according, you know, people have done interviews - if you're part of the fully integrated white culture. Now, Sasheer Zamata was a member of the Upright Citizens Brigade in New York troop. And let's listen to a clip from one of her stand-up comedy routine. She also very much interacted with whites growing up. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW)

SASHEER ZAMATA: I live with my stepmom. And she's white and she's a lovely woman. I love her to death, but she would sometimes come up and accidentally racist, which is hard but she's my family. (Unintelligible). she came home one day and I was there. And the house was a mess and she was like, what's wrong with you? You don't respect a thing. You don't respect my stuff. And I was like, oh, I do. I respect all these things. I just - I was writing and I was looking for a job. I was busy. And she was like, oh, I'd show working hard, probably working like a slave. I mean, not a slave. Nothing (unintelligible) slave. I would never call (unintelligible).

YOUNG: Very funny. But some are pointing to this. The fact that her stepmom is white as proof once again that those who are successful - with one or two outliers - within "Saturday Night Live" - are successful because they move between the cultures easily. And some past black actors on "Saturday Nigh Live" have said, well, it's important you'd be able to hang with the writers. You have to be able to hang with everyone so they get to know your voice.

MILLER: I definitely think that that's true, but that's in every - at every business or organization. You have to be able to get along. And no matter who they hired. If they want this person to succeed, the idea is that they'd have to come in and fit in quickly.

YOUNG: Unfortunately, their hiring practices assume that someone from a different background wouldn't be able to do that.

MILLER: It's like saying, well, I don't know if somebody who didn't grow up with us will be able to be friends with us. It's a really insular way of thinking and disappointing for such a major show.

YOUNG: So those are the questions that are being raised, but shouldn't "SNL" get applauded? There's a little bit of a darn if you do and darn if you don't going on here. They were criticized for not making a hire, so they made a hire.

MILLER: I can't really give them credit for that. It seems like they were making a point, like, fine. Here you go. We've done this. You don't get lauded for doing things begrudgingly, and that's what this feels like.

I want this young lady to succeed. Our entire community wants her to succeed. Because if she's talented, then she deserves that and we want to be able to get behind her. But she's always going to now carry the stigma of, you only got hired, you only got brought on because of the color of your skin. And that's not fair to anyone.

This was a publicity stunt, it backfired, and now people are uncomfortable. And the bad thing is that this young lady is going to bear the brunt of it for the rest of her time there. No matter how successful she goes on to be, people are going to remember how she got hired. That's going to be part of her history now.

YOUNG: Well, that brings us back to the question that we started with: What can "SNL" do this weekend? This is a show that would skewer a show that hired someone just because there was pressure from the outside. What can they do this weekend to sort of respond to some of the concerns?

MILLER: Personally, I don't want them to skewer themselves over this. But what I would like to do is to see her fully integrated into a different type of role. I would love to see her in a skit playing just a soccer mom, not a white soccer mom, just a soccer mom, as opposed to the, like, hood chick or a Michelle Obama or an Oprah. I would love to see her just play a woman.

YOUNG: But, Maya...

MILLER: If they're able to integrate her into roles that are wonderful and funny, that are not color-attached, that would be a win for me.

YOUNG: Well, Maya Rudolph did everything from Barbara Streisand to Lisa Ling to Donatella Versace - very funny - and to Oprah.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

MAYA RUDOLPH: (as Oprah Winfrey) You are about to receive everything on my birthday list. Get up, everybody. There you go. Oprah's most favorite things, birthday edition.

YOUNG: Just love that. Won't it be actually missing great opportunities if Sasheer doesn't do some of the well-known African-American women?

MILLER: Certainly, I'd love to see her do some. What I'm saying is that, it shouldn't be it. When you talk about Maya Rudolph, that's all people refer to. She has never not done, you know, these famous personalities. And I think that that's what I'm looking for personally.

YOUNG: Well, it'd be interesting to see what they do this weekend. We love to ask listeners, what would your ideal skit be, you know, to address, head on questions that people have. Give us your ideas for skits. Mitzi Miller, editor-in-chief for Jet magazine, will you be watching?

MILLER: Absolutely. And I sure hope she's funny.

(LAUGHTER)

YOUNG: Oh, you know, I think...

MILLER: That's my final hope, just be great. I want her to be great.

YOUNG: Yeah. Mitzi, thanks so much.

MILLER: Thank you.

YOUNG: So, Meghna, no pressure on this young woman?

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:

Not at all.

YOUNG: Oh, man. New cast member Sasheer Zamata debuts on "Saturday Night Live" this Saturday night, and we will be rooting. From NPR and WBUR, I'm Robin Young.

CHAKRABARTI: I'm Meghan Chakrabarti. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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