Why Kenan Thompson’s comments on SNL black women bias strike a nerve

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Kenan Thompson attends 'The Awesomes' Comic-Con Autograph Signing at Manchester Grand Hyatt on July 20, 2013 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images for Hulu)

Kenan Thompson attends 'The Awesomes' Comic-Con Autograph Signing at Manchester Grand Hyatt on July 20, 2013 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images for Hulu)

In the midst of an otherwise absurdly busy news week, culture watchers were treated to a rather puzzling news flash: apparently, black female comics aren’t ready for prime time.

At first blush, the comment seems so ridiculous that it makes perfect sense it came from the lips of a comedian: it could easily be a joke, or at least biting sarcasm. Yet Saturday Night Live veteran Kenan Thompson inadvertently found himself in the epicenter of a blistering Internet firestorm this week for being at least somewhat serious when he made the remark.  His central critique?  That SNL’s near-apartheid on black funny women is due to the casting department “never find[ing] ones that are ready.”

The gold standard for late-night comedy has a glaring problem with casting black women, though it’s ironic nobody really noticed (or at least voiced criticism about it) until Thompson’s gaffe. Including Maya Rudolph, SNL has only had four black women among its cadre of talent in the 38 years of its existence, according to TV Guide.

To anyone who has been paying attention, the landscape of comedy is dotted with comediennes of color, though far too few are household names. Still, it bears mentioning that none of SNL’s male regulars were well-known before appearing on the show. The barrier facing black female comics certainly hasn’t impeded their male counterparts – Eddie Murphy is one SNL alum widely regarded as one of the best stand-up comics of his time. Before flaming out spectacularly, Martin Lawrence (never affiliated with SNL but considered a brilliant comic nonetheless) was well on his way to stratospheric territory. Meanwhile, Kevin Hart is rapidly becoming a household name. Nobody would ever dare question their comedic bonafides  in the same way Mr. Thompson did black comediennes.

However clumsy and inartful his remarks were, Mr. Thompson may have accidentally tapped an important idea. Strip away the noise, and the paradox becomes easier to identify.

The issue may be less about what some call a “lack of diversity” on the Emmy Award-winning show, but more attributable to certain demographic and cultural realities. The majority of black comedians earn their bread and butter doing their schtick in front of other blacks. What this means in practice is that, especially for black comics accustomed to making fodder out of barber shop and beauty parlor talk, their brand of comedy tends to traffic in situations with which the average black man or woman can easily relate. That, however, may not go over as well with SNL affluent, predominantly Caucasian viewership.

None of this should be interpreted as a defense of Mr. Thompson, or imply somehow that black comediennes are either not “funny enough”, or ill-suited for prime time. Indeed, many certainly are, although the average black comic doesn’t have the platform or public profile enjoyed by a Whoopi, Mo’Nique or Sherri.

Yet think about it for a moment. Much of the material used by black funny women tend to appeal most of all to African-American audiences. On the face of it, there’s nothing wrong with that at all: there are all sorts of racial and ethnic humor around.

That said, comedy as a whole is steadily pushing the boundaries of taste, which means that many black female comics have followed suit with more risqué material. Their stories address the quotidian and mundane like hair, family and romance, yet with a lot more vulgarity thrown in for added effect.

Therein explains the risk-reward of ethnic humor: in many cases (though not all), it lacks universal appeal and is rarely broadcast-friendly. What may be funny in front of a black audience may not make the quantum leap across color lines, or to network television. All of which helps explain why early in her career, Whoopi Goldberg adopted both a Jewish-sounding name and a culturally-neutral brand of comedy.

Does this mean SNL should institute an “affirmative action” program? Perish the thought. It’s doubtful such a thing would solve the root problem, and most likely would result in black comediennes losing the “oomph” that makes their material zing. However, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to take the advice of Erica Watson, a hilarious stand-up black comic who is now the beneficiary of a grassroots Facebook campaign to get her on SNL. On Jet.com, Ms. Watson freely admits she never attempted to audition for the show, but suggests they may want to consider hiring “writers of color behind the scenes who will develop material for her that will allow [black female comediennes’] true talent to shine.”

The suggestion itself is constructive, yet it may not solve the central problem. A non-black viewer would readily get the joke about a cheating spouse or lousy boyfriend. Having said that, would they really appreciate a black comedienne’s howler about Brazilian weaves, a Rubenesque booty or twerking? (Miley Cyrus being the sole possible outlier). More importantly, can she translate the same humor into a sanitized version that doesn’t draw the ire of censors or family groups? The question has yet to be answered.