Black women in comedy talk SNL’s diversity debut

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January 18, 2014 will be a day to remember according to Sylvia Traymore Morrison, a black woman comic who says she was offered an assistant writer position at Saturday Night Live in 1979. Morrison, who was then in her 20s and has had a long career, has supportive words for Sasheer Zamata, the first black woman to join the cast since 2007. She will make her SNL debut tonight.

This evening will likely boast skits penned by LaKendra Tookes and Leslie Jones, the first black women ever to write for the show.

“My advice would be to embrace what is happening to them because no matter what anyone thinks, this is going down in history,” Morrison mused. “It’s going down as a historical moment — 20, 30, 40 years from now, people will talk about this. I think that they should make the best of it, do the absolute best that they can, try to keep black women in comedy in the forefront… and enjoy the ride.”

TheGrio has not been able to confirm her story with SNL, which has declined to do any press regarding Zamata’s debut. But other sources support Morrison’s claim that she was connected to the show’s executive producer and co-creator Lorne Michaels through the comedian Garrett Morris, who was the only black cast member in the original troupe. Morrison said she worked behind the scenes on SNL for two months before the relationship soured, and was never officially hired.

From working in shadows to queens of comedy

Yet, back in those days, Morrison was a rare black woman in a largely male field. Seeing Zamata, Tookes, and Jones succeed on this level is astounding when she remembers how things were.

“When I first started out I had no idea that there just were not any black women in comedy,” she said. “Being a black woman and a comic, I had no friends to call and say, ‘meet me at the Comedy Store,’ or ‘meet me at the Improv,’ or ‘meet me at Catch a Rising Star,’ where people like Jay Leno, and Robin Williams, and David Letterman were just getting their start as well.”

Morrison noted when black women comics began to gain ascendancy. Ladies such as Shirley Hemphill, Marsha Warfield, and LaWanda Page made big moves to television. Today boasts even bigger stars such as Wanda Sykes, and others more accepted by the mainstream, including Mo’Nique. The hiring of Zamata, Jones and Tookes is the next step in this evolution.

“So I’m kind of delighted that there is so much diversity today in black female comedy,” said the author of her entertainment business memoir, Almost There, Almost: The Many Faces of Sylvia Traymore Morrison.

But, “I’m not so sure if I was so excited about all the attention that has been given to that, because this probably should have happened a long time ago,” she added.

SNL diversity: A result of pressure?

In fact, Zamata is only the fifth black woman to join SNL in its 38-year history. Her hiring came on the heels of a national backlash after SNL cast member Kenan Thompson said there were no African-American female cast members at the time because no black women were qualified. Previous to that, fellow African-American cast member Jay Pharoah expressed ire in an interview with at the lack of effort made to diversify the cast.

After Thompson stated that he refused to dress in drag anymore for the show, and implied that Pharoah no longer wanted to do so, the producers were pressed to find someone to play African-American female parts. This confluence of factors led to a special audition held to find a black woman cast member at the end of 2013.

“Honestly looking for a black comic shouldn’t be an after thought,” Mary Pryor, a black woman comic based in New York City, told theGrio. “I haven’t seen an Asian comic on SNL, so clearly casting diversity isn’t viewed as important. I don’t understand how in ‘post racial America’ networks aren’t thinking about how relatable casting works and benefits audiences and ad dollars.”

Pryor tries to “steer far away from being just a black girl doing black jokes,” one of many limitations that could have made it difficult until now for African-American women to be taken seriously by SNL.

“We get pigeonholed into continual stereotypes and we are subject to only being called on when someone needs a black face,” Pryor said. Particularly in sketch comedy, there is a perception that black women don’t have the chops, or timing. Fortunately, that is changing.

“As for sketch comedy, there are some collectives out there that are coming together and forming all-black improv groups,” Pryor explained, “but it’s 2014 and it’s confusing as hell when it comes to why there isn’t a diverse collective in existence amongst the top sketch comedy institutions.”

Bringing diversity to TV comedy writers rooms

If black women working in sketch comedy is rare, African-American women writing comedic shows is almost unheard of. Many think the hiring of LaKendra Tookes and Leslie Jones to write for SNL is downright revolutionary.

Kerry Washington hosting SNL after the original “scandal” regarding Thompson’s comments demonstrated the need. Numerous critics were stunned at the apparent racial blinders of the writers behind her characters: Beyoncé, Michelle Obama, Oprah, an angry black girlfriend, and a Ugandan beauty queen having a meltdown… Are there no other black women “types,” people questioned? Could she not have played a racially neutral role?

One black woman who has auditioned for SNL in the past asked the obvious: Where was the Scandal parody? In a writers room comprised of nearly 100 percent white men, this great topic was overlooked.

These missteps make hiring Jones and Tookes simultaneously as Zamata makes her debut a very smart move. They are joining the tiny ranks of African-Americans writing for television in any capacity.

A rare black woman comedy writer speaks

Stacy A. Littlejohn is the rare black woman with extensive television writing experience specifically in comedy. She has penned jokes for shows ranging from The Wanda Sykes Show to The Hughleys, and executive produced a show of her own: Single Ladies, VH1’s first scripted series. Littlejohn said that the idea that black women can only write one kind of comedy is pervasive.

“Some people don’t trust that women are funny in general, let alone black women, whose comedy and sensibilities only represent — in certain minds — their own kind, as if being a woman, while being black, isn’t universal,” Littlejohn told theGrio, “but the opposite is often seen as true, as white women can, and often do, become the representation of every woman on stages.”

Like successful women who got their start on SNL such as Tina Fey, will Tookes and Jones similarly be allowed to express a variety of concepts? It will depend on the producers.

“So again, decision makers and opinion leaders in the comedy world must trust in the wider appeal of black female voices,” Littlejohn explained. “Non-black persons in power should never question that while we can present to you a funny ‘black’ experience, and make you laugh, as well as a funny ‘female’ experience, and do the same, we can also tickle your funny bone because of our shared human experience.”

Writers Guild, comedy writers weigh in

There are already mainstream opinion leaders who agree. Lowell Peterson, executive director of Writers Guild of America, East, released this statement of support for Tookes and Jones to theGrio: “Saturday Night Live is a great place for writers to do great work.  As a union that supports efforts to bring a greater diversity of voices to writers’ rooms, we are very pleased that LaKendra Tookes and Leslie Jones will be joining the SNL room, and becoming part of the WGAE.”

For black women comedy writers still in the trenches, there are high hopes that these women will blossom.

“I hope the writers will be free to share their talent with the world,” Kimberly C. Ellis, Ph.D., a comedian and comic writer, told theGrio. The famous Twitter personality who goes by the handle “Dr. Goddess” (also her stage name) is optimistic. “I hope that they can be as complex, nuanced, graceful, politically poignant, culturally aware and brilliant as I know they are. I hope they don’t get pigeonholed to only write for Sasheer, as these sistas have a lot of commentary for the other actors on the show as well. Black women’s commentary on the world is just funny, period.”

What of the potential belief — that often besmirches the quest for equality — that these writers aren’t deserving of their positions, because they are “diversity hires”?

“Who cares?” Ellis said. “A month ago, they were not employed by Saturday Night Live. Now, they have a worldwide platform and, as we can see from the careers of SNL alums, the world is their oyster. As Zora Neale Hurston says, they are not ‘tragically colored,’ and these are writers who have their own stellar history. They’re not entering the SNL world as shabby beggars. Shoot, SNL just uplifted themselves by hiring such greatness!”

Dr. Goddess certainly speaks the truth. Just like Sasheer Zamata, both LaKendra Tookes and Leslie Jones have respected careers in comedy. They have come up through the ranks at venues such as the New York City sketch comedy theater The Upright Citizen’s Brigade, where Zamata and Tina Fey, both University of Virginia graduates, got their start.

Waiting for the show

Morrison believes there are many who are expecting these three pioneers to fail. This user on The Huffington Post sums up the sentiments of many who don’t see the point of this initiative.

“Dave Chappelle Show didn’t have a diverse cast,” wrote the user Mike M. on the news site. “They frequently needed the black cast members to don white face for skits. But it is funny as hell. So it seems to me this is just some false controversy.” Another user quipped back, “Chappelle Show was just Dave’s show not an industry institution.”

Because SNL has been on the air continuously since 1975, and launched the careers of so many of America’s favorite stars — including black greats such as Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock — who its producers cast and what the show covers does have an ironic gravitas for a comedy show.

Comedian Pryor has sobering advice for these three ladies, who, as Morrison said, will be making history at 11:30 p.m. this evening, regardless of the outcome.

“The nation is watching. Be funny,” Pryor said. “Now you’ll be thrown under this microscope that’s rather biased and sort of unfair. I have seen so many comments and tweets from the public that are already talking about these women and the shows haven’t aired yet. Don’t succumb to pressure.”

Follow Alexis Garrett Stodghill on Twitter @lexisb