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Long-running NBC sketch comedy series Saturday Night Live has not been without its fair share of controversies over the last 41 years. SNL and executive producer Lorne Michaels have come under fire recently concerning a lack of diversity among the cast. Specifically, the lack of any female African American comedians in front of the camera was called into question. The problem was addressed in short order with the introductions of Sasheer Zamata and Leslie Jones as main players in 2014 and 2015, respectively, and Michaels addressed the issue head on and explained what went on behind the scenes.
In an interview with NPR, when the subject of criticism of the series came up, Michaels had this to say of the hiring process for SNL feature players:
We've been breaking those barriers from the very beginning. But, I understand perception is everything, and I live in a world of perception, and if that was how we were perceived then it has to be addressed, which is what I did.
Michaels also spoke of the intention to search out the best talent for the series...
The intent is always to just find the most talented people there are. We go all over the country. Just as, you can play baseball, but can you play baseball in Yankee Stadium? It's a different set of challenges. And if they're not ready yet ... they just flail.
We can commend Lorne Michaels for the frankness of his response, but it’s difficult to say whether or not he actually helped himself by making his case in this way. The subjective concepts of color-blind and gender-blind casting when taken in conjunction with a group of performers lacking in diversity creates a rather sticky wicket for the casting process. As Michaels says, perception is everything, and asserting that they always find the best people available without hitting on certain demographics gives the idea that perhaps SNL is not always looking in particularly places for new talent.
The issue first arose in late 2013 when Kenan Thompson of SNL gave a quote opining that the lack of comediennes of color on the show was a result of none making the cut after the audition process. Although Thompson did not seem to intend to cast blame at SNL, or assert that women of color can’t be funny, he made enough headlines that the observation became an issue.
Of course, it can’t be argued that SNL has never hired women of color. Maya Rudolph was a hit cast member from 2000 – 2007 before heading off to a successful movie career. Nevertheless, the perception that a lack of female comics of color was a deliberate move by Lorne Michaels and SNL did at least result in the mainstream discovery of two phenomenally funny comediennes in Sasheer Zamata and Leslie Jones.