Why The Dearth Of Black Commediennes In 'SNL' Cast?

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Scandal star Kerry Washington's turn hosting NBC's Saturday Night Live this Saturday has revived criticism of the show's lack of black female cast members. The issue was raised earlier this year when SNL announced five new cast members — four male, all white. The show's lack of black women — only three have ever been cast in 38 years — forces the show's black males to dress as black women, which echoes historic, demeaning issues for black male comics. It also keeps SNL from featuring black female characters and keeps black women from entering the farm team of America's comedy elite who launch their careers there.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And now, a little bit of television that is getting a lot of attention.

KERRY WASHINGTON: Hi, I'm Kerry Washington and I'm hosting "SNL" this week with Eminem.

SIEGEL: That's Kerry Washington, promoting her appearance tomorrow night on "Saturday Night Live" and NPR's TV Eric Deggans is here to tell us why she is more than just another guest host. Eric, hi.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Hi, how you doing?

SIEGEL: Kerry Washington is the star of a very popular TV show, "Scandal," should be a natural for "Saturday Night Live," right?

DEGGANS: Oh, most definitely. And what's interesting is as an African-American woman who is the rare black woman who's the star of a hit network TV drama, she's breaking all kinds of Hollywood boundaries, so it's a great time for her to go to "SNL" and host the show.

SIEGEL: But it's a show that doesn't have any black female cast members.

DEGGANS: Exactly. And it's really been highlighted this season because they hired six new people for the show, five of them are white guys and one of them is a woman who has some non-white ethnicity culturally in her background but she has played white people on the show for the most part.

So, you know, the lack of diversity on the show is glaring and people are talking about it. And Kerry Washington coming to the show this week has erupted those discussions again.

SIEGEL: But does the lack of diversity on "Saturday Night Live" make it any less funny?

DEGGANS: I think it narrows the range of things they can talk about and make fun of on the show. For example, Maya Rudolph used to play the first lady and they can't do the first lady anymore since she left the show in 2007. And Kenan Thompson, a black male cast member, has wound up playing a lot of women on the show. Why don't we check out a clip where he plays Whoopi Goldberg on "The View."

(SOUNDBITE OF "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

KENAN THOMPSON: (As Whoopi Goldberg) Elizabeth, you weren't there. You didn't see this happen. I mean, we could talk all day about who did this and what and who did what to who and where, but honey child, we don't know.

DEGGANS: Now, Kenan has said that he's grown tired of doing this. He's not going to play women anymore and, you know, people have felt that it's kind of played into this historic problem that black male comics have had where they've been sort of pressured to put on dresses and play female characters. So it's become a problem for the show and people have been talking about it.

SIEGEL: You mentioned Maya Rudolph, who I learned from reading about this, is biracial. I didn't know that. Do you have to have somebody who is not only adds to diversity, but visibly adds to diversity of the program?

DEGGANS: I do because I think the entertainment industry has had this sad history of white performers in black face or white performers going on radio and trying to sound black and depriving black performers of the ability to play black people. So I think it's a tough thing for a show, even now, to have a white performer playing black people.

And we saw this, "SNL" have to deal with that when Fred Armisen, a cast member who played President Obama and he is not African-American. And so it was a very odd note for the show to have someone who isn't black put on dark makeup and pretend to be a black person.

SIEGEL: "Saturday Night Live" is just one show. There is plenty of TV shows out there with mostly white casts. Why is it such a big deal?

DEGGANS: Well, this is important because "Saturday Night Live" sets the cultural conversation in a lot of ways. So the way it makes fun of politics or society is the way we talk about politics and society. And what's also important is that we've seen people who break the mold come along on "Saturday Night Live" and bring in something really exciting.

Eddie Murphy came and he brought comedy rooted in black culture to "Saturday Night Live" and he revitalized the show and he made it feel funny and relevant again. And I think that having a black woman who is really talented could also achieve that. And then, finally, you know, "Saturday Night Live" is America's comedy farm team.

People like Will Ferrell and Tina Fey have gone on from the show to conquer Hollywood, do great movies. And if black women aren't a part of that pipeline, they don't get to reach those heights in the same way.

SIEGEL: Thank you, Eric.

DEGGANS: Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: That's Eric Deggans, NPR's TV critic.

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