Comediennes Of Color: 'I Am Funny' : Code Switch Two comediennes of color, Anjelah Johnson, and Debra Wilson, both formerly of Fox's sketch comedy series MADtv, spoke with Tell Me More host, Michel Martin about the discussion on the lack of diversity at Saturday Night Live.

Comediennes Of Color: 'I Am Funny'

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This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, Toronto's mayor, Rob Ford, has finally admitted his use of crack cocaine. But I want to take a step back from the jokes and talk about what the story can tell us all. That's in my Can I Just Tell You essay, and that's in just a few minutes.

But first, if you turned on the TV to watch "Saturday Night Live" this weekend, you were not alone. This weekend's episode was the most watched "Saturday Night Live" of this season. But that show followed weeks of criticism over the show's glaring lack of diversity. Six new cast members joined SNL this season, all of them white.

In nearly four decades on the air, there have been only four black women in the "Saturday Night Live" cast. Coincidentally or not, Kerry Washington hosted this weekend. She is the star of ABC's hit series "Scandal." And the show writers actually poked fun at the controversy in the opening sketch, where she played Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey and, off-screen, Beyonce. Here's a clip.


DON PARDO: The producers at "Saturday Night Live" would like to apologize to Kerry Washington for the number of black women she will be asked to play.


PARDO: We made these requests both because Ms. Washington is an actress of considerable range and talent, and also because "SNL" does not currently have a black woman on the cast.

MARTIN: Now, the announcement goes on to say that the show looks forward to rectifying the situation in the future, unless of course - this is their words - they fall in love with another white man. Now, all jokes aside, we wanted to hear from a few women who have made a career in the entertainment industry, and get their thoughts about what it takes. And as an aside, we reached out to a number of women who we thought might have an opinion on the topic, and a number declined, saying it might jeopardize - or saying that they feared it would jeopardize any future prospects with "SNL."

So joining us now are two women who answered up. Joining us from her home in Hollywood, Calif., is Anjelah Johnson. She is a standup comedian. You might remember her role as Bon Qui Qui on Fox's comedy sketch show "MADtv." Joining us from our studios in Culver City, Calif. - that's NPR West - is Debra Wilson. She was on "MADtv" for eight seasons, and you can catch her on stage right, down in the play "All About Esther." That's playing in LA. Welcome to you both. Thank you both so much for joining us.

ANJELAH JOHNSON: Yeah. Thank you.

DEBRA WILSON: My blessing. My blessing.

MARTIN: First, can I just get each of you to comment on this whole "Saturday Night Live" question? Did each of you notice or care when you saw that the new cast was announced and the lack of diversity there? And Debra, do you want to start?

WILSON: I didn't think about. And the reason it didn't bother me and it didn't come up as an issue with me is because "Saturday Night Live" and the producers of "Saturday Night Live" can do exactly what they want to do. Most of the controversy revolved around Kenan Thompson's comments, and most people were not listening to what was actually said and what has actually been printed. Instead, they emotionally heard.

And what Kenan was saying is that the producers' stance was that the women that they were seeing - the women of color that they were auditioning in the process didn't seem to be ready for "Saturday Night Live." It wasn't a blanket statement saying that all women of color were not funny and shouldn't be on the show, and black women were not ready for the show. He was saying that "SNL's" stance was that women of color that they were looking at, currently, were not.

I think it should raise the vibration of each person who says, look, I am funny, and there are so me opportunities to do comedy and have it get put out there. I know that when Anjelah first came onto "MADtv," although we never worked together, she had so many hits on YouTube that it was impossible to ignore her talent. It was impossible for "MADtv," who was looking for people, to ignore her talent. And it just raised their game by having her on there, and me being able to watch that and go, you go, girl, was really wonderful.

MARTIN: OK. Well, let's hear from Anjelah, too. Anjelah, you are Latina and Native American. And I know that the conversation, to this point, about "Saturday Night Live" has mainly been about black women, at least this season. What's your perspective on this?

JOHNSON: First of all, thank you, Debra. You're so kind, and I love and appreciate you and your work so much...

WILSON: Thank you.

JOHNSON: ...And I completely agree with what you were saying in regards to "Saturday Night Live" doing what's right for "Saturday Night Live." And it wasn't a blanket statement about all women of color aren't ready. It was exactly who was being auditioned, and who was in the room. And we weren't there, so we can't really say, yeah, I disagree or I agree because, you know, we don't know who was auditioning. There are plenty of talented, funny women of color out there, and maybe they didn't make it to the audition. Maybe they weren't invited. But it wasn't a blanket statement.

MARTIN: The other reason, though, it is of interest, though, is that Jay Pharoah, who's the other African-American regular cast member, he was the person who, I think, initially raised the concern. And Kenan Thompson has a different perspective. So they disagree.

WILSON: And my thing is this - that's really - that's wonderful and that's great, and I agree with him. I put out to the producers of "Saturday Night Live" and Broadway Entertainment, go look. Seek, and ye shall find. Knock, and the door shall be opened. Ask, and it shall be given. It's so easy to be able to find what you're looking for that goes beyond the audition process.

MARTIN: Well, OK...

WILSON: So within that process, there is a scope of limitation. But beyond that, you can find it any day of the week, beyond that type of auditioning.

MARTIN: Let me just ask you both, since you've both been veterans of sketch comedy and have done a lot of other work - and, Anjelah, maybe you want to start - does it matter? Or is it that there are so many other places to work these days that you really don't care if that cast is not terribly diverse?

JOHNSON: I think what matters to me is the caliber of the show. People love the show so much because it's funny. It's got great quality actors, writers, people involved. So they need to keep that to keep it great. So I wouldn't say, hey, go pick any woman of color, put her on the show to meet a quota so that'll make me feel better. What'll make me feel better is, they keep producing great quality work. But I think maybe it's time to get creative and think of new ways to find her, and make it a priority to find her, because you're kind of missing out on a very important voice.

So great quality, I think that's what matters. Like, funny is funny. If we keep producing really good quality stuff, then I'm not too offended by the fact that there is not another Latina on there or another black woman on there. I think we need to find the quality Latina and black woman and put them on there. So let's get creative and look for her in different ways.

MARTIN: I don't think there is a Latino man on that show, or at least there has not been since Horatio Sanz was on that cast a couple of years ago.

JOHNSON: Yeah, let's get creative and think of new ways to find these people. My YouTube videos blew up, and like Debra was saying, like, I ended up becoming a cast member of "MADtv" because of that. And there's other actors out there, whether it's YouTube or Twitter or Vine, or whatever it is these days.

MARTIN: Debra, can I ask you, how did you get your start, by the way?

WILSON: Believe it or not, I was an audience member in New York City at a club, and I was watching an improv group that was performing. My career and my first love was working for City of New York Parks and Recreation. I did programs with the developmentally disabled, with senior citizens, with preschoolers.

MARTIN: So wait a minute. You were in the audience, and then what happened? Did you get called up...

WILSON: No one would get up.

MARTIN: participate in the skit? Oh.

WILSON: No one would get up to participate in the improv. And so I said, OK, well, I'll get up. I went to the High School of Performing Arts. I know it's in me, and I'm a silly person. So I raised my hand, and little did I know that raising my hand at that time was raising my hand to accepting what I'm meant to do as well. Another aspect of...


MARTIN: I was going to say. So what happened...

JOHNSON: That's amazing.

MARTIN: ...Did somebody spot you? And then - or what happened?


MARTIN: Did you just decide that...

WILSON: ...What ended up happening is I went from improv group to improv group as one group would break up and have this little sub-cell with another. And I learned writing, and I learned improv, and I learned sketch. And then a manager caught my attention, and I told her no. I said, this isn't what I do for a living; this is what I do for fun. And then eventually, I ended up doing a series for Fox. It was a syndicated series called "Uptown Comedy Club." And a young lady that I was doing it with said, you're going to need someone. You need to meet my manager. She needs to manage you because I know her well, you'll get to know her well. And it was the same woman that I had turned down two years prior. And then, I went, OK. I'm going to take this as a sign.

MARTIN: Oh, how about that? That's - that is wild. Well, congratulations. Anjelah, what about you? How did you get started?

JOHNSON: You know, I moved to Los Angeles to be an actress, and I randomly fell into standup comedy. I was actually at a church and on Tuesday nights, they would do their creative arts night. And so they would have dancing, acting, singing and the drama department. And so I was in the drama department 'cause I wanted to be an actress. And there was a comedian there, and she said she was teaching a joke-writing standup comedy class if I wanted to take the class. And I said, is it free? And she said, yes. I said, well, then, I guess so. You know, I don't have any reason not to.

So I took this joke-writing standup comedy class, and the first joke that I wrote was this nail salon bit that just blew up on YouTube. And so many people had seen this video. It was 2007, from - and this is at a place in my life when I had nothing going for me. I had no agent, no manager, no auditions, no opportunities. Nothing in my life was saying, hey, you're on the right track, keep going. Everything was pretty much saying, pack up your bags, go home. You tried, but it's not happening for you. And so this video comes out on YouTube, and it was right when YouTube was new. So it was, like, if you got an e-mail at that time with a video in it, then you definitely watched the video because you were like, what? I press play and things move in my e-mail. This was is crazy.

MARTIN: Oh, come on.

JOHNSON: So, like, from January to February, there was 4 million views on this one video. And then, by March, I had met with everybody in Hollywood, people at Fox, NBC, ABC, CBS. Everyone had seen this video and called me in for a meeting. And then, by May, I was on "MADtv." And I was shooting "MADtv" throughout the summer and by the end of the year, I was touring with my standup comedy across the country.

And it was literally - my life changed completely in that one year from January, when I had absolutely nothing to my name - no money to pay my bills; like, unemployment checks had run out, no opportunities - to the end of the year, when I was on "MADtv" and touring with my standup comedy.

MARTIN: Congratulations to you, too, Anjelah - to both of you, actually, on your careers, on your, you know, your amazing careers, which are kind of inspiring.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

MARTIN: What should we draw from this? What should we learn from this whole conversation around "Saturday Night Live," anything? Is it make your own way? Is it, you know - what?

JOHNSON: I would say, do you, and do you well. Be the best at what you're good at, at what you're passionate about, about what makes you happy. So I would say be ready. Be the best you so that when your readiness meets that opportunity, then nobody can walk away saying, well the girls we're auditioning aren't ready. You know what I mean? So I would just say do you, and do you well. And continue to do that.

MARTIN: Debra, what about you?

WILSON: There's nothing you should learn from this. And the reason I say that is because what you're going to learn is a limited scope. More than learning from this, I trust and I hope and I pray that people will be inspired; that they recognize the true nature of who they are, and that there is not one show on this planet that can stop them from being the best of who they choose to be.

MARTIN: OK. How did Kerry Washington do, by the way?

JOHNSON: I thought she was hilarious. I really enjoyed it. It's one of those things where of course everybody was talking about it, and you make fun of yourself, is what you do. So they were making fun of themselves for not having any women of color on the show, and it was being talked about. So I thought they did a great job. I thought it was funny. I thought she did a great job. Again, coming back to what I said the first time, like, keep producing quality stuff. I thought it was funny, so I thought they got it.

MARTIN: Anjelah...

WILSON: And I think it also...

MARTIN: OK, go ahead, Debra.

WILSON: ...Creates this amazing light. I think controversy can be a good thing. It can work in such a positive way, and it flows to the point in which people say - or an organization or a Broadway Video or a Lorne Michaels says - you know what? Now we need to really open our eyes more. They've had a legacy of funny. They've had a legacy of being an iconic show, and now it's time to possibly move beyond the legacy of not having women of color on the show into a greater experience for the show.

MARTIN: Joining us from our studios in Culver City, Calif. - that's NPR West - is Debra Wilson. She was on "MADtv" for eight seasons. You can catch her on stage in the play "All About Esther." And she's also a news anchor for Irrational Public Radio, which you can catch online. And joining us from her home in Hollywood, Calif., is Anjelah Johnson. She's a standup comedian, and you might remember her role as Bon Qui Qui on Fox's comedy sketch show "MADtv." Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

WILSON: Such a pleasure and a blessing.

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