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Cast member Kenan Thompson joined Kerry Washington onstage when Washington hosted “Saturday Night Live” in November. Washington’s appearance exposed the show’s unpreparedness to write for a black woman.

Dana Edelson • NBC,

Sasheer Zamata joins the cast of “Saturday Night Live” as of this week’s episode.

Cate Hellman Photography,

Commentary: Recent 'SNL' hirings a very big deal

  • Article by: Soraya Nadia McDonald
  • Washington Post
  • January 13, 2014 - 2:52 PM

 

On the heels of the announcement that Sasheer Zamata was joining the cast came the news that two black women were joining the writers’ room at “Saturday Night Live.” LaKendra Tookes and Leslie Jones are to have started work this week.

Let’s take a minute to digest that: This is something of a coup because comedy remains a business that is dominated by white men.

“A lot of us on the comedy circuit as black women look up to Jones because she has accomplished so much and kicked down doors, as many as she could, being a black woman,” Simone Shepherd, a Los Angeles comedian and actor, said recently in an interview. Shepherd performed in the December showcase and was part of a smaller group of women, including Tookes and Jones, who were invited to screen-test for “SNL” in New York. “This is a great stride for her and it’s so deserving,” Shepherd said.

Zamata was hired after “SNL” was publicly criticized — including by its two black male cast members — for not having a black female regular who could portray black women in skits. When Kerry Washington hosted the show in November, it exposed another, arguably bigger problem: Not only did the show not have a black woman in the cast, it wasn’t prepared to write for one, either.

Black actress after black actress contacted about this all voiced the same concern: The writing has to change.

When she arrived in New York, Shepherd rode in a car from the airport with Jones, Amber Ruffin and Gabrielle Dennis.

“That was the thing we talked about the most,” Shepherd said. “If they hire one girl, they have to hire a writer. This is as important as hiring the cast member. Hiring two black writers shows that they plan on really making strides to give these black characters a voice. Whether she’s playing Michelle Obama or Beyoncé, we need black women writers to be able to give those black women a voice.

“It is absolutely amazing. It shows me that they’re not just trying to appease the masses because of all of the backlash. It shows that they got it.”

This doesn’t mean that the only people who can write black characters are black. Author Sue Monk Kidd did a beautiful job with “The Secret Life of Bees” and David Simon has been a knockout with “The Wire” and “Treme.” But it does mean that we are intimately acquainted with our experiences in a way many white people are not. That lack of intimacy is evident throughout television: one-dimensional black characters who are thrust into some position of power like a judge or a hospital administrator, but given no real back story. Or you see the Black Best Friend. That’s why Shonda Rhimes is so important. It’s why “Being Mary Jane” debuted to 4 million viewers last summer. It’s why Issa Rae is on Forbes’ “30 under 30” list.

Although we probably won’t see Tookes, a former news reporter, or Jones on television, we will see their influence in the skits. They’re the ones who will give voice and life to the characters we see. They’re also the ones who must navigate bearing the weighty responsibility of speaking truth to their colleagues when it’s time to say, “Nope. No black woman would do this, ever.” That’s how things change. That’s how they get better. That same uncomfortable, but necessary dialogue occurs in newsrooms across the country, too.

“Seeing her be able to stand her ground as a black female comedian, I know when she gets in that room with those writers, she’s going to do the same,” Shepherd said. “It makes me feel like, ‘She’s in there. Who knows what’s next?’

“A lot of times, people get into places and they conform. Jones is not going to do that.”

So, yes, this is a Very Big Deal.

Remember, before “30 Rock,” “Bossypants” and “Weekend Update,” we didn’t see Tina Fey, either. She ascended from the writers’ room. The possibilities for Tookes and Jones should not be downplayed. That small cadre of writers at 30 Rockefeller Plaza holds real power.

For better or worse, “SNL” is this country’s most visible platform for satire. As much as we might want to argue its irrelevance, it reaches millions of people with every broadcast, and it has a hand in shaping our perceptions of public figures. Just look at Fey and her legendary sendup of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

And it’s still a holy grail for many comedians and comic actors. Jordan Peele of Comedy Central’s “Key and Peele” told Terry Gross of NPR’s “Fresh Air” that he was invited to audition/join the cast, but he couldn’t get out of his contract with “Mad TV” at the time. If he could, he would have jumped ship.

“That was a huge disappointment,” Peele said during the “Fresh Air” interview. “The big, the most disappointing part, besides the fact that, you know, like I said, that had always been a dream, to be on that show for obvious reasons, but, you know, after spending eight years away from New York, nine years, or whatever it was, I desperately wanted to go back. … Not being able to was, I think, ultimately served as a huge motivation, you know, to end up doing what I’m doing now — which is, you know, we have our own show; it all kind of worked out for the best, of course. But, yeah, that was the biggest blow in my career.”

 

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