Thursday, December 19, 2013

Colorful Cast Change at SNL - Harvard Lampoon's First Black President

Kenan Thompson as Maya Angelou - Courtesy of NBC/SNL
There's arguably quite a ways to go in terms of the overall diversity in casting for film and television roles.

But despite a lag in behind-the-scenes writing and production job opportunities for people of color in the entertainment industry, there have still been some noticeably positive gains for African-American women in popular entertainment and comedy in 2013 - both in front and behind the camera.

ABC's 'Scandal' is one of the hottest shows on television, written and produced by African-American show runner Shonda Rhimes (who also created 'Grey's Anatomy' and 'Private Practice', both ratings and critical hits for ABC) and stars a talented and beautiful black actress in Kerry Washington; who totally nails the feature role of Olivia Pope.

During interviews Rhimes has said 'Scandal' is based on the life of the real African-American behind the scenes Washington DC fixer extraordinaire Judy Smith. (Minus the affair with the president of course.)

On the comedy side of network television there's currently quite a buzz surrounding the upcoming selection of a yet-to-be publicly named black female comedienne set to join the cast of Saturday Night Live at the start of the new year.

Tracy Wallace speculates about who it might be on the 3 top choices on

As a long-time fan of the show, I think it's a shrewd casting move that could potentially broaden the demographics of the audience to include more people of color, and expand the kinds of characters they could spoof to make the skits funnier.

For seasoned watchers, there's a quietly-growing sense of anticipation of seeing a new cast member on the actual screen and how they will interact with the rest of a talented cast with a lot of sketch comedy and improv experience.

Depending on the kinds of skits, scenarios and characters the writers can come up with, the addition could possibly end up boosting ratings for the crucial May Sweeps.

The actual green-lighting for such an unexpectedly high profile mid-season casting decision seems to have boiled down to reluctant NBC executives being prodded along by actual public opinion.

From a professional industry perspective there's no question it could have been handled better. But in all fairness to Lorne Michaels he's given a number of black performers some excellent opportunities, and not just Eddie Murphy; there's a sense the intensity of the issue took him by surprise in terms of how ardently the fan base and media felt about there being a much more immediate need for a black female cast member.

The SNL writers certainly also deserve some credit for helping to ratchet up the level of public opinion on the issue. As was seen in the weeks following the November 3rd appearance of 'Scandal' star Kerry Washington as SNL host, when the writers famously poked fun at the controversy during the show.

The subsequent discussion about the skit quite suddenly thrust long-time producer Lorne Michaels and NBC executives into an unfamiliar and uncomfortable position of having to respond to both the media and public about the uncomfortable fact that the regular SNL cast has not included a black female member in six years - and only four during the entire 38-year run of the show.

I have to digress and say Garret Morris was hysterical as the cleaning lady sent into to mop up the floor of Three Mile Island in the episode where Dan Akroyd played Jimmy Carter; the prisoner song-sketch is also one of Garret's funniest SNL moments.

Anyway, while the end result is positive, overall the NBC executives came off as having reacted a little slowly and sheepishly. It was klutzy rather than smooth. A mile away from cool and nowhere near as well thought-out as it could (and should) have been given the need for that kind of diversity within the cast - and the industry.

Black cast members Kenan Thompson and Jay Pharoah are both on record as saying the cast should include a black female cast member, with Thompson noting with diplomatic humor that he's tired of having to play female black characters in drag.

At least we don't have to wait too long to see how it all plays out; secret auditions held by NBC in Los Angeles have already taken place and the new cast member is set to debut in January.

Given that it's already December 19th, they've likely already made the decision and are gearing up some kind of pricey PR campaign to take advantage of the buzz. Should be interesting to see who gets the call; good thing there's no pressure stepping into that role on live television.

Finally, on yesterday's edition of NPR's "Tell Me More", host Michel Martin had a very insightful interview with Alexis Wilkinson, the first black female president of the venerable Harvard Lampoon since it's founding in 1876; and her new vice-president Eleanor Parker.

Being selected as president is quite a statement of Wilkinson's talent and potential considering the roster of former Lampoon members and writers including John Updike, Conan 'O Brian, David X. Cohen (creator of the animated series 'Futurama'), Greg Daniels (show runner for 'The Office' and 'Parks and Recreation') and George Plimpton to name just a few.

You can listen to the interview here, or read through the transcript.

It's refreshing to see such strides being made and doors being opened for talented black women given that they are so underrepresented in mainstream comedy. I suspect Moms Mabley would be proud.

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