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Sonn: "SNL" and the diversity hire

BY BARRETT SONN | OCTOBER 21, 2013 5:00 AM

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Recently, “Saturday Night Live” hired six new cast members, all of whom happen to be white, and incited a major controversy over the lack of diversity in the cast.

Fuel was added to the fiery melting-pot debate thanks to recent comments from Jay Pharoah and Kenan Thompson — the only African-American cast members on the show — and two of three minority cast members (out of 16 total), with the third being Iranian-American female Nasim Pedrad.

A few weeks ago, Pharoah said Darmirra Brunson of Tyler Perry’s “Love Thy Neighbor” should be a cast member on “Saturday Night Live.” His reasoning: “Because she’s black first of all, and she’s really talented.”

Thompson has a different opinion. He believes there simply aren’t many black female comics right now with the talent to go on “Saturday Night Live” and withstand the rigors of — whoa, wait a second.

The show’s diversity problem isn’t an issue of ethics or morals; it’s an issue of logistics. It is in a position in which it needs to hire talented people, but it also needs — literally — people of color. Part of the routine of “Saturday Night Live” is to make fun of or impersonate a lot of famous people.

Sometimes, those individuals happen to be nonwhite. When you only have three minorities, and only one of them is female, it can get awkward.

As the cast’s lone non-white woman, Pedrad has had to play characters ranging from Kelly Ripa to Nicki Minaj to Shakira to Sonia Sotomayor. Who else was going to do it?

So diversity is something the show needs.

Despite the show’s need for diversity, “Saturday Night Live” should stay away from arbitrary rules about hiring minorities, such as those in place in such organizations as the National Football League.

In 2012, the NFL came under the same type of scrutiny “Saturday Night Live” now faces. There were 15 major vacancies (eight head coaches and seven general managers), yet zero minorities were hired. Unlike the TV show, however, the NFL has a rule — the Rooney Rule — that forces teams to interview minorities for jobs such as the ones mentioned above.

While I think the Rooney Rule is dubious at best, it’s something the NFL had to implement.

Technically, it isn’t vital to the league’s financial health for minorities to coach or be general managers. For the sake of public perception, it’s better to have minorities, but it’s not really going to have a tangible effect in terms of performance and profits (at least from what I can tell).

But “Saturday Night Live” is different; its performance is tied directly to the diversity and versatility of its cast, so it doesn’t need its own Rooney Rule. The need for a diverse must therefore guide the show’s hiring decisions. It stands to reason then that many minority comics (not just black people; look at all us Asians, please) really aren’t quite ready yet, and the show recognized that, albeit reluctantly.

Soon enough, though, it will realize that its overwhelming whiteness hurts the overall quality of the show and then it will be forced to go back to the well for new cast members. In the meantime, “Saturday Night Live” will remain in something of a self-deprecating mode regarding this whole white-cast thing. You know why? Because it knows best how badly it needs talented minorities.


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