No problem has proved tougher to solve at Saturday Night Live than its lack of cast diversity. The great performances of Eddie Murphy or Maya Rudolph can't overshadow the near whiteout of its cast over the last 40 years.
The criticism is nothing new, existing since the original "Not Ready For Primetime Players" took the stage in 1975. But in 2013, with America's white population on the cusp of losing the majority, it's cause for concern.
The glaring omission of minority members intensified over the summer when creator and executive producer Lorne Michaels hired six new cast members to replace departing veterans Bill Hader, Fred Armisen, Jason Sudeikis, and future Late Night host Seth Meyers. All six were white and only one was a woman.
Two days before the season premiere Salon took Saturday Night Live to task, publishing its story "Saturday Night Live's Race Problem." Because of SNL's "narrow perspective," according to FX's Totally Biased host W. Kamau Bell, it doesn't open itself up to alternative styles of comedy. Instead SNL adapts to the comedy found in the similar Upright Citizens' Brigade or The Second City.
"The fact is that the content that comes out of those places is not necessarily the type of content those performers want to create." Bell told Salon, "those performers" being black, Asian, Hispanic or gay and lesbian comedians.
In SNL's history those performers can be counted on one hand starting with Eddie Murphy (1980-84), Chris Rock (1990-93), Tim Meadows (1991-2000), Tracy Morgan (1996-2003), and current star Kenan Thompson (2003). Maya Rudolph (2000-2007) remains the only non-white female to find real success on the NBC sketch show.
Yet Rudolph and Thompson's success provides a template for how the show can triumph over its diversity issue. Rudolph contributed to SNL's female revolution beginning at the turn of the century, snapping a 25-year streak of male domination on the show. Her impressions of Whitney Houston, Michelle Obama and her "Bronx Beat" sketch with Poehler made her a fan favorite.
Thompson joined Saturday Night Live after starring in another Saturday night comedy show, Nickelodeon's All That (1994-99). The children's sketch comedy program featured an equal ratio of white to non-white cast members throughout Thompson's time there. His characters on All That didn't pigeon hole him as black, but rather what made the young audience laugh. On SNL, he's left to perform his impressions of Bill Cosby, Al Sharpton or any iteration of angry black men.
This season marks Thompson's 11th year on Saturday Night Live, breaking Meadow's record for longest running African-American cast member, and he'll become senior cast member after Meyer's departure in December. Whether he can expand the opportunities for fellow cast members like Jay Pharoah (African-American), Nasim Pedrad (Iranian-American), and those that follow is still a mystery.
So what qualified Thompson and Rudolph for Michaels' company and not others who look like them?
Hard to say. Not much is known about the audition process beyond what former cast members have shared about their own experiences over the years.
"Lorne just asked me about myself," Meadows told the New York Times in an August 2013 article entitled "The God of 'SNL' Will See You Now." "I told him I was a big fan of 'SNL' and Monty Python, and Second City and Mel Brooks. Being an African-American, I think I may have surprised him that I was influenced by those things."
Morgan and Michaels found a common bond in fatherhood. "He saw my head was on my family," Morgan said.
One thing's for sure — the comedy of SNL is no laughing matter for Michaels. Late Night host and former cast member Jimmy Fallon was told numerous times throughout his audition process that Michaels didn't laugh during auditions. "I'm like, what is this guy's problem? He's doing a comedy show. Why does he not like to laugh?" Fallon told the Times.
The next challenge for Michaels and SNL is to expand their search for new comedic talents beyond the Chicago and Los Angeles comedy troupes. Of the current cast, 12 of 16 studied with The Second City, Upright Citizens Brigade, or The Groundlings. A diverse array of stand-up comedians performs every night in SNL's backyard at New York's various comedy clubs. The next Jay Pharoah awaits discovery on YouTube with his or her own unique set of impressions.
Saturday Night Live may never achieve a diverse cast on the scale of a Modern Family or Grey's Anatomy, but that doesn't diminish its importance in the legacy of American television and comedy. With such a storied past and continued popularity, SNL bears a responsibility to reach for a wider audience.
Even after the Salon piece, Michaels and SNL are still keeping a sense of humor about the whole thing.
In a sketch called "Member of Arcade Fire or New 'SNL' Cast Member," guest host Tina Fey had to choose between a new featured player and a member of that night's musical guest in order to guess which starred on SNL. She became stumped between SNL's Mike O'Brien and Arcade Fire's Win Butler and asked game show host Thompson to use a lifeline. Enter the man who hired said featured players, Lorne Michaels.
When asked which of the two men was the new cast member, Michaels turned to Thompson and said, "The black one?" Ouch. Give it another year, Thompson. You'll make an impression soon enough.