‘SNL’ Also Expands Diversity Off-Screen Amid ‘Tokenism’ Jab

Jan 9, 2014 11:36am
ht sasheer zamata kab 140108 16x9 608 SNL Also Expands Diversity Off Screen Amid Tokenism Jab

                                                (Picture Credit: Heidi Gutman/ABC)

After hiring its first black female cast member in six years, “Saturday Night Live” is adding two black women to its writing staff as well.

The show has added LaKendra Tookes and Leslie Jones as writers, an NBC spokesman confirmed to ABC News today. The announcement comes just days after comedian Sasheer Zamata was added to the show’s cast.

The two writers were part of recent auditions for “SNL” that focused exclusively on women of color, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

‘Saturday Night Live’ Hires First Black Female Cast Member in Years

The veteran sketch-comedy show has been criticized for its lack of diversity, particularly the absence of black female performers among the 16 cast members. The two black male cast members, Kenan Thompson and Jay Pharoah, complained publicly, and Thompson let it be known he would no longer dress in drag to portray black women.

“SNL” took the matter seriously, with executive producer Lorne Michaels telling The New York Times last month he was holding auditions and that a black woman would be added to the cast this month.

Zamata will make her debut on the show Jan. 18.

A performer at Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theater in New York City and L.A., Zamata, who goes by “Sheer,” also has a Web series called “Pursuit of Sexiness” and does standup comedy. Once a correspondent on ABC’s “Would You Fall for That?” Zamata has appeared on “Inside Amy Schumer” on Comedy Central and “Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell” on FX.

Watch Kerry Washington Take Race Controversy Head On with ‘SNL’

Kerry Washington, who hosted the show in November and played Oprah Winfrey and Michelle Obama in a sketch while a crawl read, “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 tonight,” was one of the first to congratulate Zamata.

“Congrats to #SasheerZamata @thesheertruth on joining @nbcsnl ‘Saturday Night Live’ #SNL !!!!! Have FUN,” Kerry Washington tweeted Monday.

Many have lauded the show for addressing the lack of diversity head on.

“I think Kerry Washington did such a great job,” Tina Fey said in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter before Zamata’s name was announced. “And you saw how great it was for Jay Pharoah to have someone playing Michelle Obama opposite [his President Obama]. So I feel like they registered that really quickly and they’ve acted on it really quickly.”

Chioke Nassor, a writer-director who is on the staff of “Late Night With Seth Meyers,” told The Washington Post, “This is the most vocal I’ve ever seen any ‘SNL’ audition process. This is crazy because this has the most publicity. Usually, they have video submissions and then they call people in and you don’t know who’s being picked or who’s in contention.”

‘SNL’ Welcomes Sasheer Zamata to the Cast

But there has been some criticism, too.

“Zamata’s casting amounts to blatant tokenism,” Variety’s digital editor-in-chief Andrew Wallenstein wrote. “Because no matter how talented this young woman is, the special circumstances surrounding her hire put an asterisk next to her name that wouldn’t have to be there had she just been brought in during the traditional casting process.”

CNN anchor Don Lemon said he believes Zamata will face unfair scrutiny.

“You can … look for a whole lot of scrutiny and criticism from some who are looking for an excuse to say she got her job to fill a quota because she’s black,” Lemon said on Tuesday’s “Tom Joyner Show. “…it probably won’t be easy for Zamata, who, in the glaring spotlight that’s about to be trained on her, is going to have to be a whole lot funnier than she is black.”

“SNL” declined to comment on whether Zamata faces extra scrutiny, and she was unavailable for comment.

But Zamata seems ready for the challenge.

“I’M SO EXCITED!!!” she tweeted Monday.

She also seemed to deflect the attention with, what else, humor.

Alongside a video of her mastering the classic children’s toy Skip-It, Zamata wrote, “Thank you all SO so so so much for all your love and support. I have finally learned how to successfully Skip It. It’s been 7 years since a black woman has been able to Skip It, so it’s a really big deal. Also, I’m not moving to LA. I got a job. Sorry for the confusion. SEE YOU NEXT SATURDAY!!”

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