'SNL' auditioners, W. Kamau Bell weigh in on talent search & new hires
On November 8, New York-based comedian Kerry Coddett (pictured, left) fired shots at Saturday Night Live with an editorial published on the Atlantic‘s website. In it, she blasted the notion that the show’s cast hadn’t featured a black woman in years because — as longtime repertory player Kenan Thompson said in a widely-circulated interview last fall — “in auditions, they just never find ones that are ready.” Coddett contended instead that SNL‘s diversity problems were endemic and ingrained. “Perhaps it’s not that black women aren’t ‘ready’ for SNL; it’s that SNL isn’t ready for a black woman,” she wrote.
Less than a month later, a rep from Saturday Night Live invited Coddett to audition for the show.
“I didn’t know anything about the audition until I got there,” she told EW in an interview Wednesday. “Going into it, I was like ‘Ha, wouldn’t it be funny if there were only black women here?’ And that’s what it was.”
Coddett was among around two dozen performers featured in two unpublicized SNL showcases for black female talent — the first at The Groundlings Theater in Los Angeles on Dec. 1, the second at the People’s Improv Theater in New York on Dec. 2. On some level, Coddett says, she was disappointed that the show had to rely on a special, separate audition process in order to find black women who were “ready” for its spotlight. “You can’t be a black female comic and not realize that we’re the minority, but you don’t want to be tokenized,” she says. “It kind of sucks that now we can’t separate our race or our gender from our talent. We’re just comics first.”
Comedian Simone Shepherd (pictured, right), who auditioned at the L.A. showcase, agrees — though she adds that several of the comedians present, herself included, hadn’t necessarily considered auditioning for SNL before the showcase because they had gotten used to not seeing women of color in its cast. “The other African-American women who have been cast members haven’t done much [after leaving the show], except for Maya Rudolph,” she explains. (As of its most recently aired episode, SNL has featured just four black female cast members in 38 years: Yvonne Hudson, Danitra Vance, Ellen Clegohorne, and Rudolph.) “You see people coming off SNL and they have these amazing careers,” Shepherd continues, “but the African American women hadn’t.”
Generally, though, Coddett and Shepherd found the auditions exciting and eye-opening — and suffused with a surprising amount of camaraderie, considering the competitive circumstances. “It was a very supportive group,” remembers Coddett. “We were all just so excited, because in that moment, we felt like we were a part of history.” Shepherd echoes her sentiment: “In my mind, I thought this moment and this opportunity was just such an amazing feat already.” She even commemorated the evening by posting a group shot of L.A.’s 11 auditioners on Instagram, complete with tags naming every woman pictured. (A few days later, Shepherd took down the photo; she admits to worrying that its presence on her Instagram page might hurt her chances of getting cast, “especially because we had been asked at that point not to speak to the press.”)
Both Coddett and Shepherd made it to the audition’s second round, in which they were asked to screen test at SNL‘s New York City studio. There, too, the auditioners socialized more SNL hopefuls typically do — “We were standing in the hallways, hanging out, laughing and talking,” Shepherd recalls. Everyone at the show was “really gracious” to the 12 women who got callbacks; at one point, according to Shepherd, head writer Seth Meyers even came out and spoke to the group. “Whether it was a performance or not,” she says, “it felt sincere.”
Neither Coddett nor Shepherd ended up getting hired by SNL. Even so, they say they’re thrilled for auditioner Sasheer Zamata, who was tapped to be the show’s newest featured player — and perhaps even more excited that the series also hired Leslie Jones and LaKendra Tookes as writers. By bringing in Jones and Tookes, SNL triples the number of black writers on its staff; standup comic Michael Che, who joined the show full-time last fall, was previously the only one in the room this season. “Unless you have more diversity in the writers’ room, then Sasheer or anyone else that got that part might be forced to play the same old stereotypical roles,” Coddett points out, noting also that this was the case even when SNL addressed the diversity issue head-on earlier this season: “When I turn on TV, I only see black women that are loud, aggressive, angry. It’s the same thing that I saw when they brought Kerry Washington on.”
SNL, of course, is far from the nation’s only comedy outlet, and Coddett especially cautions that it should not be the “end all, be all” that some performers and many viewers paint it as. “There’s so much pressure, and I think some of it might be a little bit unfair,” she says, “because one show shouldn’t be required to, like, save the comedy world and answer all the world’s diversity needs.” Its issues are also hardly unique; institutions like the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, The Second City, and the Harvard Lampoon, where many future SNL stars and writers get their start, can be tough nuts to crack for women and minorities alike. (Sasheer Zamata’s first improv team, Doppelganger, was so named because she and her teammates were “the only three black women at the UCB,” according to Coddett. “People kept confusing them with each other…When I started at the UCB, people were like, ‘Are you in Doppelganger too?’ And I’m just like, ‘Yeah, we’re interchangeable. That’s what it is.'”)
Still, there’s no denying that SNL still reigns supreme as pop culture’s most prominent sketch showcase — especially in a world where network competitors like In Living Color and Mad TV no longer exist. It’s easy to see why viewers hold it to such a high standard. But despite the hoopla surrounding their hiring — and the unusual way in which they were scouted — Coddett and Shepherd both say that they hope the show’s new additions will eventually be known for their comedic prowess alone rather than being defined by their race and gender. Shepherd cites a point made by CNN’s Don Lemon when he interviewed her about the auditions earlier this week: “He said, ‘She better be funnier than she is black.’ It’s the truth, because I know as much as people wanted a black woman on the show, we don’t just want a black woman. We want her to be represented as funny, equal to all of her counterparts.”
When the show returns from its winter hiatus January 18, Coddett is hoping to see Zamata play “a character where her blackness is not the punchline.” Shepherd is simply “expecting funny.” Maybe, though, we’d all do well to tamper our expectations — at least initially — and heed the words of another comedy insider: W. Kamau Bell, who frequently tackled thorny issues like race on his late, lamented FX show Totally Biased. (He’s also worked with Zamata before; she played a “black hipster” in a Totally Biased sketch last year.)
“I’m just a little bit afraid for her that the Internet is going to be so reactive that if the first thing she does isn’t killer, it’s going to reflect on her in some [negative] way,” Bell tells EW. “I think we’d all do this whole thing a favor if we just shut up and watched, and then in a year we all sort of weighed in on what happened.”
“You know, thank God we couldn’t live-tweet Jackie Robinson’s first at-bat in major league baseball,” adds Bell. “Maybe he would have folded under the pressure.”