Debra Wilson says she left MADtv due to pay disparity with 'white male cast members'
In a recent interview with Comedy Hype News, the comedian and actress said she left MADtv in 2003 after discovering a pay disparity between her and more recent white male cast members, which she said the show was unwilling to address.
"I was a tenured cast member from the beginning, from pilot, and people were coming in after me making more than me," Wilson told hosts Symphony Thompson and Pierre. "And when I realized there were white male cast members who were coming in after me making more than me I went, 'Okay, can we talk about this?' And the answer essentially was no."
Wilson was the first Black female cast member on MADtv, which debuted in 1995, and the longest-serving original cast member. She created popular characters such as Tovah McQueen and Bunifa Latifah Halifah Sharifa Jackson, and her most recognized impressions included Oprah Winfrey and Whitney Houston.
Wilson said when found out her contributions weren't being appreciated, she wasn't having it.
"What I wanted to do and what I wanted to create on that show did not hit a glass ceiling," she said. "But when I was told that 'All the things you want to create and be on the show has a monetary value, and we don't value it as much as the new people coming in,' that's when I left."
Asked about the exact difference between the salaries, Wilson responded that it was "irrelevant," and her decision to leave was more about the principle, plus the fact that she "was still the original Black woman on the show."
"It's not about just dollars and cents," she said. "It's devaluing, or what I felt was devaluing, of what I'm bringing to the table and can continue to bring to the table."
What's worse, she added, "There wasn't even a negotiation to raise it, let alone to match somebody else… Had they just said, 'You know what, Debra, we're going to raise your salary. It won't match his but we are going to raise it,' I would have stayed."
Along with Wilson, the original MADtv cast members were Bryan Callen, David Herman, Orlando Jones, Phil LaMarr, Artie Lange, Mary Scheer, and Nicole Sullivan. Players later added to the cast included Alex Borstein, Will Sasso, Michael McDonald, Frank Caliendo, and of course Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele. The sketch show, which garnered a cult following during its tenure, wrapped in 2009 and was briefly revived in 2016.
After leaving MADtv, Wilson appeared in Scary Movie 4, reprising her Oprah impression, and did voice work in movies like Over the Hedge and Hotel Transylvania 2. On TV, she's lent her voice to Family Guy, All Hail King Julien, and The Boondocks, and had guest roles on comedies such as Reno 911 and 2 Broke Girls.
In 2016, Wilson reflected on MADtv and how despite facing budget obstacles, the show was able to turn so many heads.
"When MADtv finally came along and hit the late-night market, they were extremely encouraged and said, 'Let's put our money into it,'" she told Vulture. "However, once we had a foothold in the market, they got very comfortable. They began to cut the budget. 'Keep doing what you're doing, but we're gonna give you less to do it.'"
She added, "We still get mad respect. I shaved my head, my entire body is covered with tattoos, and still I get stopped on a regular basis, either because somebody recognizes my voice, or they still see my eyes. That show still gets mad props, because it was groundbreaking in its envelope-pushing. It doesn't have to be on for the number of years Saturday Night Live is to have an iconic force out into the world."
When MADtv was revived on the CW, Wilson did return for an appearance, along with Sullivan, Borstein, Spears, and other previous cast members.