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The economics behind SNL cast’s lack of diversity

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Unfortunately, even in the year 2013, there are still places in America where it’s newsworthy when someone hires a black woman. One of those places is Saturday Night Live. And it turns out, there are economic reasons for why the iconic sketch show has been so white and so male for so long, as conversations with a variety of black comics reveal.

The show has long faced criticism for its failings on diversity. It recently turned its problem into a joke, in an episode where guest host Kerry Washington had to play every black female role. An announcer apologized, promising producers will hire a black female cast member “unless of course, we fall in love with another white guy first.”

Now the show says it’ll add at least one black female cast member next year. Producers have been holding special auditions to find her. Over the years, executives have said they want to cast talented black females, but can’t find them.

“When they say there aren’t any women that they’ve seen, what’s really being said is we haven’t seen people that impressed us where we have normally been looking,” says comedian Chloe Hilliard.

The main places SNL producers look are the best-known improv comedy groups: UCB Theatre, Second City and The Groundlings. Many of SNL’s biggest stars got their starts on these stages. The groups on those stages can be as white or whiter than SNL casts are. The interplay of race and class helps explain why.

“With a lot of these places that have become sort of these comedy factories, it’s a pay to play scenario,” says comedian Cyrus McQueen.

Before young comics can perform at these influential stages, they typically have to pay for improv classes there. Even when they earn substantial stage time, performances rarely pay. That makes for a tilted playing field advantaging those who have sufficient funds (or sufficiently supportive parents) to pay for classes, perform for free and still be able to pay their bills. Many funny people of color get left out.

“As a young black person, when I first got out of college, I had to go get a job, a real job that would support me,” says comic Jina Johnson.

In the end, it seems the comedy scene doesn’t just favor white people. It favors rich white people, and will continue to, until producers in power look a little harder.

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