On the heels of the announcement that Sasheer Zamata is joining the cast comes the news that two black women will be joining the writers’ room at “Saturday Night Live.”
LeKendra Tookes and Leslie Jones will start work on Monday, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
Let’s take a minute to digest that: This is something of a coup because comedy remains a business that is dominated by white men.
“A lot of us on the comedy circuit as black women look up to [Jones] because she has accomplished so much and kicked down doors, as many as she could, being a black woman,” Simone Shepherd, a Los Angeles comedian and actor, told me Wednesday in an interview. Shepherd performed in the December showcase and was part of a smaller group of women, including Tookes and Jones, who were invited to screen test for “SNL” in New York. “This is a great stride for her and it’s so deserving.”
Zamata was hired after “SNL” was publicly criticized – including by its two black male cast members – for not having a black female regular who could portray black women in skits. When Kerry Washington hosted the show in November, it exposed another, arguably bigger problem: Not only did the show not have a black woman in the cast, it wasn’t prepared to write for one, either.
I’ve talked to to black actress after black actress about this, and they all voiced the same concern: the writing has to change.
“That was the thing we talked about the most,” Shepherd said. “If they hire one girl, they have to hire a writer. This is as important as hiring the cast member. Hiring two black writers shows that they plan on really making strides to give these black characters a voice. Whether she’s playing Michelle Obama or Beyoncé, we need black women [writers] to be able to give those black women a voice.
“It is absolutely amazing. It shows me that they’re not just trying to appease the masses because of all of the backlash. It shows that they got it.”
This doesn’t mean that the only people who can write black characters are black. Author Sue Monk Kidd did a beautiful job with “The Secret Life of Bees” and David Simon has been a knockout with “The Wire” and “Treme.” But it does mean that we are intimately acquainted with our experiences in a way many white people are not. That lack of intimacy is evident throughout television: one-dimensional black characters who are thrust into some position of power like a judge or a hospital administrator, but given no real back story. Or you see the Black Best Friend. That’s why Shonda Rhimes is so important. It’s why “Being Mary Jane” debuted to four million viewers last summer. It’s why Issa Rae is on “Forbes’” “30 under 30” list.
Although we probably won’t see Tookes, a former news reporter, or Jones on television, we will see their influence in the skits. They’re the ones who will give voice and life to the characters we see. They’re also the ones who must navigate bearing the weighty responsibility of speaking truth to their colleagues when it’s time to say, “Nope. No black woman would do this, ever.” That’s how things change. That’s how they get better. That same uncomfortable, but necessary dialogue occurs in newsrooms across the country, too.
“Seeing her be able to stand her ground as a black female comedian, I know when she gets in that room with those writers, she’s going to do the same,” Shepherd said. “It makes me feel like, ‘She’s in there. Who knows what’s next?’
“A lot of times, people get into places and they conform. [Jones] is not going to do that.”
So, yes, this is a Very Big Deal.
Remember, before the “30 Rock,” and “Bossypants,” and “Weekend Update,” we didn’t see Tina Fey, either. She ascended from the writers’ room. The possibilities for Tookes and Jones should not be downplayed. That small cadre of writers at 30 Rockefeller Plaza holds real power.
For better or worse, “SNL” is this country’s most visible platform for satire. As much as we might want to argue its irrelevance (I see you commenters, I see you), it reaches millions of people with every broadcast, and it has a hand in shaping our perceptions of public figures. Just look at Fey and her legendary send-up of former Alaska governor Sarah Palin.
And it’s still a holy grail for many comedians and comic actors. Jordan Peele of “Key and Peele” told Terry Gross he was invited to audition/join the cast, but he couldn’t get out of his contract with “Mad TV” at the time. If he could, he would have jumped ship.
“That was a huge disappointment,” Peele said during the “Fresh Air” interview. “The big, the most disappointing part, besides the fact that, you know, like I said, that had always been a dream, to be on that show for obvious reasons, but, you know, after spending eight years away from New York, nine years, or whatever it was, I desperately wanted to go back. … Not being able to was, I think, ultimately served as a huge motivation, you know, to end of doing what I’m doing now – which is, you know, we have our own show, it all kind of worked out for the best, of course. But, yeah, that was the biggest blow in my career.”
A look at Tookes’ character reel:
And Jones at the Laugh Factory: