Wednesday, January 8, 2014

SNL’s "Diversity Problem" and the White Chitlin Circuit

By: Ben Johnson


I’m a white guy. I like to think of myself as a funny white guy, even. I’ve been run through the ensemble comedy-training mill at the Second City and iO comedy theaters in Chicago. I had a good run at these places. I went on a couple of cruise ships with Second City. I got to see Europe on somebody else’s dime, and list my occupation as “professional comedian” on a 1040. I performed at iO in one way or another for six or seven years. I was an ensemble member at ComedySportz Chicago, where I got the chance to visit and perform for, and be met by near total indifference in, such exotic locales as Port Huron, Michigan and Granville, Ohio. I did pretty well for myself. And then I stopped.

There are a lot of reasons why I quit performing at these places. Most of them are personal. A lot of them had to do with my own proprietary blend of alcoholism and existential dread and unacceptable behavior. In more cases than I probably even know, I burned bridges. As I rounded the curve into my 30’s, I found myself miserable and lonely, in a dark place, and doing improv and comedy at these theaters was not helping me be a person I liked. So I stepped away, and that helped me. Not because the theaters are bad, but because I was bad in them.

I mention all of this only to point out that I am an unreliable narrator in this story. Anything I say about comedy should be taken with a grain of road-grade salt. It’s not that I’m bitter, I just formed my opinions on a lot of this stuff while laboring through an extended adolescence in an alcoholic stupor. Any observations I’ve made on the subject of comedy theaters tend to come from a place of desperate denial of personal culpability. So I might go too far. That’s just my way.


Comedy fans have probably heard about the recent uproar over finding a black female cast member for SNL. Lorne Michaels just hired Sasheer Zamata after a months long controversy resulted in an intensive talent search. I’m not familiar with her work but I’m sure she’s qualified for the job. I wish her the best on the show, as I also wish the best for all the other talented ladies also under consideration who for whatever reason (probably “fit” more than talent) didn’t get the gig.

In the broil leading up to this hire there have been discussions of diversity in comedy which have pointed a finger at the developmental theaters with varying degrees of accuracy. The cast of Saturday Night Live tends not to be particularly diverse. But the group of performers and students at the country’s more prestigious developmental ensemble comedy theaters is also not particularly ethnically diverse. The two appear to be related. I think we can all agree on these premises, and if you can’t do that without hurt feelings, slap a “but they’re trying, honestly, they’re really all trying so hard, and nobody is a bad person here” qualifier on it if it makes you feel better.

I think it’s fairly acceptable to posit that if the developmental theaters amount to a years-long unpaid (or underpaid) apprenticeship in comedy, it should follow that enrollment would favor those who are most equipped to live a temporary low-income lifestyle while pursuing a career which offers a statistically small opportunity for sustained financial stability. I’d be interested to see a full-scale demographic study of comedy theater students and performers which takes income, age, marital and family status, family background, and education into account, in addition to ethnicity. I’m sure such a study would find more trends at these places than just whiteness.

Based purely on conjecture of the qualities most likely to sustain somebody through years of comedy learning, and having spent my own time at these places and seen how they operate, I have a few educated guesses about the extended demographic makeup of the average comedy incubator performer/student. I’d surmise that the numbers would skew even more young than they skew white. I’d guess that singles would vastly outnumber married people, and the average number of dependents per household would be very low. I’d expect that a majority of performers are college-educated and come from upper-middle class backgrounds in areas where the average household income is above average and the per capita rates of teenage pregnancy, crime, imprisonment, and poverty are below national averages. I’d imagine that a common denominator in the demographics of the performers at these places is a lack of fiduciary responsibility to the wellbeing of others in their families, extended families, and communities. These people would tend to be all sorts of things other than just white. Straight, probably. Native English-speakers, probably.

None of this ensures privilege or precludes diversity. There are people of all ethnicities who are educated, childless, native-English speaking, straight, 20-something singles from relatively small nuclear families and upper-middle class backgrounds. There are just more white people than any other kind in at least four of the nine characteristics of that group. There are also plenty of (great—remember, you’re all great, and you should all keep doing what you’re doing) comedy performers and students at these theaters who are not college educated, or childless, or native-English speaking, or straight, or 20-something, or single, or from a small family, or from an upper-middle class background. I’m just talking averages and dealing in the broad generalities of statistics. Made up ones at that. There are no value judgments. Yet. But it would sure seem like some of the self-selection happening within the demography of these institutions predisposes participants to being white, and not just white, but a particular kind of white. I’d love to be proven wrong on this. I don’t think I would be.

I don’t have any actual data on the socio-economic background of comedy theater students and performers. Somebody who cares more than I do would have to go get it. All I have for data is about ten years of using my eyeballs and mouthballs (like eyeballs but for talking to people). I don’t really care if I’m right about the specifics so long as we can agree on the underlying premise that there are economic reasons behind everything, even something as inconsequential as how come there aren’t many black people performing unfunny improv at some shitty storefront theater that Lorne Michaels visits once a year.

Most areas of demographic exclusion at these comedy-training houses do not seem to matter. There is no lobby for more representation of America’s working class middle-aged married people with three kids among the up-and-coming comedians on the Saturday Night Live cast. Maybe there should be, but their absence is not viewed as an injustice. It’s Saturday Night Live. It’s supposed to be comprised of young, hip, urban people. We just kind of accept that. SNL doesn’t have to be all things to all people, but when none of the young, hip, urban people in its cast are young, hip, urban black females, that’s a glaring omission. Maybe it’s not as far as SNL is concerned, though. Maybe SNL, like pretty much all TV shows, is a white show. By and for white people, plus whoever else happens to like it. I’m not saying this is a good thing. I’m saying maybe it is a thing.

Looking at the performers and the students at these comedy theaters is only one part of the equation. Saying “people on SNL are white because the performers at the comedy theaters that train people for SNL are also white” doesn’t tell us anything. Why are they white? What benefit is it to the comedy theaters, or to SNL, to have their performers be so overwhelmingly white (in addition to educated, and young, and probably also good looking and all those other things)? Oh. Wait. The “good looking” joke tipped me off. It’s the audience.

The performers are white because the audience is white. The audience is white because the performers are white. It’s a chicken-and-the-egg debate. If you understand evolution, the answer is egg. There was an egg, a non-chicken other thing egg, and out of that other thing egg sprang a first mutant bird thing which later we called a chicken. Eventually other mutant chicken bird things showed up, and they did well, so a “chicken” became a thing. But the egg was first. Definitely egg. The audience is the egg. Somebody had a show and then the audience was the egg and then the show cracked open and there was a mutant, and it evolves from there.

The preferred audience for any form of entertainment business concern, because we’re talking about probability here, is the portion of people in America who are most likely to spend $36.50 a ticket to see a Second City show, or pay for the things advertised during commercials in the SNL broadcast, or just in general have disposable income they use for entertainment. And those people, demographically, tend to be white, as surely as the type of people who would want to perform at a comedy theater tend to also be white, and as surely as people with money tend to be white. I’m not saying white people are the only people with money, or that white people are the only people who spend their money on entertainment, or even that having more money than other people is good. I’m dealing in generalities because that’s what statistics and probabilities are about. Based on those generalities, the most probable method of economic success in comedy involves entertaining the portion of the population most likely to spend money on entertainment, and those people are white.

So, chicken or the egg, comedy practitioners who want to insure the greatest likelihood of financial success for themselves are going to, over time, tailor their performances towards upper middle class white people. This means that developmental “feeder” places such as Second City, iO, UCB, Groundlings, etc., are also looking to capture the white upper middle class entertainment dollar. They accomplish this in different ways, as they all have different business models, but they all combine some amount of “come here and study and learn to be funny in the same place as other successful comedians did previously” and “come here and see a show where tomorrow’s successful comedians are currently performing.” The narrative of these theaters is of emergence and success, and that ascendancy tends (again, tends) to follow a white upper middle class-friendly rubric. These places might as well say “learn how to make upper middle class white people laugh, and/or if you’re an upper middle class white person, come here and see the people who are going to be making you laugh in the future.”

These theaters, as businesses, have evolved into something like a chitlin circuit for the white upper middle class. Because they do not pay their performers (or do not pay them terribly well compared to, say, a nurse or a school bus driver) in an industry which offers no guarantee of future employment or advancement, the comedy on their stages is performed by mostly white upper middle class unattached young people. And if the theater wants to give itself the best chance to succeed in attracting top talent to learn a version of the craft of comedy which is most obviously tied to future earnings, its audience will also mostly be comprised of white upper middle class people. The theaters will position themselves in white upper middle class areas, and market themselves primarily through white upper middle class media outlets. They will pursue synergistic partnerships with other white upper middle class businesses, and seek ever greater white upper middle class exposure. They will do so not because they are expressly advocating racial exclusion, but simply because they’re trying to stay afloat and make a buck, and the white upper middle class people are where the entertainment consumer money is concentrated. In theory. Practices may vary at these places. (They don’t).

So it would seem to make a lot of sense that the style of comedy that is learned and practiced at these places is predominantly white upper middle class-style comedy. An apprenticeship at these places offers the opportunity to performers of all colors and backgrounds to learn what amounts to rich white person comedy. These theaters are labs in which white upper middle class mores are espoused and lampooned and bent and expanded and parsed and milked for comedic value. From every angle. All the time. These places, and the young, cheap talent they hope to attract, have been chasing that white person entertainment budget dollar for so long that the concepts and directives learned from such a chase have insinuated themselves into institutionalized cultural values of what is and is not funny. 

There are definitely exceptions. But if you threw a dart, blindfolded, at the schedule at one of these places, you would be unlikely to hit a show where a group of predominantly non-whites perform for an audience of predominantly non-whites. You might hit the "hey look, it's all the black people show" eventually if somebody gave you about a hundred darts, but even then you'd get no assurances about the audience's racial makeup. That's a shame, because the comedy that comes from these places would be infinitely enriched by any performers who aren't currently figuring out the difference between funny and not funny by doing lame jokes about Tinder hookups by and for an army of white 23 year old recent liberal arts B.A. graduates. Unfortunately, these places have no real incentive to change. As long as they can put Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele on their promotional materials, they're already as diverse as they'll ever need to be.

So for now and in the forseeable future, these places are going to teach people how to do white upper middle class comedy. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, by the way. Other viewpoints would be great, but knowing what you know and making it work is okay. The teachers and peer groups at these places, through their combined experiences, do know an awful lot about how to do white upper middle class comedy. And they do share this immense knowledge with less experienced performers, and there is value in that information exchange. Nobody can teach anybody how to be their own exact individual perfect kind of funny, but there are some shortcuts that can speed up the development process, such as “Don’t force an audience to watch you shove a stick of butter up your ass unless you’ve really REALLY earned it” (not an actual quote of anybody). And some of these shortcuts into white upper middle class comedy offer occasional fleeting and precious glimpses into universal human truths, because even white upper middle class people are humans. AND, most importantly, these places attract other talented people with whom you can try to figure this stuff out.

These places are not comedy Nazis. They're just functioning in the unjust world we all live in, trying to stay afloat, and entertaining white upper middle class people is the most surefire way to do that. But because of various and systematic and unfair economic imperatives already discussed, any student/performer at these places is going to be learning an institutionalized, white upper middle class version of ethnic comedy, and nobody should delude themselves about that.

The bigger problem than the lack of diversity at these places is in the way these theaters tend to call their own developed style of comedy just “comedy” instead of "white comedy." And they have to seem confident in their knowledge of “comedy.” This springs from financial necessity, since nobody would pay money to take a comedy class from an overt racist or somebody who tells you right off the bat that they don’t know what the fuck they’re doing.

To further explore semantics: you hear the words “black” or “female” or “Latino” or “alternative” or “queer,” or tellingly, “blue collar” to modify “comedian,” but you never hear somebody described as an “upper middle class” or “white” or “straight” or “male” comedian. Upper middle class straight white dude comedians are just “comedians.” Their comedy ethnicity and gender and sexuality and socioeconomic status is normative. This is not necessarily the result of conscious exclusion on the part of a few comedy theaters. It’s an issue as complicated and as insidiously unconscious as any facet of predominant culture in a global society which siphons its resources overwhelmingly and with brutal efficiency to the relatively rich, relatively white, and relatively male among us. Rich white dudes get what they want, and if the poor or blacks or Latinos don’t think 30 Rock or Arrested Development is funny because they’re not in the target demo, too bad. I’m sure there are other places who will pander to your sensibilities. The biggest institutions with the most money to spend on talent are interested in pandering to the people who have the most money. Learn that and you’ll have a chance to succeed in showbiz. Kid. (Chomps on cigar).

Of course I’m being reductive. It’s reductive to say that black people don’t think Arrested Development is funny. I’m sure plenty of black people think that show is funny. I know this: white people definitely think it’s funny. What’s not to like about it? The people who are on it are white people, and they’re always saying funny white people things. Get it: this one guy has casually decided to always ride a Segway, one of those dorky wheeled things that retail for $8,000. Classic hilarity. Ah ha ha. I think we can all relate to how silly and frivolous that would be.

You know, comedy. Regular comedy. The kind of thing regular people like, with regular people elements such as erudite wordplay and ceaseless depictions of consequence-free consumerism. Maybe if you want to say it’s different than other kinds of comedy, you could call it “smart” comedy. For smart people. Not those idiots rooting around in the muck at the bottom of the economic food chain, too dumb to pump the system for a law degree. You know, “smart” comedy.

Excuse the hyperbole. I’m trying to make a point. There is no such thing as “regular” comedy, is my point. There are styles of comedy which multiple people learn and practice, and one very VERY prevalent style is white upper middle class comedy. That’s actually okay. White upper middle class people can laugh. They’re not necessarily bad people. I’m one of them. I don’t want to have to think of myself as a bad person just because my life has been way easier than most people’s. If your life was as easy as mine, you’d probably still find ways to think it’s hard. I’m going to die at the end of it. That’s not fun to know. I know my life is easier than other people, and that makes me feel bad because I know I haven’t really earned it. I don’t think I should also have to feel like an asshole for laughing when Dwight Schrute says something weird which appeals to my background as an upper middle class white guy. Laughter tends to be a good thing. It tends to put people in a better mood, so they can be on the planet without acting like uptight douchebags.

Anyway, Saturday Night Live just hired a black woman who is, presumably, conversant in white upper middle class comedy. That’s good. Even if the only thing she ever does on the show is caricatures of black female characters whose sole purpose in context is to reference their relative blackness and femaleness, that’s better than the portrayal of a world wholly uninhabited by such characters. White upper middle class people need to be taught and reminded that their world includes people whose reality is not white or upper middle class. The hope is, on average, that even a white upper middle class-styled entertainment landscape with more Sasheer Zamatas in it will skew our culture away from rich white dudes in line at Starbucks who apparently think it’s okay to be a total dick to a black woman. That would be great. Those guys are the worst.

What would be even more good was if black women, or Filipinos, or transgendered auto mechanics were as economically empowered as white upper middle class dudes, and if that empowerment trickled into genuine, recognizable, unique and sustainable cultural institutions which would foster individualized discoveries of universal human truth, and their resultant work would reach across all demographic groups to help us all better understand ourselves as one people on one planet. But we’d fuck that up too, probably. Instead we can just call white comedy what it is, and not get too wrapped up in insisting that white comedy tropes are the most effective ones, or that white comedy institutions are necessarily the only or best places for individual comedians to learn and hone their craft. And we can maybe spend a lot less time giving a shit about what’s happening with white-ass whitey white white 40 year old establishment comedy factory SNL and more time all doing our own thing and trying to make it work. That would be good for all of us.