‘S.N.L.’ to Add Black Female Performer
By Bill Carter
How seriously did “Saturday Night Live” take the furor around its lack of a black female performer?
Seriously enough to hold a special audition Monday night on the “S.N.L.” stage for seven or eight candidates, one of whom will be hired and will join the cast for shows beginning in January.
The show’s creator and executive producer, Lorne Michaels, said in an interview on Thursday that he had committed to that timetable to add the show’s first black woman since Maya Rudolph left the series in 2007. Several casting sessions were held over the last few weeks leading to this week’s audition.
“All told we’ve seen about 25 people,” Mr. Michaels said. “A lot of the people we saw are really good. Hopefully we’ll come out of the process well.”
He said he believed that as many as two performers could potentially be considered, but he did not want to add too many women at this time because the cast already includes five.
“S.N.L.” had been subjected to a barrage of criticism over the last several months over what seemed to be a glaring absence on the comedy show, which has had relatively few black female performers over its long history.
The criticism was kicked off by comments from two of the show’s black cast members, Jay Pharaoh, who said the show needed to “follow up” on the promise to add a black woman, and Kenan Thompson, who announced he did not want to do any more impressions of black women in drag.
Comments reverberated in the media and around the Internet, with Mr. Michaels explaining that his process for selecting cast members was driven purely by talent considerations.
He repeated that point on Thursday, saying, “We’re all about talent. It doesn’t help if somebody’s not ready — and ‘ready’ is one of the charged words. But you want to be sure you give people the best possible shot.”
Mr. Michaels said he had seen two black women performers in Chicago when he was hiring for the show this fall, but “it just wasn’t there in the studio” when they were brought to New York for the final audition. “Then when the deck got reshuffled and as we premiered we realized, it looks a different way.”
That was when a new search began, he said.
The show’s talent department held an audition for about a dozen in Los Angeles at the theater used by the improvisational group The Groundlings on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. Mr. Michaels saw another dozen in New York the following Monday. (The news of the auditions first appeared on the website Gothamist on Thursday, which included a series of tweets from the women who had tried out in Los Angeles.)
Though he did not attribute the surge of interest in securing a black female directly to the criticism the show had faced, Mr. Michaels acknowledged that it was “100 percent good for the show to have an African-American woman” in the cast.
It is not merely because the show could use a woman capable of playing the first lady, Michelle Obama, in sketches, he said, though that was important enough a consideration that all the candidates will be asked to try an impression of her Monday night.
Mr. Michaels said there had been too much focus on how the show had no one to play Mrs. Obama or Beyoncé. “That’s a weird sort of way at looking at it because you don’t judge comedy that way,” Mr. Michaels said. “Versatility is what we look for.”
Mr. Michaels said he could not remember ever adding a new cast member in the middle of its season, but he said he had frequently added players in March or April to work them into the last few shows of a season. This season is different, he said, because NBC’s coverage of the Winter Olympics in February will pre-empt two editions of the show.
Given the attention the issue has received, the woman who makes it onto the cast is certain to be much talked about — and subjected to unusual scrutiny. “That’s one reason we took extra time,” Mr. Michaels said. “You have to be careful to try to protect your players.”
Mr. Michaels will be in the middle of probably the busiest period of his career when all this takes place, because he is also preparing the new “Tonight” show starring Jimmy Fallon and the new edition of “Late Night” with his longtime “S.N.L.” star Seth Meyers.
And then there is the pilot he is working on for NBC’s prime-time schedule, a new take on the traditional television comedy-variety show. The star of that one: the “S.N.L.” alum Maya Rudolph.