What’s Funny About a Diversity Program for Comedy? Nothing!

Ladies and gentlemen, mark your calendars. On January 18, CBS is hosting its Annual Diversity Sketch Comedy Showcase in Los Angeles. They are looking for “Male or female, 18+, open ethnicity… focused on African American, Asian American/Pacific Islander, Latinx, Native American performers, performers with disabilities, and LGBTQ performers with an emphasis on individuals with extensive sketch comedy experience.”

The only caveat is this: If you decide to participate in this improv affirmative action exercise, you can’t complain when the people who run the showcase put you in a certain racial, ethnic or sexual orientation category. Because apparently that’s what’s happened in the past.

According to a recent report on Slate (which drew on reporting from an article on New York magazine’s Vulture website):

Program participants were frequently subjected to demeaning language from [the initiative’s former director Rick Najera and casting director Fern Orenstein]—the latter reportedly called people based on their ethnicity (“Jew girl,” “Mexican girl”) and told one woman that they “already [had] a fat girl” and didn’t need another one, among other instances detailed in the piece. Najera, for his part, is said to have told students in the 2015 season that the reason there were so many white guy writers in their showcase was because “We just want to make sure the show will be funny.” Other participants … recalled being forced to play baffling, outdated stereotypes—to “act foreign,” “black it up,” to twirl (if you were gay).

Wait, you’re kidding! A diversity program that treats individuals as if they are merely ticking the right racial box on a diversity check-list? Shocking.

Here’s a newsflash, folks. This is exactly what affirmative action is. Even if people don’t say it out loud, admissions officers at colleges are thinking to themselves—we have enough Jews and Asians. Now we need get some more blacks and Hispanics. And when it comes time to take pictures for the website, they will find the kids who look the most “foreign,” the most “black” or the most “gay” to feature on it. That’s how they show potential applicants and the diversity police that they have checked the right boxes.

Needless to say, the relevant individuals in this scandal have been fired and CBS will redouble its efforts to ensure a rainbow of comics at the next event. The website proudly announces, “To date, across all categories, 376 actors have appeared in the CBS Diversity Talent Showcases and as a direct result there have been 3,275 auditions and from those auditions actors have landed 646 roles.”

But the next round of folks auditioning for such slots should take note that if they decide to engage in this charade, they might end up being cast in roles that are specifically for people of their racial or ethnic background. And there may be stereotyping involved.

If you want to know why our comedy shows are so anodyne when it comes to topics like race or sexual orientation, there might be a hint in this episode. If you show up to a casting event specifically for gay comics and the host of the event tells you to “twirl,” how can you possibly take offense? (And by the way, is there really a shortage of gay improv artists out there? And how would the audience know that you were gay in real life if you were just playing a part on television?)

Finally, if you want to come to a comedy showcase, maybe you should take yourself a little less seriously.

Image: CBS

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