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Is There Room for Women of Color In TV Comedy?

Is There Room for Women of Color In TV Comedy?

Last week, Amy Schumer made waves with the third season premiere of her sketch show, “Inside Amy Schumer.” The episode mocked everything from ageism in Hollywood to the absurdity of rape culture in a “Friday Night Lights” parody that quickly went viral. The premiere was a big one, drawing in an impressive two million viewers in the 18-34 demo and cementing Schumer not only as a vital Comedy Central star but also the comedy “it girl” of the moment. Schumer also has her first feature, “Trainwreck,” which she wrote and stars in, opening this summer on July 17. Her rising popularity could be described as the culmination of a distinctive new moment for women in comedy on TV, a moment where brash, unapologetic humor with a decidedly feminist slant is breaking its way into the mainstream.

Schumer’s growing success makes sense. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s strong, neurotic and sympathetic characters on “30 Rock” and “Parks and Rec” certainly made room for her to not only exist but thrive in primetime alongside fellow Comedy Central stars Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson of “Broad City.” While Fey and Poehler had to contend with questions about if women can be funny (in the 21st century!), Schumer and the “Broad City” girls are subverting and expanding preconceived notions of how women can be funny — scatalogical jokes, stoner humor and “pegging” are not off limits.

Still, if we look at the landscape of women writing and/or starring in their own scripted comedies on television, it is incredibly limited. The lanscape is still incredibly white and, as the tide turns towards Schumer-style comedy, the danger is of TV comedy becoming — or is that remaining? — incredibly homogenous. “Jane the Virgin,” “Fresh Off the Boat” and “Black-ish” are doing great things. And breakout shows like “Empire” and Mara Brock Akil’s popular BET melodrama “Being Mary Jane” continue to prove that diverse casts can garner high ratings numbers. The success of primetime dramas like these (and “Scandal” and “How to Get Away With Murder”) suggests that TV diversity is increasing — but not in all genres.

If we’re strictly talking about scripted comedy shows executive produced, written by, and starring a woman of color, there are currently only two network shows that meet that criteria: “Cristela” and “The Mindy Project.” Last year, Cristela Alonzo made history when she became the first Latina to create, produce, write and star in her own primetime comedy. The sitcom premiered on ABC with strong numbers, but gradually fell in the ratings and received criticism for being too stereotypically “Mexican” — it likely won’t return for a second season. Meanwhile, “The Mindy Project,” created by Indian-American Mindy Kaling, is in television limbo too. After a cliffhanger ending in March, the show has yet to be renewed, and rumors are swirling that it might also be cancelled.  

If “The Mindy Project” and “Cristela” go, there might be no women of color at the helms of comedy TV shows next year — and possibly for some time. There has, of course, been a long history of women comics of color playing the sidekick or the best friend on comedy shows, but rarely at the forefront of a series. And if they are the stars, rarely do they also enjoy creative control. A few mined from the past are Margaret Cho’s 1994 sitcom “All-American Girl,” black “SNL” alum Ellen Cleghorne’s 1995 sitcom “Cleghorne!,” and Wanda Sykes’ “Wanda At Large,” which aired for two seasons in 2003. All were cancelled early.

Today, who are the non-white comediennes being groomed for their own Amy Schumer moment? There are people who should have gotten their own shows years ago, like Aisha Tyler. Maya Rudolph, who shined on “SNL” and “Up All Night,” hasn’t had her variety show pilot for NBC picked up. Issa Rae, creator of the webseries “The Adventures of An Awkward Black Girl,” has been anointed the “black Tina Fey,” but we’re still waiting for updates on her HBO pilot “Insecure.”

There’s a reason why the comedy “it girl” is always white, because whiteness is the default. These “it girls” are sold as different or subversive — for years on “30 Rock,” we were asked to suspend disbelief and think of Liz Lemon as plain and “chubby.” Now we’re supposed to think of Schumer the same way. The dangers of these comedy “it girls” (through no fault of their own) is that they tend to become representative of some larger idea that, in fact, is not representative at all. This continues to happen with Fey, a white feminist hero who has in fact been consistently alienating to other groups of women (her transgressions include numerous rape jokes, transphobic jokes and the use of blackface during her tenures at “SNL” and “30 Rock.” Not to mention the strange and unnecessary Native American subplot on “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.”

But this isn’t simply about black, brown, Latina, and Asian women not being able to relate or see themselves as those comedy “it girls” — “seeing yourself” in media is not the only criterion for being able to connect with a movie or a TV show. The new feminist and political energy of this current moment in female comedy is exciting, but there is also the “70 cents to a dollar” effect — misogyny and sexism affect all women, but they affect us in very different ways, and sometimes that’s not always reflected. White women get paid 78 cents for every dollar a white man makes, for example, but black women earn 64 cents and Latina women earn just 53 cents compared to that same white-male standard. By the same token, a white female comic can own her sexuality very differently from a black one.

Conversations about diversity, especially diversity on TV, always have the tendency to go in circles. The same obvious point is returned to over and over again: We need more people of color creating and starring in content. We need more than one “black Tina Fey.” That’s a given. But what’s perhaps more interesting to explore here isn’t where the women of color are, but if there’s any room truly being made for them in this distinctive moment.

What’s great about Schumer is that she stands as a reminder that many kinds of female comics can exist and thrive at one time. She may be dubbed the new “it girl,” but more importantly, she’s a reminder that there’s more out there than Fey and Poehler. And, therefore, there’s more out there than Schumer. Jacobson and Glazer were discovered via the web, as was Rae, and currently there is an untapped well of comedic talent that needs more exposure — series like Cecile Emeke’s “Ackee and Saltfish” or Sam Bailey’s “You’re So Talented.” While the media tends to choose one “it girl” to focus on at a time, perhaps the most exhilarating thing about the growing success of women in comedy is that soon they will not be put on impossible pedestals. But until that happens, it remains to be seen if women of color in TV comedy will get the kind of attention they deserve.

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