Does "SNL" have a lady quota?

The sketch show hires a pair of female cast members ... and fires two others

Published September 8, 2009 2:09PM (EDT)

Last Wednesday, I was excited to report that "Saturday Night Live" had hired two additional female cast members. In the wake of last year's successful season -- which brought both Tina Fey's dead-on Sarah Palin impression and Kristen Wiig's breakout triumph after Amy Poehler's departure from the show -- it seemed producer Lorne Michaels was finally acknowledging the show needed more funny ladies to balance out its largely male cast. And new hires Jenny Slate and Nasim Pedrad seemed poised to fit the bill.

But, as Broadsheet went dark over Labor Day weekend, we learned that Slate and Pedrad would be replacing a pair of newly fired female "SNL" cast members, Casey Wilson and Michaela Watson. And since Pedrad and Slate will be featured performers -- rather than full repertory players -- it seems Wiig is looking at another season as the show's overworked, all-purpose lady entertainer, running breathlessly from one sketch to the next. (There's been no word yet as to whether Abby Elliott, last season's other new featured performer, will be promoted.)

Of course, things have looked bad for Wilson for a while. Although she was on "SNL" for all of last season, she got only a little over half the screen time Wiig racked up. And when I try to identify memorable Casey Wilson characters, well ... I just can't. She was never a Horatio Sanz-level disaster (an honor that can only be achieved by bellowing incomprehensible lines and laughing uncontrollably at your own jokes), but she certainly failed at establishing herself on the show.

More depressing is the dismissal of Michaela Watkins, a talented comedian (check her out here as blogger Angie Tempura) who wasn't even given a full season to prove herself before getting the boot. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, she says she was shocked to hear that her contract wasn't being renewed. "It just felt premature," she said, noting, "I don’t think anyone knows what Lorne Michaels was thinking." But in general, Watkins is taking the news like a good sport, reaffirming her respect for Michaels and relaying his parting words to her, "that he felt deep down that I should have my own show."

It's a nice sentiment, maybe even a sincere one, but Wilson's and Watkins' firings still make me wonder about the "SNL" producers' attitudes toward female cast members. Why did two women have to leave for two other women to be hired? Is there some kind of quota? 

Instead, female cast members' perceived failures could have a lot to do with what's going on behind the scenes. For instance, as of last season, the vast majority of the show's writers seemed to be male. (The good news? "SNL" has also added writer Christina Nangle to the mix for its 35th season.) And when most sketches are written from a dude's perspective, well, it's only natural that more dude-oriented sketches will emerge. So it may have been more difficult for Watkins and Wilson to find writers' room allies that could help them get their characters on the air. It's no accident that Tina Fey's tenure as "SNL" head writer coincided with the success of Poehler, Maya Rudolph and Rachel Dratch (not to mention Fey herself). More female cast members were on the show during her tenure that at any time in the show's history.

But hey, perhaps Tom Shales, writing in the Washington Post, knows better. In a piece that reveals Michaels' concern that the new season won't compare with last year, Shales notes that Slate and Pedrad were hired "not as replacements for anybody, Michaels says, although cute Casey Wilson and glamorous Michaela Watkins have concurrently left." But Shales doesn't stop at damning Watkins and Wilson -- who I assume would prefer to be known for their comedy than for their prettiness-- with faint praise. Instead, he goes on to toss off this casual one-liner: "Watkins may have been just too classically pretty to be hilarious."

I'm not going to even gratify that statement with a counter-argument. Let me just say this: Ugh.

By Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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