Last month, Rick Najera, the director of CBS’s annual Diversity Sketch Comedy Showcase, left the company in light of sexual harassment allegations. Now, it turns out that the program Najera ran was also rife with exploitation—from insisting on racist stereotypes to body shaming performers—with more than one former participant likening it to a minstrel show.
Vulture spoke with 20 writers and actors who went through the showcase system about their experiences and what they shared paints a very damning picture of just how little CBS thinks of writers and performers who are LGBTQ, have disabilities, and/or of color.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Rachel Bloom told Vulture that she had heard horror stories for years, and spoke with an HR representative to figure out an official channel for people to share what they had gone through. Via Vulture:
“The stories I’ve heard, and that pretty much almost anyone in the L.A. comedy community has heard, were less about sexual harassment and more about racism, homophobia, sexism, and body-shaming,” Bloom continued.
The specifics of the program are shocking. CBS is upfront about not paying actors or writers and that participation doesn’t guarantee employment at the network, but the program is still extremely rigorous:
Those who are selected — 80 to 100 in total — are expected to dedicate themselves full-time to the program, writing and rehearsing daily until the sketches, actors, and writers that make the cut for the showcase are chosen. None of the participants are paid, and food and water is not provided.
“It was like a demented concentration camp,” [actor and former participant Bobak] Bakhtiari said. “I’d have to be in these scenes for a long time and then run to the bathroom to chug water or go up two stories to get some water out of a fountain. It just seemed like a program they didn’t want to fund, but wanted to have it be ethnically savvy for some industry reason.”
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The majority of the complaints lodged were about the showcase’s producer and casting director Fern Orenstein, who regularly pushed for extremely reductive sketches based on racist stereotypes and referred to performers as whatever caricature they were playing.
Orenstein, for example, tended to call people by their ethnicity instead of their names, several participants said. Jewish women were called “Jew Girl” and Latinas were known as “Mexican Girl.” She deliberately confused actors of the same ethnicity with one another in an attempt to throw them off their game, they said. In the case of one 2015 sketch involving two black actors, participants say Orenstein wondered aloud why there were no bank-robbery or mugging scenes for them. The following year, Orenstein pushed for a sketch that depicted Souplantation as a real slave plantation, but Tiffany Smith-Anoa’i, CBS’s executive-vice president of diversity, inclusion, and communications, who began overseeing the showcase in 2015, nixed it.
Generally, Orenstein demanded that Latino characters have “Ricky Ricardo” accents, gay men twirl across the stage and lisp, Asian actors “act foreign,” and black actors “black it up.”
That year, there was an airport-security sketch involving a disabled actor who was placed inside a bin as she went through security. “I’m actually a little shocked that they’re still doing it the same way as when I was doing it because it was really bad,” he added. “It was really bad.”
These are supposed to be the people nourishing talent for those who are locked out of the industry through no fault of their own. They’re locked out because straight, white, able-bodied men keep writing stereotypes that create such a narrow and utterly false idea of what marginalized people experience. To continue playing into that at a showcase meant to provide a rare opportunity for marginalized people is extremely degrading—though somehow unsurprising for CBS, the only major broadcast network that doesn’t have a subsidy program to encourage its shows to hire writers of color.
CBS has attempted to improve the showcase, hiring actors Stephen Guarino and Grace Parra to co-direct. In a statement to Vulture, CBS said it was “aware” of the problems cited in the story, and explained other measures it is taking to address issues in the program including “a wide range of cultural sensitivity training for all Showcase leaders, including seminars on micro-aggressions and unconscious bias.”
Other measures CBS could take? Hiring more writers of color, developing an original series that doesn’t star a white man, and/or paying the showcase participants for their work.
Read the full story at Vulture.