Funny Women Further TV’s Diversity

Two new scripted cable comedies are showcasing African-American actresses in leading roles as the TV industry looks to continue to celebrate on-screen diversity.

Actresses such as Tracee Ellis Ross — nominated for a 2016 Emmy for outstanding lead actress in a comedy series for her role in ABC’s Black-ish — have begun to mirror the success of their counterparts on the drama front, including Gabrielle Union (BET’s Being Mary Jane), ViolaDavis (How to Get Away With Murder) and KerriWashington( Scandal).

HBO in October premieres comedy series Insecure, created and starring comedian-actress Issa Rae. The show, about a young African-American woman (Rae) navigating her professional and personal life, follows the Sept. 5 premiere of MTV’s Loosely Exactly Nicole, starring Girl Code actress Nicole Byer.

Actress Tischina Arnold, co-star of Starz’s comedy series Survivor’s Remorse, told Multichannel News that comedic roles for actresses of color are beginning to open up as both traditional networks and over-the-top services look to reach a more diverse audience with content that features their images and stories.

“I think it’s a great time for African-American women actors, producers and showrunners to be in the business,” Arnold said. “There are more opportunities opening up, although we still need a lot more opportunities.”

Arnold also said that women of color are getting a chance to play a wider variety of roles that go beyond the urban female stereotype often depicted in mainstream culture.

Indeed, Rae — at this summer’s Television Critics Association press tour — said her character in Insecure has the same goals and insecurities as everyone else.

“You watch this and you realize … that black people are human,” she said. “I think there’s a tendency vibe in certain cases like news and media portrayal of almost like we are bringing it on ourselves because we tend to be violent by nature. It’s been more just trying to convince people that … people of color are relatable.”

Byer also said during the TCA gathering she has auditioned for roles where writers that have asked her to “be as black as possible,” but said that her new show allows her to be herself without any preconceived notions of who she should be on-screen.

While opportunities are improving for women of color-on-screen, Arnold warned that more progress is needed both in front of and behind the screen.

“It’s almost like a never-ending story … it seems like there will never be enough opportunities for me,” Arnold said. “Once I see more characters like me portrayed in so many diverse ways and in diverse situations, then I’ll feel more comfortable in saying that there’s real substantial change taking place.”

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.