Featured Writer: Joanna Briley
ETHNIC DIVERSITY IN THE ENTERTAINMENT INDUSTRY
Joanna Briley talks about growing up in the NY comedy scene and how the community is making strides to burst through the “old boys” network.
Growing up, I learned early on how to find the funny. My family loved to laugh and always shared jokes. I listened to Richard Pryor at 10 years old. I collected every Mad Magazine and Cracked too! I had an insatiable need to fill my lonely adolescence with humor. My mom and dad decided it was best for me to live with him in Danbury, Connecticut. Imagine a 9-Year-Old leaving Brooklyn, New York with her father and after 2-3 hours arriving in a Mayberry-esque style town. I watched everything that tickled my personal funny bone to ease the separation anxiety from my family. I found solace in turning on the "boob tube" and laughing my soul to peace. For years I watched sitcoms, followed my favorite comedians' careers, and sat at various comedy clubs throughout NYC. It never dawned on me that there was a pervasive lack of diversity missing from the television screen or comedy venues.
As an 18 year old, I went to Catch a Rising Star, the Village Gate, & Caroline's to get my comedy fix. Every Sunday night I watched channel 5 at 10pm for the Sunday Night Comedy Showcase. The first time I saw a woman comedian, it was Rita Rudner, Brett Butler, Lily Tomlin et.al. Carol Burnett just stole my heart. I never looked at laughing as a "race-issue" until I caught Franklin Ajaye on that same Sunday Night Funnies showcase. I saw Marsha Warfield, then Eddie Murphy came on the scene and so I began to seek comedy from people that looked like me at the various venues in the city. I didn't do it as a comedy crusade of some sort but it was more of "are they out there?"
After 20 years on the scene, I have witnessed more diversity in the comedy clubs. I believe this is due to more performers taking it into their own hands and producing their own showcases. Also, there are plenty of opportunities to take a show out of comedy venues and market to specific people. Bar shows exist because mainstream comedy clubs are still behind the times when it comes to diversifying lineups. The main reason I began producing my own shows is because there were only a few women of color seen on a major stage in the late 90's. When Def Jam exploded, I began to witness a divided comedy scene. Even though funny is funny, "urban comedy" was relegated to one night only. Thank goodness. I believe once minority comics began seeing the lack of diversity, more began to demand a voice.
As we move into another phase of comedy inclusiveness, women, POC, LGBTQI, and many more performers deemed on the fringes of what is the norm have taken gigantic strides to open up the dialogue to include their points of view. I've witnessed so many new theme nights at clubs in time slots that offer people choices. I know quite a few performers that make diversity their goal and understand the need to represent our society to the max. The addition of women of color on "SNL" created a spotlight on the continued quest to burst through the endless "old boys' network" business module to begin our own movement. There are countless avenues created thus far, but I know there is much more work to be done. Knowing that the entertainment industry is beginning to offer diverse castings in movies, television, and comedy rooms, there are definitely more people taking it into their own hands and developing content to their audiences themselves. It is mainstream's job to catch up to the new digital age and utilize the population for the greater good of humanity.