The bumper sticker on Norman Lear's car read "Just another version of you." It was his way of saying he was the same as you, and that you are the same as the next guy. That we are all, if I may, in the family.
Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You is the title of the imperfect but compelling documentary making its international premiere at the Hot Docs film festival on April 30 at TIFF Bell Lightbox. Although the film on the pioneering sitcom producer (of All in the Family, Maude, Good Times and The Jeffersons) is mostly laudatory, the Jewish and white and intensely liberal Lear is viewed more dubiously by John Amos, the actor who portrayed the father on Good Times, a comedy set in a Chicago housing project.
Amos, whose character was written out of the hit show after three seasons, maintains that while the series was important because it was the first to star a black family, it was a white man's version of that black family. Moreover, Amos took exception to making Jimmie Walker's buffoonish J.J. character the show's central attraction. "It was a way," Amos says, "of putting us all down."
This weekend, the Second City comedy company in Toronto hosts its Diversity Weekend, an outreach program of workshops, performances and professional-development opportunities for less-heard voices and communities under-represented on the comedic spectrum.
In the Lear documentary, Amos recalls the all-white days of television before Good Times. "You couldn't see someone like me," he says. And while Good Times broke ground on the sitcom front, some 40 years later a show such as NBC's iconic sketch-comedy program Saturday Night Live was still coming under fire for the lack of diversity among its cast members.
SNL has addressed the issue in recent years, but decades-long white-male dominance in the world of sketch and improv has had a lasting effect on the talent pool of would-be comedians of varying genders, racial backgrounds and sexual orientations.
"It is a challenge when historically the diversity has not been seen on stage," says Dionna Griffin-Irons, Second City's director of diversity and outreach, based in Chicago. "Young talent, instead of embracing improv and sketch comedy, has stayed away from the art form."
In addition to Second City's initiative this weekend, the annual SheDot festival of female comedians continues through May 1 at Toronto's Comedy Bar and the Corner Comedy Club. As well, on May 28 and 29, the Bad Dog Theatre Company hosts Our Cities on Our Stages, a symposium dedicated to the development of diversity and inclusivity initiatives in local improv companies.
"It's a thing now," says Nigel Downer, a Second City alumnus and Bad Dog regular, speaking about a current diversity dialogue that encompasses Hollywood casting and Oscar night. "When I first began, in 2008, it wasn't a conversation. But later it became apparent."
Downer looked up Darryl Hinds, a Second City player and fellow black comedian. "I wanted to model my improv game after him," says Downer. "But it hit me that there was only one of him on stage. And then I noticed, 'Oh, there's just me coming up,' and that was it."
And therein lies the problem: A lack of role models for non-white talent. As Bad Dog player Ify Chiwetelu puts it, "It's hard to think you can do something when you don't see examples of people doing the same thing. Comedy is struggling with its openness and being welcoming to people of diverse backgrounds and experiences."
Things got so bad on SNL that in 2013 veteran cast member Kenan Thompson, who had impersonated Maya Angelou, Whoopi Goldberg, Star Jones and other black women throughout his tenure, publicly declared that he would no longer play female characters on the show.
In an interview with TV Guide at the time, Thompson said that the SNL producers "just never find [black female sketch comedians] that are ready." What he didn't say is the reason they weren't ready is because they didn't feel welcome. And that lack of open-armed invitation is what Second City and Bad Dog are attempting to change in multicultural Toronto.
"When you have a community with a presence in sketch comedy, it trickles down and young talent will audition and study the art form," Griffin-Irons says. "Ideally, if we're doing our job, we're putting a mirror up to the audience. They're seeing themselves and we're giving them something to chew on. We're making them think."
In Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You, Lear says that all human beings are just a little foolish, and that the foolishness is what "knits us all together." Champions of diversity in sketch comedy and improv will tell you: The more voices and variety in threads, the tighter the knit.
Second City runs its Diversity Weekend April 30 to May 2, Second City Training Centre; SheDot runs April 28 to May 1, Comedy Bar and Toronto Comedy Corner; Our Cities on Our Stages, May 28 and 29, Bad Dog Theatre.