LMFAO’s head-pounding “Party Rock Anthem” pulsated through North Hollywood’s El Portal Theatre as a multiracial group of young performers stormed the stage, promising in song to provide a lively evening of laughs. They then launched into a rapid-fire parade of sketches filled with gleeful raunch and pokes at racial stereotypes.
The performance had the usual trappings of a night out at any comedy club around town. But little about this invitation-only night was typical. The actors, writers and directors were all amateur, and they were mostly people of color — young blacks, Latinos, Asians, Indians — performing original material they had helped to develop before a crowd of managers, agents and creative executives from major networks and studios.
The event marked the culmination of this year’s CBS Diversity Sketch Comedy Showcase, an annual talent forum that also functions as a three-month boot camp designed to boost the chances of minorities hoping to land roles on TV comedies and dramas.
The participants are schooled to collaborate with others as well as receive lessons in character development and voices, auditions and “cold readings.” But the main focus is the showcase, said CBS diversity honchos.
“What we’re putting on is much more than a showcase: This is a full-fledged show that we feel could be staged at any theater in Los Angeles,” said Tiffany N. Smith-Anoa’i, vice president of diversity and communications for CBS. She pointed out that this year’s event was a hot ticket: The 360-seat El Portal was filled to overflowing for four shows over two days last week. Many attendees stood against the walls or sat in the aisles.
The showcase, now in its seventh year, is always scheduled in January, as networks and studios begin lining up their pilots for the fall season. NBC and ABC also sponsor minority showcases as part of their stated commitment to increase diversity in prime time. The four major networks have been grappling for more than a decade with charges from advocacy groups and critics that most prime-time series feature predominantly white casts and have largely excluded minorities from significant creative roles. Even some series that feature minority characters have been blasted — both CBS’ “Two Broke Girls” and “Rob!” have been accused by critics of perpetuating negative stereotypes.
A survey conducted by the Directors Guild of America of more than 2,600 television episodes from 170 scripted TV series for the 2010-11 season found that white men directed 77% of all episodes, and white women directed 11% of all episodes. A report released by the Writers Guild of America, West in May found that the earnings gap between minorities and white writers more than doubled from 2007 to 2009.
Smith-Anoa’i said the criticisms have overshadowed significant gains on the diversity front: “People who are trying to improve diversity at the networks often hear about what is wrong. But with this showcase and our other diversity initiatives, we are attempting to put more of a spotlight on the positive progress that is being made. Increasing that level of awareness is more helpful in the larger scope of the issue.”
Instead of the usual showcase format of stand-up comedy routines or scenes from plays or movies, the performers, assisted by director Rick Najera (“MADtv,” “In Living Color”) and CBS Vice President of Casting Fern Orenstein, develop original material that allows them to improve their writing skills, show a range of characters and broaden their acting styles.
Almost 40 showcase graduates in the last seven years have won regular or guest-starring roles on series, while dozens of others have scored representation. One of the graduates, Affion Crockett, starred in his own short-lived sketch comedy series on Fox last year.
Julie Ashton, who runs her own agency and does casting for “Two Broke Girls” and Fox’s upcoming reboot of “In Living Color,” said she finds the CBS show a valuable resource for discovering talent. “It’s just a great arena to see so many talented folks at the same time.”
Several other participants this week told CBS they have booked auditions and meetings with agents following the showcase.
Asif Ali, 24, who appeared in several of the sketches, sounded relieved at the end of one of the showcases last week.
“We pulled it off,” he declared, saying he was ecstatic that the audience had responded so favorably to the material. “I didn’t even have butterflies.”
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Photo: The entire cast of this year's CBS Diversity Sketch Comedy Showcase greet the audience at the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times.