With diversity becoming more and more of a hot-button issue in mainstream Hollywood, one TV network is leading the charge in the pursuit of entertainment that reflects its audiences.
NBCUniversal provides up-and-coming actors, comedians, filmmakers, and writers of color the opportunity to develop their talent alongside the network’s top executives and creatives. Given the success of shows featuring diverse casts and writing rooms, such as “Scandal,” “Empire,” “Transparent,” and “Orange Is the New Black” (not to mention “How to Get Away With Murder” star Viola Davis, the first black woman to win an Emmy for leading actress in a drama), it’s high time programs like NBC’s became the norm in today’s ever-changing TV landscape.
“It started [in 2003] as part of this company’s ongoing efforts to find and promote new and specifically diverse talent,” says Karen Horne, senior vice president of programming talent, development, and inclusion at NBCUniversal. Horne’s mission, “to increase our diversity in front of and behind the cameras,” spans scholarships and showcases for actors; a short film festival for directors; fellowships; a Late Night Writers workshop for emerging writers; and for comedians, scholarships in association with Upright Citizens Brigade and an initiative called StandUp NBC.
The latter program is largely unparalleled among other TV networks, helping launch the careers of an impressive roster of comic performers. Its top success stories—including Hannibal Buress (“Why? With Hannibal Buress”), Brandon T. Jackson (“Tropic Thunder”), and Eric Andre (“The Eric Andre Show”)—constitute what actor-comedian Tone Bell calls “a fraternity. The list of people working right now, network-wise and cable-wise...it’s pretty inspiring.”
As one of the stars of the new multicam comedy “Truth Be Told,” premiering Oct. 16, Bell is the only StandUp NBC winner currently working on an NBC show. “It’s very rooted in reality,” he says of the sitcom. “The cast is unbelievable. It’s nice when people can actually see the chemistry we know we have. It comes across onscreen.”
Bell developed his acting chops in Dallas, where word reached him about StandUp NBC in 2008. To audition, “people wait overnight outside, and you audition with your one minute of material. Then if you make it to the next round, two minutes of material, and if you’re lucky you get to the semifinals. And hopefully get to go to L.A., where you’re in the top eight or 10 that year,” says Bell, who auditioned four years in a row before earning the top spot.
“I finally got through the gauntlet in 2011,” he remembers. “They had to figure out who I was and when I was ready. I was still growing as a comic.” Winners receive cash, an invitation to join the Stand Up for Diversity College Tour, and a talent holding deal with NBC, meaning Bell was able to get to know the network’s executives and CDs. He eventually booked a role on the Whitney Cummings–starring sitcom “Whitney,” and later starred opposite Kate Walsh on “Bad Judge.”
“There’s no class that teaches you Hollywood,” says Bell of his ascent to mainstream comedy. “I could do every step Kevin Hart has done and it wouldn’t work out the same way. Everyone has their own path.” Early-career performers on their respective paths, he adds, should prioritize having fun over making money. “I love going to work every day. I’d do it for no money!”
For Horne, success stories like Bell’s are why it’s important for entertainment distributors to invest in diversity onscreen and behind the camera. “Talent is first and foremost,” she says. “We look for those we feel have talent so we can help polish that.
“It’s competitive,” she adds. “So if this is what you really want to do, don’t let the first or second ‘no’ turn you away.”