CBS’ diversity showcase leaders accused of racist, sexist behavior

CBS’ Diversity Sketch Comedy Showcase may not be champion the diverse ideals you might think, according to several past participants.

In a report published Friday, 20 past participants of the annual workshop told Vulture that casting director Fern Orenstein and the program’s former producer Rick Najera required black actors to play slaves in sketches, asked Latina actresses to “slut it up” and body-shamed performers of both sexes.

Najera resigned last month after an investigation by CBS into sexual harassment accusations against him but Orenstein remains employed as the network’s VP of casting. It’s unclear if she is still involved with the 13-year-old program, intended to provide support for actors and writers from underrepresented communities.

Director Rick Najera
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Director Rick Najera
LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 15: Writer Rick Najera attends the Latino In America held at Occidental College on October 15, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Tommaso Boddi/Getty Images for INGENUITY)
HOLLYWOOD - DECEMBER 03: Writer Rick Najera (L) and director Alfredo De Villa attend the premiere after party for Overture Films' 'Nothing Like The Holidays' on December 3, 2008 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Overture Films)
HOLLYWOOD, CA - OCTOBER 09: Actor Rick Najera arrives for the 2016 Latino's De Hoy Awards at the Dolby Theatre on October 9, 2016 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Greg Doherty/Getty Images)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - SEPTEMBER 19: Rick Najera presents casting director Fern Orenstein with the 2013 Heller Luminous Award at the 12th Annual Heller Awards at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on September 19, 2013 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Vivien Killilea/WireImage)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - FEBRUARY 26: Rick Najera attends the 19th Annual National Hispanic Media Coalition Impact Awards Gala at Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel on February 26, 2016 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by JC Olivera/Getty Images for National Hispanic Media Coalition)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - AUGUST 16: Rick Najera (R) and his wife Susie Albin-Najera attend 28th Annual Imagen Awards at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on August 16, 2013 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by JC Olivera/WireImage)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - SEPTEMBER 19: Rick Najera speaks at the 12th Annual Heller Awards at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on September 19, 2013 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Vivien Killilea/WireImage)
- SEPTEMBER 17: Rick Najera attends 2009 ALMA AWARDS at Royce Hall on September 17, 2009. (Photo by DAVID CROTTY/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)
HOLLYWOOD - DECEMBER 03: (L-R) Producer Robert Teitel, writers Alison Swan and Rick Najera arrive at the premiere of Overture Films' 'Nothing Like The Holidays' held at the Grauman's Chinese Theatre on December 3, 2008 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Overture Films)
LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 17: Rick Najera arrives at the 2009 ALMA Awards held at Royce Hall on September 17, 2009 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
Rene Lavan, Gerry Rojas amd Rick Najera during Tempo Magazine 2nd Anniversary Party at 450 Studio in New York, New York, United States. (Photo by Johnny Nunez/WireImage)

Actor Bobak Cyrus Bakhtiari, an actor of Iranian descent who has had roles in “Silicon Valley” and “Homeland,” participated in the program in 2015, but said he was cut before the showcase because he started cutting rehearsals because he was tired of playing terrorist roles in sketches.

“They had very idiosyncratic ideas of what it meant to be gay or black or brown,” he told Vulture. “Maybe if it was 1988 in Cincinnati, that would be what serves the mass culture machine. Or maybe they didn’t get what the purpose of the diversity showcase is. There was an important job description that was left out, and they were like, ‘Yeah, we’ll just f—ing rack up some brownie points on racism here by enhancing the racism.'”

Rachel Bloom, who never participated in the program but works for CBS as the co-creator, star and executive producer of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” said it was an “open secret” that the program was a “bad experience.”

After hearing “these stories for years,” she looked into how participants could complain and posted directions to her Facebook after speaking with a human resources representative.

“The stories I’ve heard, and that pretty much almost anyone in the L.A. comedy community has heard, were less about sexual harassment and more about racism, homophobia, sexism and body-shaming,” Bloom told Vulture.

These instances of body-shaming were perhaps most prevalent. Participants told Vulture that Orenstein, who casted the original “Baywatch,” “harangued all the average-weight actors to lose 10 to 20 pounds, and bragged to us that she starts eating disorders,” one female writer from the 2014 showcase told Vulture.

The other common complaint was racism. Participants said that Orenstein called participants “by their ethnicity instead of their names,” and that she would deliberately confuse actors of the same ethnicity with one another “in an attempt to throw them off their game.”

CBS’ EVP of diversity, inclusion, and communications Tiffany Smith-Anoa’i, who was put in charge of overseeing the showcase in 2015, nixed one sketch involving a slave plantation that Orenstein had approved, Vulture wrote.

CBS did not immediately respond to TheWrap’s request for comment but told Vulture the network is “aware and appreciate[s] the concerns that have been expressed in this story.”

“Over the past eight months or so, since the first word of this came to our attention, we believe CBS has taken significant steps to address individual behavior,” the statement reads.

It goes on: “We have introduced a wide range of cultural sensitivity training for all Showcase leaders, including seminars on micro-aggressions and unconscious bias. Those efforts will continue. We are also excited about the Showcase’s new leadership and committed to building on its outstanding track record of opening doors for its many talented performers in an environment that invites creative risk-taking while respecting race, gender, national origin, ethnicity, ability and sexual orientation.”

Read original story CBS’ Diversity Showcase Leaders Accused of Racist, Sexist Behavior At TheWrap

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