As Black History Month winds down, here’s a fun comedy fact: Debra Wilson was the longest-serving original member of sketch comedy tentpole MADTV, having appeared in the first eight seasons of the show’s original run. She was also the only Black woman doing major sketch comedy for a while, debuting in 1995 after Ellen Cleghorne left SNL and holding down the fort on her own until Maya Rudolph joined the rival show five years later. Wilson helmed so many of the MADTV’s staple characters that it would be impossible to separate her from its legacy—and what reasonable person would want to? Her impressions and impact on the show’s culture remain legendary.
So its more than a little frustrating to hear her reasons for leaving MADTV in 2003, which she divulged in an interview with Comedy Hype News’ Symphony Thompson and Pierre on Thursday. “I was a tenured cast member from the beginning, from pilot,” Wilson began, “and people were coming in after me making more than me. And when I realized there were white male cast members who were coming in after me making more than me I went, ‘OK, can we talk about this?’ And the answer essentially was no.” Wilson continued to describe a stifling environment that didn’t allow her as much creative freedom as her white counterparts. “When I was told ‘all the things you want to create and be on the show has a monetary value and we don’t value it as much as the new people coming in, that’s when I left.” Pierre asked Wilson about the breakdown of the cast members that were making more than her, whether they were mostly white men or casts members of other races and genders. “I don’t know,” Wilson responded, “I only caught wind of one person.”
Wilson wasn’t willing do divulge names or specific salaries—likely because that would bring ire to that former cast member rather than the decisionmakers that made such a disparity possible. However, she did note that her choice to leave wasn’t just about the clear pay gap, but also management’s inability to negotiate a higher salary as the show and Wilson gained popularity. When Pierre asked about the specifics of the gap(s) in question, Wilson lovingly but firmly declined to answer, deeming the detail irrelevant. “It’s not about just dollars and cents. It’s about devaluing what I bring to the table and what I could continue to bring to the table... There wasn’t even a negotiation to raise where I was, let alone to match someone else.” But the real kicker is in her final insight in this clip, a sentiment that many marginalized professionals can understand intimately when it comes to basic survival: “Had they just said, ‘You know what, Debra? We are going to raise your salary. It won’t match his, but we are going to raise it,’ I would have stayed.”
Since MADTV, Wilson has excelled in voice acting, appearing in many video games throughout the Fallout, Far Cry, and Star Wars franchises, as well as newer properties like Bugsnax. Check out the full clip below.