For the past 15 years, the CBS Showcase has been giving shine to up and coming talent in Hollywood. As the title of the yearly event entails, it gives the chance for performers to showcase their acting chops in a comedic space. It’s a fast-paced comedy variety show echoing Saturday Night Live with a hearty helping of musical elements. Last week, the tradition continued as 20 players took the stage at the El Portal in North Hollywood for the yearly CBS Diversity Showcase — but diversity wasn’t always the focus of the showcase.
Tess Paras, who served as director of this year’s show alongside director Stephen Guarino and head writer Tien Tran, was a performer in the 2014 CBS Showcase. She admits that it was once widely known for being problematic and stereotypical in the way it portrayed its performers.
“That was the norm back then and it remained unchallenged,” Paras tells Deadline. “When I participated, I experienced first-hand how we were encouraged to propagate stereotypes about our own backgrounds. I felt frustrated, but, that year, I took on the task of writing and performing a sketch in the show that was a satiric-take on how I and other performers had been perceived.”
She said that it was a huge to be critical of the dialogue that was happening within the program. “I think it was the first time a sketch like that had ever made it into the showcase, but I knew folks resonated with the message when it received a standing ovation every night,” she added. “Shortly after showcase, I filmed it with members of my showcase cast and it become a viral video.” (watch below)
Being outspoken about the program worked in Paras’ favor as it was a chance for her to incite change. She was asked to be on the creative team for the 2019 showcase. She served as Assistant director with Guarino and VP of Casting Dorey Poder and they worked to restructure the program with a paid writers’ room of showcase alumni.
“The process is tedious, but we pay so much more attention to having conversations about inclusivity and, I think, most importantly, we consider who’s laughing,” explained Paras. “It lends itself to having strong material where our performers are at the forefront of their own stories and truly showcasing their unique talents. For Showcase 2020, CBS expanded my role and I returned as Associate Director – it’s been an opportunity to evolve in my own skillset as a writer, performer, and director.”
Paras and the team’s work paid off as the showcase has becoming more inclusive and mindful of the jokes they tell, the context and the players they choose to be in the showcase — and this year’s bunch is filled with talent of all colors, sexualities and genders — giving Hollywood a look at the diverse talent.
This year, there were 20 players from all over the country who, alongside a writers room of showcase alums, delivered a stellar show of sketches that celebrate what makes us different. It leans into questions about stereotypes, dismantles them and makes us learn — while laughing of course. The roster included Aida Osman, Caitlin Frain, Carl Foreman, Jr., Danielle Perez, Dave Mizzoni, Gregory Santos, G-Su Paek, Jacklyn Uweh, Jared Goldstein, Laurie Magers, Manuela Mendoza, Nabeel Muscatwalla, Nathan Ramos-Park, Nohely Quiroz, Sai Lang, Sarah Khasrovi, Tessa Skara, Tyler Davis, Vasthy Mompoint and Zack Colonna. From spoofs on Hustlers, Beauty and the Beast and Devil Wears Prada to a Chicago parody on Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin’s college admissions scandal to original sketches involving centaurs, FYC screeners, black beauty queens and the ramifications of cat-calling, the showcase was bubbling over with charisma and hilarity, putting the spotlight on talent that would get overlooked if it wasn’t for CBS giving them the opportunity to shine.
“Showcases are so important because it’s all about access,” said Paras. “Let’s face it — industry folks couldn’t possibly go to every indie show or play or see everyone on social media. It can be insular — we only see who has the privilege of being seen. Showcases like this one give performers and writers a chance to plant a seed in the industry.”
Paras, who recurred on Crazy-Ex Girlfriend and appeared on The Good Wife and Grimm, continues to work as an actress in the Amazon family fantasy Just Add Magic and the new spinoff Just Add Magic: Mystery City. All the while she, along with people like Guarino and Tran continue to advocate for inclusion and diversity, using the showcase as a platform for talented, underrepresented voices to perform and to be seen by industry professionals. Paras hopes that it moves the needle forward.
“I would hope there is a ripple effect,” she said. “From what we’re aiming to do, at least within the work at showcase, the conversations have changed because people are less afraid of having them. In a few years, we’ve been able to create an environment where all of us can raise questions if we feel discomfort with a portrayal or a premise.”
She continues, “There are definitely times where we question if a laugh marginalizes a group and we discuss it. We hold each other accountable to our blind spots and we’re not always perfect, but the point is that we’ve created an environment where it’s safe to try and learn. I hope these skills we’ve all practiced follow us on to our next job and can influence people wherever we go.”