If you watched Mad TV back in the ’90s and early ’00s, you knew funny lady Debra Wilson and had probably cackled with everyone else at her signature characters on the long-running sketch comedy series. She portrayed Whitney Houston and Oprah, she was Melina, one half of “Latina” duo Lida and Melina, and who could forget Bunifa Latifah Halifah Sharifa Jackson? She was hilarious. And despite being the longest-serving original cast member with a few of the most memorable sketches, she wasn’t paid in a way that matched with her contributions.
In a new interview with Comedy Hype, the 58-year-old said, in fact, she left the series because she found out those behind the Fox hit were bringing in new cast members and boldly paying them more than they were even willing to offer her. Wilson, who was on the show from ’95 to to ’03 and then returned from ’05 to ’09, said that’s why she quit.
“I recognized that there were people who came in after me — I was a tenured cast member from the beginning, from pilot. And people were coming in after me making more than me,” she said. “And when I realized there was white male cast members who were coming in after me making more than me, I went, okay, ‘Can we talk about this?’ And the answer, essentially, was no.”
“What I wanted to do and what I wanted to create on that show did not hit a glass ceiling, but when I was told that 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,” she added.
Wilson said she caught wind of one particular person being paid more than her and tried to talk to showrunners about it.
“I said listen, ‘I’m not going to name names or do anything, but with what I’m bringing to the show and what I hope to continue to do, you tell me I’m financially hitting a glass ceiling,’ and it was like, ‘yep,'” she said.
When asked how much more the individual she found out about was making compared to her, Wilson said the number didn’t matter, but rather, it was about the “devaluing, or what I felt was devaluing of what I bring to the table and could continue to bring to the table.”
She was the only Black woman on the show for the majority of the time she took part on it, especially when she worked the first eight seasons. She saw other Black men, white men, and white women go and be replaced, but she was a constant, so she expected more respect for her craft.
“They’re saying we’re going to not value the creative aspect of bringing you on and giving you money, however, we value you because so far we haven’t seen another Black woman who do what you do!” she said. “Otherwise, we would have brought them on!”
Despite what someone else was raking in as a newer cast member, Wilson said the fact that they wouldn’t even offer to increase her salary was the final straw.
“There wasn’t even a negotiation to raise where I was, let alone to match someone else,” she said. “Had they just said, ‘You know what Debra? We’re going to raise your salary. It won’t match his but we’re going to raise it,’ I would have stayed.”
Though Wilson was magnetic in front of the camera, once she left the show, she moved on to have success behind the scenes as a voice actress.
The gender (and race. of course) pay disparity conversations have brought about a lot of mind-boggling stories from well-known Black actresses about how they were underpaid. That includes the likes of Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Danielle Brooks, Mo’Nique, Tracee Ellis Ross, and more, and this was not just before but also even after critical acclaim and Oscar wins that they spoke of being grossly undervalued. It’s quite unsettling and certainly something that has to continue to be spoken up about in the hopes that a change can be made.