As the first step in a long-overdue effort to address an ongoing deficiency in its casting practices, the opening sketch of this week’s Saturday Night Live wasn’t bad. In the wake of ongoing questions about its decades-long lack of black female cast members (only four in almost 40 years), the show had gone seriously wrong when it had its one longtime black male cast member, Kenan Thompson, address the rising outcry by saying that black women “weren’t ready” to be on the show, stoking the flames of protest. In a comedy community still grappling with suggestions that women aren’t inherently funny, now we had a black comic actor saying that black women couldn’t handle the satiric rigors of SNL.
So it was shrewd of producer Lorne Michaels and his writers to use the opportunity of Kerry Washington’s guest hosting gig to lampoon the problem and make a statement of intent to address it; after all, Washington had begun to face her own p.r. problems when some suggested she was collaborating with the enemy by appearing on the show. As a kicker to the sketch, Al Sharpton appeared to express his own doubts that action would be taken.
SNL having only had four black women as regulars since the show began in the mid-70s would seem to defy its own countercultural, hip and youthful ethos, but in point of fact SNL is rooted in the comedy of white elitism that had found its voice at the Harvard Lampoon and later the National Lampoon. The Second City improv troupes from Chicago and Toronto, also SNL influencers, were also not noticeably integrated when SNL began, but the limitations of its forebears are no excuse for its ongoing cultural blindspot. Some have advanced the argument that Lorne Michaels, as a Canadian, is less sensitive to the racial politics of America; I don’t buy any of that. But after more than 35 years on network TV, one would think he’d have developed a certain racial sensitivity; one must also wonder why successive regimes at NBC failed to urge Michaels in the direction of diversity, if not out of altruism than out of smart programming , in order to perhaps draw viewers who felt underrepresented on or excluded by SNL.
Many will look to the meteoric rise of Eddie Murphy via SNL as evidence contrary to ingrained bias against performers of color, but one should also look to the show’s terrible treatment of original cast member Garrett Morris, who like Kenan Thompson (until he rebelled recently) was forced to perform in drag frequently, since the producers and writers were at least sufficiently aware that blackface was unacceptable. Histories of SNL also point out the poor treatment of the women cast members in what was virtually a frat house environment in its earliest days, so its roots of exclusion run deep, even as they’ve been tempered more recently by the rise of Tina Fey to the position of head writer and the popularity of Amy Poehler and Kristen Wiig.
Returning to Thompson’s defense of the show’s lack of black women in the cast, he cited the tendency to cast from improv groups and their lack of diversity as one of the sources for the deficiency, rather than a willful exclusion by those in power. Again, whether that’s true or not, it’s worth noting that while improv surely helps cast members to assume characters rapidly in the pressure cooker of a weekly comedy show, SNL itself isn’t an improv vehicle: comic actors fare quite well (witness guest host Edward Norton’s many roles) as they’re performing sketches created by writers (with minimal overlap between the writing and performing staffs), not winging it live on national TV. America surely doesn’t lack for comic performers of every racial background. It has also been pointed out that the SNL writing staff is remarkably Caucasian and male, a charge that can be leveled against the more bitingly satiric The Daily Show and The Colbert Report as well. Perhaps that’s why some of the best sketch comedy on TV right now is coming from the eponymous stars of Key and Peele, successors to Chapelle’s Show and In Living Color.
As the debate over the racial hiring of SNL was in the news, Salon wisely gave an account of perhaps one of the most brilliant, racially infused sketches in SNL’s long history, the Richard Pryor-Chevy Chase word association piece from the show’s very first season. It’s hard to imagine such a piece being broadcast today, but its simmering anger makes for a stark contrast with the mild jabs at racial politics on display this past weekend. Perhaps if SNL gets its own house in order regarding diversity, on camera and behind the scenes, it can once again take on racial topics in a stark, meaningful and funny way.