For ‘SNL’ Cast, Being Diverse May Be Better Than Being ‘Ready’
Black women who have been primary cast members on “Saturday Night Live” since 1975: from left, Danitra Vance, Ellen Cleghorne and Maya Rudolph.
The current “SNL” cast members Jay Pharoah, left, and Kenan Thompson.
“Saturday Night Live” later cast Ellen Cleghorne (1991-95) and Maya Rudolph, a biracial star who left in 2007. And that’s it. In this context, it’s no wonder that the cast member Kenan Thompson set off a debate this month when he explained the show’s dearth of black women this way: “It’s just a tough part of the business,” he told TV Guide. “Like in auditions, they just never find ones that are ready.”
Let me state the obvious: That “Saturday Night Live,” once home of the Not Ready for Prime Time players, has hired only three black women for its main cast— in addition to Yvonne Hudson, a featured player in 1980 — in four decades says more about the show than about the talent pool. That doesn’t mean that the show’s executive producer, Lorne Michaels, discriminates so much as he doesn’t put a premium on this kind of diversity.
Jay Pharoah, who plays President Obama on the show, does, however. He has argued that “SNL” should hireDarmirra Brunson, a comic on Tyler Perry’s sitcom “Love Thy Neighbor.” He praised her talent, but unlike Mr. Thompson, he doesn’t merely talk about being ready. Why hire her? “Because she’s black, first of all,” Mr. Pharaoh said pointedly.
The bluntness of this comment is actually more important than anything Mr. Thompson said. That’s because, for a show of topical parody rooted in current national politics and mass culture, diversity is a question not just of fairness, but also of art.
Part of the reason this issue has moved into the public eye now is that after years of playing Whoopi Goldberg, Jennifer Hudson and other black women, Mr. Thompson has decided to stop performing in drag, limiting the options for sketch subjects on the show. (He added that Mr. Pharoah also “doesn’t really want to do it.”)
Cross-dressing, of course, has a long comedic tradition, but the conversation on this practice shifted slightly after Dave Chappelle told Oprah Winfrey in a 2005 interview that black men in comedy were always asked to wear a dress. In explaining how show business could corrupt black artists, Mr. Chappelle described being pressured on a movie set to do drag and refusing.
“You got to take a stand,” he said. When Kevin Hart played the actress Quvenzhané Wallis in a “Saturday Night Live” skit this year, he got criticism that cited Mr. Chappelle’s comments, something no white comic would deal with.
It’s one example of how black and white comics bring very different things (including expectations) to the table, which is also why a heterogenous cast is an asset. This is not a new argument when it comes to network television, but it’s more critical for a show with the broad ambitions of “Saturday Night Live.”
When Kerry Washington hosts this week, the show will have someone who can credibly play Beyoncé for the first time this season. There hasn’t been a cast member to portray Michelle Obama for her husband’s entire presidency. That matters. The show, which, to be fair, has a range of talents, including a blossoming star in Kate McKinnon, benefits from diversity that tries to match the breadth of the mainstream popular culture it covers.
In the 2002 oral history “Live From New York,” Chris Rock, a former cast member, had warm things to say about “Saturday Night Live,” but described it as blind in some respects. “Half the culture’s into some form of hip-hop sensibility, half of the white culture — it’s not just a black thing,” he said. “But the show’s never dealt with that part of the culture.”
Mr. Rock starred on “Saturday Night Live” for three years, before leaving for “In Living Color,” one of several sketch shows, including the Comedy Central series “Chappelle’s Show” a decade ago and “Key and Peele” today, that have both showcased black performers and exposed how tentative “SNL” has been on the subject of race.
There are exceptions, none greater than the years with Eddie Murphy, who, it should be noted, was hired when Mr. Michaels had temporarily left.
Mr. Michaels has always looked for unknowns from a few comedy institutions (Upright Citizens Brigade, the Groundlings, Second City) that are predominantly, but by no means exclusively, white. I saw a talented all-black female improv group at Upright Citizens Brigade last year called Doppelganger; it featured Nicole Byer of “Girl Code,” Keisha Zollar and Sasheer Zamata, a nimble performer whose web videos include sharp sendups ofBeyoncé’s parenting style that could translate nicely to network television. Mr. Michaels would find more black comedians if he looked further afield — online or in stand-up — but with the show’s long run and track record finding stars, he may be thinking, why change?
Comedy has historically been rife with the same kind of old boys’ clubs as in law, academia and Hollywood. While “Saturday Night Live” looks for the best talent, why certain people make it, and others do not, is far more complex than simple merit.
Ms. Vance, who died of cancer at 35, had the bad luck to appear during a famously disastrous season, and the roles she played included a teenage mother and a rapper rapping about wrapping paper. Soon after leaving, however, she displayed a mountain of talent in “The Colored Museum,” George C. Wolfe’s modern classic that is the most brilliantly irreverent play about race ever written.
In one of many blisteringly funny sketches in that production, Ms. Vance played a stewardess on a slave ship called Celebrity, all peppy assurances and smiling manipulation. (“Repeat after me: I don’t hear any drums and I will not rebel.”) She tells the passengers to buckle their shackles before giving the hard sell. “All right, so you’re going to have to suffer a few hundred years,” she concedes, a shrill edge creeping into her voice.
I thought of this monologue while watching another sketch about slavery in last week’s episode of “Saturday Night Live.” It began promisingly: A newly freed black man (Mr. Pharoah) walks into a Southern bar not long after the Emancipation Proclamation has been signed. Besides setting up an underwhelming cameo by Miley Cyrus — fertile ground for racial comedy — the central joke was how oblivious he is to racism. The scene’s closing joke has him asking a white man if there will be a black president. “It’s been two weeks!” he says, with exaggerated exasperation.
A joke about the impatience of a black person wanting representation would have been off-key and unfunny during Reconstruction. This month, it’s just bizarre.