Saturday Night Live has gotten some flak lately for its lack of racial diversity — and more specifically, its lack of a single black female cast member. Much of the controversy is of SNL's own collective making.
First, of course, producer Lorne Michaels and his team haven't hired a black woman to the show since Maya Rudolph left in 2007. Then in mid-October, after the season had begun with a freshman class of six white cast members, Kenan Thompson poured fuel on the fire by telling TV Guide that no black women have joined the cast because "in auditions, they just never find ones that are ready."
Last week, the civil rights group ColorOfChange.org excoriated Michaels for not hiring any black women, and also for "aggressively continuing to push images of black women as incompetent, rude, hypersexual, and financially dependent." As The Week's Emily Shire points out, this demographic hole in the cast not just a political-correctness problem — SNL is leaving a lot of jokes on the table by not having a woman who can play, say, First Lady Michelle Obama.
This weekend, Kerry Washington, the star of ABC's Scandal, hosted SNL, and the show's writers finally had a black actress to work with. They wasted no time: The cold open had Washington play, naturally, Michelle Obama. And Oprah. (Watch above.) That was basically the entire joke. In case you didn't get it, a voiceover makes it explicit, reading this message scrolling across the screen:
The producers at Saturday Night Live would like to apologize to Kerry Washington for the number of black women she will be asked to play tonight. We made these requests both because Ms. Washington is an actress of considerable range and talent, but also because SNL doesn't currently have a black woman in the cast. As for the latter, we realize this is not an ideal situation and look forward to rectifying it in the near future... unless, of course, we fall in love with another white guy first.
To put an exclamation point on the sketch, the Rev. Al Sharpton came out at the end to deliver the enigmatic message: "What have we learned from this sketch? As usual, nothing."
SNL skewered its race problem in "quite brilliant fashion," says Kevin Fallon at The Daily Beast. The show has a long history of "biting into controversies with fang-baring irreverence," and it's refreshing to see that SNL can tackle its own sensitive issues "with such nimble confidence and hilarity," too.
Gawker's Max Rivlin-Nadler is less charitable. "By poking fun at itself and not really addressing anything," he says, SNL is mostly rolling its eyes at the controversy. Perhaps the better term is awkwardly self-flagellating.
The cold open "was a funny sketch in a generally solid, racially aware episode," says Willa Paskin at Slate, and the two black cast members, Thompson and Jay Pharoah, received a lot more screen time than usual. But ultimately, "cracks about the show's lack of diversity, however well executed, don't make the show diverse."
There's nothing wrong with being self-aware, but there is nothing particularly right with it either. In 12-step programs, acknowledging that you have a problem is generally the first step toward getting better — but then you have to take all the other steps, and the most important one is quitting your terrible habit. SNL can tease itself all it wants, but it's just empty charm until it goes out and hires some black women... and then gives those women the institutional support they're going to need, after being hired into such a high-stakes, over-determined, and sure to be scrutinized position. [Slate]
"The self-skewering didn't stop after the cold open," notes The Daily Beast's Fallon. In one stand-out sketch, Thompson, Pharoah, and Washington "made fun of White People Problems for four minutes," while also commenting on the unshakable support President Obama seems to have in the black community:
Pharoah and Washington also appear in an all-black takeoff of Ylvis's bizarre viral hit "What Does the Fox Say."
Some of the comedy borders on trafficking in black stereotypes. But "calling these sketches, characters, and jokes stereotypical isn't a knock on SNL," Fallon says. "The show spoofs stereotypes often, and, as it happens, very well. It's been too long since black women have gotten in on the fun."
Lorne Michaels confidently predicted last week that Saturday Night Live will hire a black female cast member soon. Maybe once Scandal ends, he could talk Washington into signing on.
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