The Real Problem with SNL and Diversity

by Danielle C. Belton

SNL

After having both their black male cast members (one ham-fistedly) address it and later, show runner Lorne Michaels also sort of address it, Saturday Night Live took advantage of the one black woman they had in the room – guest host Kerry Washington – and tackled their lack of black lady problem.

Naturally, it was with jokes. Here’s the sketch if you haven’t seen it.

In the sketch, Jay Pharoah’s Barack Obama “finally” gets to see his Michelle, in the form of Kerry Washington, but it quickly shifts to a visit from “Oprah” and Washington is goofily rushed off for a costume change while SNL runs a word crawl explaining how they have no other black women on the show to play these parts, so Washington must play all of them. The skit ends with Washington off-screen complaining about her efforts to get into a “Beyonce” costume, then later MSNBC host Rev. Al Sharpton walking on the stage to lament that we all have learned nothing from this as usual.

For me, it got a B- for effort. At least they addressed it. But my concern that in all the discussion over SNL’s diversity problem is it leaves the impression that SNL should be more diverse for diversity’s sake, for racial point scoring or because black people deeply care about SNL (most truly don’t). No, the real reason why SNL should shoot for greater diversity – not just in the form of black female comedians, but Hispanics, Asians or pretty much anyone who is not either a white male resident of the Eastern corridor –  is because it would make SNL a more interesting, better, funnier show.

SNL needs diversity for SNL’s sake.

While SNL manages to slap together some things it can make fun of week in and week out, there are a whole host of things they can’t make fun of simply because they lack diversity. They can’t parody Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama, Tyra Banks, ABC’s “Scandal”  (or Kerry Washington), they can’t touch the entirety of the BET Network family, they can’t do a decent “Grey’s Anatomy” parody (unless they just ignore the Asian, black and Hispanic cast members), they can’t make fun of any reality show with a majority black cast when that’s some of the most mockable television in history, they can’t touch Beyonce, Rihanna, Ciara, Nicki Minaj or any black female singer no matter her status, tennis superstars Serena and Venus Williams are beyond their reach, they can’t touch any issue that’s ever involved Latino people – from Sofia Vegara to politics to Univision – and they’re the fastest growing minority group in this country. Also most issues involving international relations, unless it’s European relations, can’t be made fun of. So no geopolitical sketches about China, Japan, India, Mexico, South America or the Middle East … ever.

This is a lot of comedic material SNL has to pretend like doesn’t exist. When was the last time you saw a decent music video parody (since most popular music involves lots and lots of black people)? It can’t happen, they can’t even write it, because they lack so much diversity. And it keeps some parody’s from ringing true – like Kenan Thompson’s “What’s Up With That” sketch that is supposed to take place on BET, yet Kenan was the only black person on the show and the entire thing feels like it was created by someone who never watched one second of BET (all the guests on “What’s Up With That” are almost always white and are always the kind of white people you’d never see on BET, like Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham.) I didn’t even realize it was supposed to be making fun of the network’s late night programming at first, which used to consist of comedian Mo’Nique, who SNL also has to pretend doesn’t exist because they have no one to play her if Kenan now refuses to put on a wig.

But if you need a bunch of guys to play actor Matthew McConaughey – as they joked in the skit – SNL has white dudes on lock. Of course, even the “type” of white guy SNL gets could use some diversity since they only seem to employee Midwesterner-who-moved-to-the-East-coast, East coaster and Jewish East coaster. The whole show pretty much pretends like the South doesn’t exist (and gee, everyone knows there’s nothing funny about the South … except everything) because there aren’t many people who actually understand the South from first-hand experience working on the show.

Now, none of this would matter if the only people in the world who watch television are white guys who are into former Groundlings and UCB improv performers, but the problem is SNL has to ignore not just black or Latino culture – they’ have to ignore popular culture. They have to ignore reality.  They have to pretend it is still 1984 and Ronald Reagan is president and Madonna is the biggest star and it’s no-big-deal if they have no one to parody Michael Jackson. They have to exist in a time before hip hop took rock music’s mantle as the number one American brand of music. They have to live in a time before NBA players wore baggy shorts. And all that makes the show markedly less hip and funny. Because young black, white and Latino people – their audience – are often watching and consuming a diverse array of media. They are complaining about Lil Wayne rapping on a horrid Paris Hilton song, mocking the fact that Rihanna can’t be bothered to show up for her tour dates and twerking badly along with Miley Cyrus. They’re watching “The Daily Show” and “Key and Peele” on TV while waiting until the next day to see if the SNL clips were any good on YouTube. They all like to make fun of “Love and Hip Hop Atlanta’s” Stevie J., get into shows with diverse casts like “Glee” or “American Horror Story” while live tweeting award shows.

Statistics even bear this out, as last month a UCLA study showed that shows with more diversity – in writing and talent – performed better ratings-wise.

If and when SNL recruits a black female cast member I’ll be happy that a likely long suffering black performer got some work, as it is still hard out there for black comics, actors, writers and directors to find that elusive steady paycheck or launching pad. But ultimately I won’t feel like SNL did anything for me personally or black people. SNL will be saving themselves. Whether Lorne Michaels cares or not, the times have changed and no one would be so judgmental of his casting choices if it weren’t for the fact he’s allowed 15 different versions of the same white guy to crash and burn on his show and fade into obscurity for every Will Ferrell and Jimmy Fallon.

Maybe it’s time to let some other folks fly or die for the sake of a funnier show.

  • Angelique212

    Another problem, we’re not creating our own anymore…

  • Annoyed

    Latinos are fastest “growing” minority? Otherwise, well done. The show is stale and I only watch when there’s a guest host that interests me, which isn’t often. Lack of diversity is bad business. Every time a serious black film does good box office, the suits scratch their heads and wonder why. As someone stated in Skip Gates’ current PBS series about African Americans, black people enriched American culture and made it better. Same goes for Latinos Asians. American parody should cover a lot more territory than white people.

  • http://www.myblackfriendsays.com myblackfriendsays

    I don’t watch Key and Peele.

    But the rest, I agree with.

  • ytsha

    I didn’t think the mess was that funny, ain’t been funny in years.

    they should fix the problem, not make jokes of it.

  • Marisa

    I guess SNL/Lorne Michaels feels they can joke about it that should be to let them off the hook. Quite typical instead of actually fixing the issue in a legit manner no we just turn it into our next skit, Kerry did a nice job I thought her First Lady and Oprah impressions were spot on. Basically it was hey viewing audience ha ha we can laugh at ourselves and not focus on just sticking the big black guy in drag. Mad TV during its hey day crapped all over SNL for years they showed no mercy. When they have black comics on there other than Eddie how were they used. Chris Rock, Ellen Clainhorne were barely used, while Tracy and Keenan were just put in drag as the go to impressions of black women, and then had Mya. Whatever Lorne your not off the hook your show hasn’t been funny in years anyway, you been riding “I can see Russia from my house” from Tina long enough.

  • http://gravatar.com/geenababe geenababe

    Someone said “maybe this show was never intended for us” and I think they are right. The stale comedy seems to be something that target audience goes for so I don’t think the show every thought to be big on diversity. I mean you would think diversity would be a required to have a successful skit comedy show but SNL is saying it doesn’t need it. Yeah, they made their little joke saying they will fix the problem but I doubt it. I think they have the mindset of if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. I think this is one of those things where people need to create their own thing. Like this week I was watching “In Living Color” marathon and still to this day some of the skits made me laugh Black people were really doing it for themselves the Wayans brother were on to something then.

  • https://www.facebook.com/kelley.johnson.75436 Kelley Johnson

    Exactly. I’ve never found SNL to be funny. Let them do their white folks humor. We need another In Living Color.

  • Mag

    Yes, Latinos are the fastest growing minority and will be the majority soon. WHy was this an issue for you?

  • Mag

    Great article. Exactly what I was thinking. Time for a “new” SNL like Living Color.

  • Azure

    I probably saw about 3 episodes of this show in my entire life time. I was never a fan of it. Though it has been on tv for nearly 40 years so it must be doing something right to be on the air for so long. However I was a fan of MadTV & In Living Color. The casting was a lot more diverse. My nieces weren’t even around when In Living Color was on the air but they saw the reruns & they love it. I have to agree with everyone else who said we need In Living Color (or a similar show) back on the air. If Arsenio can come back after almost 20 years, why not In Living Color.

  • Karyn

    This is why I stick to Black&SexyTv on YouTube and try to find any other webisode that is created, directed, written, etc. by minorities.

  • http://gravatar.com/jamesfrmphilly jamesfrmphilly

    they have not been funny in a long, long time.
    get them off the air.

  • Belle

    I thought the exact same thing when they did the opening sketch. If they crack all these jokes and then change nothing then that is a MAJOR FAIL. As it is SNL is rarely funny to me. They may have 1 or 2 funny sketches in an episode but that is not enough to justify me watching for an hour and a half.

  • Donnie

    If we were to have a new show like “In Living Color,” hoards of white folk would come out of the woodworks claiming the show is racist, that all black people do is segregate themselves, and that whites should be able to have a similar show if blacks can have one. I see a lot of that these days. We’re witnessing the rise of the white man who thinks he is being discriminated against. Lol.

  • Tracey

    I understand why you’d see that as an insult but I think “Annoyed” was actually pointing out a typo rather than having an issue with Latino’s being the fastest growing minority population. The writer forgot the word “growing” in her sentence so she/he was saying well done other than that minor typo. I noticed that typo too so just thought I’d point that out lol.

  • https://www.facebook.com/yagirlsb Sarai Brown

    Instead of asking someone else to add more diversity on the show why not just create our own comedy shows with the diversity we want and make it happen? There’s plenty of avenues to get it out there by creating a YouTube channel.. Obviously if they wanted to diversity they would’ve made change.. They must feel like if its not broke why fix it? So idk I say either create what PEOPLE who watch SNL want on your own or just stop begging someone to add it on theirs

  • Annoyed

    Thank you, Tracey.

  • https://www.facebook.com/ramou.sarr Ramou Sarr

    There’s so much more to it though than just – create your own! There are plenty of PoC creators, performers, writers, etc. – and plenty of them ARE creating their own content – but very few at the caliber of a Lorne Michaels with the power to reach audiences on the scale that SNL does. It’s great that PoC have used new media like YouTube to tell our own stories, but it’s a bad idea to get complacent in that and just rest in the fact that that is where we belong. It’s a very separate but equal way of viewing the situation and we should continue to demand that mediums like television and film, and comedy in this particular instance, be inclusive, even if they continue to tell us that it shouldn’t be.

  • http://gravatar.com/chrislyon Chris Lyon

    Why not choose people who are funny without the connotation of race? Why does everyone have to play along and have the right number of minorities to be a show worth watching?

  • GlowBelle

    I agree with a lot of this esp. how SNL is simply shooting themselves in the foot by not opening comedy to a wider racial audience. That is a wonderful argument right there, and as you laid it out, there are a billion ways to diversify the show and it would make the show funnier and more accessible. But like with all the “Girls” backlash, I’m even a bit tired of people expecting SNL to get out a comfort zone they’ve been riding in for four decades now. I took that open monologue as a smug “we know what we’re doing, but we’re not going to change a damn thing as it’s worked for us for 40+ years so just enjoy Kerry for this one time”.

    While SNL could use some color on their writing team, I feel the main problem is that it doesn’t have any competition. It’s a shame that MadTV and Living Color, far more diverse and better sketch shows couldn’t stick around for long, and it would be great to have them back, but maybe we should start from scratch. Just start all over. Issa Rae is one example of someone who didn’t complain, made a show, and found an audience for it…and there are others like her. We shouldn’t be expecting SNL to make changes, we, the viewers should change our idea of expectation and just take our business elsewhere.

  • https://www.facebook.com/kelly.edmond.9 Kelly Edmond

    i thought it was tasteless honestly

  • https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=710235703 Jason Harris

    Nah. Sarai is right. If you don’t like what’s on SNL, get a camera, some talented people(friends, associates, whatever), a script or 3, rent a space, and put on your own sketch comedy show. Showcase it on Youtube, or Vimeo, or where ever, and stop droning on, and on about this SNL crap. Who cares about Lorne Michaels level of power and influence in the industry. Create your own niche. Carve your own path, and let the chips fall where they may. And those that may try can at least say that they tried, instead of worrying about when someone else will put us in the spotlight.

  • https://www.facebook.com/yagirlsb Sarai Brown

    I don’t think that we just belong on YouTube @ramou but instead of begging SNL why not try to get a show on Revolt tv? I mean I get the idea but I’m just tired of us begging to be accepted to be on their networks if they don’t want us on there why should we keep on begging them? I just think if they REALLY wanted an African, Asian, it Hispanic American actress they would have gotten one a long time ago

  • https://www.facebook.com/yagirlsb Sarai Brown

    I don’t think that we just belong on YouTube @ramou but instead of begging SNL why not try to get a show on Revolt tv? I mean I get the idea but I’m just tired of us begging to be accepted to be on their networks if they don’t want us on there why should we keep on begging them? I just think if they REALLY wanted an African, Asian, it Hispanic American actress they would have gotten one a long time ago

  • https://www.facebook.com/yagirlsb Sarai Brown

    I don’t think that we just belong on YouTube @ramou but instead of begging SNL why not try to get a show on Revolt tv? I mean I get the idea but I’m just tired of us begging to be accepted to be on their networks if they don’t want us on there why should we keep on begging them? I just think if they REALLY wanted an African, Asian, it Hispanic American actress they would have gotten one a long time ago

  • https://www.facebook.com/yagirlsb Sarai Brown

    I don’t think that we just belong on YouTube @ramou but instead of begging SNL why not try to get a show on Revolt tv? I mean I get the idea but I’m just tired of us begging to be accepted to be on their networks if they don’t want us on there why should we keep on begging them? I just think if they REALLY wanted an African, Asian, it Hispanic American actress they would have gotten one a long time ago

  • copelli

    Listen, funny IS funny.

    The problem is that Lorne Michaels seems to think that there are NO funny minorities out there, especially female.

    And they barely seem to know what to do with the 2 black guys that they do have. The lastest episode with Kerry Washington was the most air time those 2 guys have had since working on SNL.

    And since a black host is almost as rare as a black female cast member, I hope they enjoyed it while it lasted.

  • naan

    Besides SNL not being funny, I would say the even bigger reason why I don’t watch it is because I find it so humuliating to see men portraying Black women. I’m not talking about the male ego, either. I am talking about the portrayal of Black women as being “masculine” and “ugly” which these costumes depict us as.

  • Joyous

    Its time for something new and different. In Living Color had its time. Great show, but there is no need to bring it back. I’m kind of tired of all these remix versions of TV shows. Just create something else.

  • Valentina

    Frankly I am glad that there are no black women on this travesty of a show. It’s bad enough for black men to debase themselves with the ugly stereotyping of black women, but to put a black actress in constant roles to devalue herself would be the end of the line for me.

  • lola289

    KUDOS 2 Kerry Washington for hosting SNL!
    She truly showed how the show was dying for a real woman of color.
    I think that WE need to just start our OWN (not Oprah) type of show.
    Once its done then keep it going instead of “selling out” and running to become commercial.

  • Eyes Wide Shut

    I think the last time I watched SNL was during the 90s (Chris Rock days). To me, after much of the Bad Boys left (Chris Rock, David Spade, Adam Sandler, Chris Farley, Tim Meadows, etc.), SNL has steadily declined in quality of skits.

    I remember In Living Color and MadTV too. Due to their diversity, they were the best on TV. Seems like SNL has a tight grip (monopoly) when it comes to comedy-variety shows.

    I didn’t even know Kerry Washington was on. And honestly, I still wouldn’t have watched if I knew…..that’s how much I have tuned out of SNL.

  • Tracey

    You seemed to have missed the point of jay and Keenan’s comments, the skit and this article. You can’t do certain people and skits if you don’t even have the cast to play the parts. You can’t put in Keenan in a dress in order to play every black woman in the spotlight. When it comes to writing having access to different perspectives that come from people of different backgrounds (racial, geographical, age, income, family structure, etc) is how you keep the sketches fresh and hit all sorts of topics. It also helps to hit the right notes and keep the characters authentic. No made up weird speaking like “You better don’t.” if you can get some people in the writing room who have access to people who have a better understanding of those being portrayed in the sketches.

  • Tracey

    I’m pretty sure that they are addressing it by actively seeking out a new black lead at least that is what the scrolling message on the skit said. Unless they are just trying to appease people and assuming that we will forget what has been said there will probably be a new cast announcement in the next few months and a writers change as well. It may come in the form of the same person as many cast members get to act as writers.

  • Tracey

    I am a little confused. How can one paragraph say “But my concern that in all the discussion over SNL’s diversity problem is it leaves the impression that SNL should be more diverse for diversity’s sake,… No, the real reason why SNL should shoot for greater diversity –…” but then the next sentence after that says ”
    SNL needs diversity for SNL’s sake.”?

    I am also wondering if anyone really watched it because the eact point is that they recognize the holes in their stories due to losing Mya Rudolph and not keeping at least one black woman in rotation and overusing Keenan. They specifically stated that they are doing what they should have been doing all along and that is looking for at least one woman to take that spot instead of casting yet aanother white dude.
    When they have the right host that show can still be funny but I really look forward to seeing who they’ve chosen and maybe some creative ideas from people who don’t want to wait on one show to change the current look of televised sketch comedy. Woo hoo.

  • http://blackmothering.wordpress.com yardyspice

    I’m sorry but the sketch wasn’t very funny to me but maybe it’s because I find it hard to laugh at my own expense. I mean SNL had a guy dress in black face and nobody got mad! SMH

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