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-
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.