I don’t watch Saturday Night Live anymore, although I gave it a very good run throughout my childhood and young adult years. The original cast was incomparable -- my best friend and I used to perform imitation skits taking turns as Gilda Radner’s Rosanna Rosanna Danna -- and the jokes were sublime.
Despite there being only one black member (Garrett Morris) in the original cast, the writing felt culturally sophisticated enough to make up for what the show lacked in actual racial representation. Also, the white cast members -- Radner, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, Jane Curtain, John Belushi -- seemed to me like white people who probably had black friends. They were cool and unselfconscious and the epitome of downtown New York City hip (before the “ster” was later added). They were outsiders before it was a thing to be outsiders.
In those early years of watching the show, I wasn’t thinking about race so much -– I was a kid in grade school with artist parents who let me stay up and watch Saturday Night Live with my best friend on the weekends. My best friend and I were really just thrilled that we got (most of) the jokes.
By the time Eddie Murphy joined the cast in 1983, I had become aware of race in the ways that many young black people in America do –- someone had called me the N-word, questioned my intelligence compared to my white peers, or made open assumptions about my behavior because I am black. So I really honed in on Eddie Murphy. He told a narrative that, even if I couldn’t relate to in an immediate context, I was drawn to on a visceral level. Plus he was hysterical.
Murphy’s “James Brown Celebrity Hot Tub” sketch was sheer genius (Murphy was also on the SNL writing staff). Because essentially, it was just Murphy mumbling maniacally in a gold Speedo –- I defy anyone to not be riveted and purely, wholly entertained by that performance 10 times over. His "Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood" sketch was about as deft a commentary on racial inequality and low income housing as any formal statistical report you might read. And Murphy had such buoyancy in his delivery, a kind of pitch-perfect cockiness that never came across as self-deprecating, self-pitying or universally oppressed.
There have been some good years and sketches and cast members since, but I've never watched the show as devoutly as I did when Murphy was in the cast. Not until people started talking about this new writer and talent named Tina Fey did I start to look at the show again.
In 1999, Fey became SNL’s first woman head writer and went on to create and perform many brilliant characters and sketches. One sketch that I did not find so brilliant was one in which cast member Tracy Morgan appeared in drag as an elderly black woman (the show has a long history of black male cast members playing crossdressed roles to spoof black women) who had dumped her black husband for a hot, young white guy. Get it? This to me was when the show took the very sharp ironic, snarky turn and never redirected back to the just straight up funny.
I met Tina Fey at a film festival not long after that sketch aired, and I asked her about it. I mentioned that I had not only found it unfunny but also kind of offensive. To be honest, I can't even pinpoint exactly why I found it offensive, but I think it mostly had to do with this assumed privilege and freedom to play around with racial stereotypes within the historically white walls of SNL.
Fey very diplomatically defended the sketch as well as Morgan, who she said would never purposely offend black women or anyone. But there was still this sense as we were talking that there was no questioning the SNL castle of wit and wisdom, particularly on the subject of race, and I found it strange and off-putting since the show had never had a head black writer or more than two black cast members at a time.
Last fall, the show came under fire when SNL regular Kenan Thompson said in an interview with TV Guide that the lack of black female cast members on the show was due to a lack of talented black female comedians. Shortly thereafter, actress Kerry Washington hosted the show and in an effort to take aim at itself for its scathing lack of diversity, the SNL featured an opening sketch in which Washington had to play three different black women characters: Michelle Obama, Oprah and Beyonce.
And then SNL promptly patted itself on the back for doing so by posting the following:
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 only because Ms. Washington is an actress of considerable range and talent and also because "SNL" does not currently have a black woman in the cast. As for the latter reason, we agree that 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.
It was embarrassing and dumb. A few months later, in March of this year, SNL producer Lorne Michaels finally caved to pressure from the Thompson backlash and continued criticism, and hired Sasheer Zamata as the show’s first black female cast member in six years. Michaels had previously addressed the situation by telling the Associated Press: “It’s not like it’s not a priority for us. It will happen. I’m sure it will happen. You don’t do anyone a favor if they’re not ready.” Okie doke.
But it’s not that it took six years for Lorne Michaels and the SNL team to hire a black woman, or that for decades the show has become more and more obtuse about race. It’s that it has now become utterly demoralizing about race. To wit: a sketch on the show this past weekend, whereupon “SNL writer and Image Expert” Leslie Jones appears on Weekend Update and just, I mean, said a bunch of hideous, cringe-worthy, heinous things.
The set up is that Jones appears to offer commentary on Lupita Nyong’o being selected as People Magazine’s most beautiful person. Jones, in what I’m told from people who have followed her career is her trademark self-deprecating humor, says: “The way we view beauty has changed. I’m single now, but back in the slave days, I would have never been single! Master woulda hooked me up with the best brother on the plantation, and every nine months I’d be in the corner havin’ a super baby.”
Essentially what she is saying is that yes, she may be ugly by American standards of beauty (she is not), but got-damn if she wouldn’t have been a plantation favorite back in the day. And not only that, but she would have KILLED it in the process. Is there air-quoting going on in black comedy that I'm missing? Or as a journalist friend suggested, a comedic dog whistle we're not hearing? How is this funny to anyone, anywhere, ever?
Jones was not only clowning about slavery (which is plenty bad enough), but about being systemically gang raped. As overtly politically incorrect and Tourretic as some very good comedians can be and get away with, this felt not so much like pushing the boundaries of political correctness as pandering to Lorne Michaels and the white SNL cast and audience.
Make it stop, everyone, but especially SNL. We’ve got enough trouble with Donald Sterling and Cliven Bundy, racial polarization in politics and segregated schools and the Supreme Court and Michigan and the whole entire prison system and, you know, racism. So. Thanks.