Saturday Night Live is in the middle of its 39th season on NBC. This comedy staple has been in a transitional stage for the past two years, but in that transition, there has been a glaring omission: until the introduction of Sasheer Zamata in 2014, not a single black female has been part of the cast of Saturday Night Live since Maya Rudolph moved on in 2007. Was it simply an oversight, or a serious indicator of racial discrimination at SNL? Let’s consider SNL’s defense in the face of a serious racial reputation problem.
Saturday Night Live’s Comedic Response to Racial Criticism
Many in the media have questioned why SNL seems to have shunned ladies of color. But it’s not just the media criticizing SNL’s race problem. At the start of the season, cast member Jay Pharaoh encouraged SNL to “follow it up like they said last year,” yet all six of the new cast members for the season were white.
As the talks intensified, the head of SNL, Lorne Michaels, responded by poking fun at the situation. When Scandal star Kerry Washington, (a black female) hosted the show on November 2nd, SNL opened with a skit that featured a harried Washington juggling the roles of Michele Obama, Oprah, and Beyonce. The joke was that she had to be spread so thin due to the fact that there were no other black ladies in the cast to fill the roles.
This was a brilliant comedic answer to all of the heat SNL was under. It completely addressed the issue at hand while making light of it, but also pointedly told viewers that yes, SNL agreed that they needed to address diversity on the show.
SNL’s First Black Female Cast Member in Seven Years
Two months later in January of 2014, SNL announced the hiring of a female black cast member, Sasheer Zamata. Sasheer had big shoes to fill, and after the scrutiny in the media over the preceding months, she wanted to prove to everyone that she was a capable cast member and wasn’t a rush to judgment hire. She quickly established herself as a funny, intelligent person, and seemed to fit in perfectly with the show.
Following Washington’s appearance and Zamata’s hiring, SNL regained its solid footing, expertly listening to public outcry, using comedy to admit their shortcoming, and hiring a great new cast member to address the problem. SNL effectively silenced the critics and brought the show back to simply making us laugh and think every Saturday night.
SNL Opens Old Wounds with Leslie Jones Satire
Unfortunately, SNL’s racial reputation is once again in question. During Weekend Update, newly hired black female show writer Leslie Jones came out to discuss People Magazine’s recent Most Beautiful Woman award given to Lupida Nyong’o, and her satire was not well received by critics.
Jones went on a three minute rant explaining that while Nyong’o may be the one considered beautiful now, it was Jones who would have been the most popular when slavery was still intact in this country, as she “would have been ideal for breeding.”. It was self deprecating, cutting, yet smart humor at its best. Ultimately, it was uncomfortable to watch, but that was the point of the satire.
The response to Jones’ satire piece was immediate. She was roasted on Twitter, condemned for what many people felt was making a joke about one of the worst times in our country. The black community in particular came after Jones, with numerious editorials bashing her for her shot at humor.
What Jones’ Satire Says About SNL’s Reputation
It’s important to note that Jones did not act alone in her satire piece. The controversial performance was greenlighted, and seems to be an almost calculated endeavor by Michaels to remind the critics that while SNL genuinely made a mistake in lacking a black female cast member, the show has always, and always will push the envelope in discussing race. Remember, it was Michaels and SNL that nearly 40 years ago, approved the Word Association sketch with Chevy Chase and Richard Pryor that may be one of the most controversial things ever featured on television.
In the end, Leslie Jones did her job. She was hired to write thoughtful, funny, and intelligent jokes, regardless of whether or not they are controversial. It took a lot of courage to get up in front of a national audience for the first time on SNL and deliver those lines, no matter how badly they were taken.
Lorne Michaels, in supporting the act, stood up for what he believes in: envelope-pushing comedy that may offend, but will also make you think. I see it as no small coincidence that Michaels green lighted Jones’ act at the end of a week that an entire country had to endure the deplorable, unabashed racism demonstrated by Donald Sterling the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers. Both Michaels and Jones shouldn’t have tarnished reputations due to the performance. In fact, they should be applauded for using their right to free speech to force all of us to think about what we can do to end racism.