That one time SNL pretended to care about diversity

kerry-washington-snlIn case you missed it, Kerry Washington’s much anticipated appearance as host of Saturday Night Live this past weekend opened with a direct attempt to address criticism of the franchise’s lackluster effort to diversify its cast. If I’m supposed to feel better, I don’t.  

Just a few weeks ago, cast member, Kenan Thompson’s came under fire for his comments on the markedly absent woman of color cast member. Almost immediately, Twitter weighed in, and other voices of critique emerged from the comedy community. The next day, SNL announced Washington’s appearance for November 2nd, in time for the start November ratings sweep and, quite conveniently, quelled the firestorm of criticism (SNL trolled us for ratings for November sweeps, btw). In Saturday’s cold open, Washington played Michele Obama and Oprah to Jay Pharaoh’s Barack Obama, while a voiceover disclaimer acknowledged the absence of Black women in the cast. Having six Matthew McConaugheys accentuated the show’s white male problem.

The cavalier banality of the opening only reinforced recent comments Lorne Michaels shared in an interview with the AP: We know you’re mad that there aren’t any Black women part of the cast, and we don’t care. Oh, and here’s Al Sharpton. Sharpton, whose image had been synonymous with outrage and activism in the face of racial discrimination (still is), is now an accepted member of the progressive media camp. Even having Sharpton appear at the end of the cold open felt tokenizing and dated.


For her part, Washington was flawless throughout the show (notwithstanding  a shaky Ugandan accent in the middle of a horror of a sketch featuring beauty pageants).

Overall, the episode’s sketches were pretty BROtastic. Whether it was an immigrant motivational speaker at a high school who mirrored Tom Cruise’s performance in Magnolia– complete with pelvic thrusting accentuated with canon fire sound effects—or philandering husbands or boyfriends and their disappointed women, or a reality game show on dating, a train wreck Miss Universe pageant to insult all nations with its casual xenophobia, or embarrassed Angela Merkel texting an ‘ex-boyfriend’, the sketches were mostly unfunny with tired stereotypes of women. Even Weekend Update was a struggle to watch; rattled by forced laughter at a series of meh jokes, newbie co-anchor Cecily Strong broke the fourth wall.

Perhaps I’ve evolved in my expectations in comedy. The marketplace is so wide now that I expect nuance and subversion, and layered complexity in my humor. I’ve long since outgrown the cheeseball schmaltz of Leno’s Late Night puns and quips. Is this the universality of humor that SNL’s attempting to cater to?

I was a little disappointed that the black talk show sketch “How’s He Doing?” didn’t get as many laughs from the audience. I also think that bit too is so dated and boringly reinforces the trope that all of the blacks support Obama without fault. I think the audience, which I may presume is majority white, missed the dig about how shows like that broadcast at ungodly hours for its target demographic “6AM.” Nor did they seem to get the humor in the exchange between the Pharaoh, Thompson and Washington about white people watching The Wire and telling black people about it. Because that shit was funny*. *A Disclaimer: I never watched The Wire. Why? Because every white guy I know has told me to watch The Wire. This has been happening for 5 years. No, seriously. It really has. I’d have to believe that if the studio audience was majority white, then they themselves might’ve been guilty of such an emphatic recommendation to their black friends, or their black coworkers, and may have had a rather meta moment or realization that hadn’t occurred to them before.


I appreciated the dance/electronica music video short with Pharaoh and Washington, in that it showed an aspect of black life that remains invisible to the general viewing public, even if it did include the jealous girlfriend (yawn) and philandering boyfriend (McYawn) trope. But I was disappointed with the Synechdoche’esque /Charlie Kaufman-ish sketch showcasing the interior lives of retail employees in the face of condescending slights by customers –which was so layered and complex—that they didn’t see fit to include a brown cast member in the sketch’s narrative. Thompson appears briefly at the end yet I would have liked to have seen some mixing among the players.

Which brings me to my beef with the writing. I’m told that the process for SNL involves sending a tape and if deemed worthy, being invited to audition. SNL is a 38-year-old series, that has had 137 cast members. 43 of them have been women, 7 have been black men, and 4 have been black women. It has had only 8 black women hosts in its history. Not to mention the remarkable absence of Asian and Latino American actors. Thinking about Ellen Pompeo’s criticism of this year’s Emmys, I wonder if SNL missed an opportunity to be nuanced, subversive and funny.

Not only does SNL have a diversity problem, TV has a diversity problem. In lieu of having Washington play every black woman character in constructed fictions, perhaps the joke could have been placing Washington in a series of sketches mocking shows that fail to have a black woman character, like Friends, How I Met Your Mother, Girls, The Big Bang Theory, Breaking Bad, or Game of Thrones? Perhaps they could have taken Olivia Pope’s advice to Fitz from last Thursday’s episode of Scandal, in which she encourages him to overcome his anxiety about his appearing at the White House Correspondent’s dinner by telling him to “Dive in. Own it. Mock your own image.” SNL could have bitten back so hard and challenged all to change the game.

sm-bio Syreeta McFadden contains multitudes, searches for the perfect line break, and wears the white hat.

SYREETA MCFADDEN is a Brooklyn based writer, photographer and adjunct professor of English. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, The Guardian, BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post, Religion Dispatches and Storyscape Journal. She is the managing editor of the online literary magazine, Union Station, and a co-curator of Poets in Unexpected Places. You can follow her on Twitter @reetamac.

Syreeta McFadden is a contributing opinion writer for The Guardian US and an editor of Union Station Magazine.

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