In the week leading up to Kerry Washington’s episode of Saturday Night Live, criticism of the show’s failure to diversify its cast beyond the usual assortment of white, largely male comedians escalated to a dull roar. SNL wasted no time addressing the controversy, opening with a sketch in which an increasingly frantic Washington is forced into a series of quick changes, dashing offstage as Michelle Obama and returning, after some desperate vamping by Jay Pharoah’s Barack, as Oprah Winfrey. With Barack’s opening “I haven’t seen you in years,” it seemed like SNL was going to keep its tongue in cheek, but the the show soon ditched the subtweet approach for an onscreen disclaimer and a climactic appearance by Al Sharpton, who stepped in front of the set and asked the audience, “What have we learned from this sketch?” The answer, of course: “Nothing.”
Reaction to the opening sketch, which HitFix’s Ryan McGee dubbed “We Don’t Have Any Black Women In Our Cast,” was, not surprisingly, mixed. Jason Zinoman, who devoted his New York Times comedy column that week to Saturday Night Live‘s exceedingly brief list of non-white cast members, tweeted simply, “Um, wow.”
Taking the bull by the horns was the smart thing to do, and left many critics awed by the show’s bravado. But by Monday, the needle had swung from “impressive to inadequate.” “I thought it was a sharp, funny bit that, as Sharpton said, was ultimately meaningless,” wrote Slate’s Willa Paskin:
There’s nothing wrong with being self-aware, but there is nothing particularly right with it either. In 12-step programs, acknowledging that you have a problem is generally the first step toward getting better — but then you have to take all the other steps, and the most important one is quitting your terrible habit.
At Clutch Magazine Danielle C. Belton added:
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.
Belton’s take parallels something Zinoman wrote earlier in the week, referring to Pharoah’s comment that Saturday Night Live should hire Darmirra Brunson, from the OWN sitcom Love Thy Neighbor, “first of all, because she’s black.”
The bluntness of this comment is actually more important than anything [Kenan] Thompson said. That’s because, for a show of topical parody rooted in current national politics and mass culture, diversity is a question not just of fairness, but also of art.
Belton pointed out that SNL‘s monochromatic cast — which the cold open nodded to by ushering “six different Matthew McConaugheys” into the oval Office — makes large swaths of popular culture off-limits: No Beyonce, no Nicki Minaj, no Grey’s Anatomy. Washington’s opening monologue contained a joke about how often Vanessa Bayer has played Miley Cyrus in recent weeks, an outgrowth of the limited subset of public figures SNL has to work with, and one a show already far too prone to repeating itself can ill afford. (Ironically, what may help most to push the show towards change is that Saturday’s episode was the highest-rated of the season.)
But it’s not simply that SNL doesn’t have an in-house Michelle Obama impersonator. As McGee wrote:
The show’s predominantly white cast isn’t the sole reason why the program doesn’t soar each week. Throwing in more members of different ethnicities doesn’t magically solve the show’s problems and turn it into a can’t-miss juggernaut. But as I’ve said before and will restate now and many times in the future: The issue here isn’t about adding diversity for diversity’s sake but rather expanding the types of voices that can be expressed on the show.
Washington, whose CV boasts little in the way of comedy, acquitted herself admirably, although it was hard not to flinch when she played a hoochie-mama assistant to Nasim Pedrad’s motivational assistant, or the disoriented Miss Uganda (“What is she? How are they? How is she?) in a Miss Universe pageant. Comedy often works through inglorious stereotypes, and Washington’s line-reading of “Respect my ability to assess a bucket” was a stone-cold classic, one that wouldn’t have rankled if seeing black women on the show weren’t such an unholy rarity. Perhaps more revealing than the complexion of the show’s cast was the fact that virtually all the characters Washington was given to play, from a Spellman poli-sci prof to a teacher at Booker T. Washington high, was written as black, which is to say the writers started out saying not, “What can we write for this beautiful, prodigiously talented actresss?” but “What black characters can we write for her?” The lack of voices goes beyond what public characters the show can and can’t impersonate; it affects what it can, and can’t, imagine.