The Problem of the Black Cast Member on ‘SNL’

I’ve been watching Saturday Night Live since before I had a proper Saturday night. I also watched Saturday Night Live before I had a proper grasp of race. It was just the show with the guy (Garrett Morris) who looked like one of my father’s brothers, and the one (Eddie Murphy) who looked like my cousin Butchie. But as the years passed, the show’s regulars stopped looking like anyone I was related to. It’s been on nearly 40 seasons and has cycled through 100 or so repertory players  less than a dozen of them black, only two Latinos, one Asian, and three gays. On the one hand: Who cares? On the other: Really?

Non-white cast members would seem to add a new creative tension to what is a famously contentious workplace. I tend to be forgiving of shows when it comes to casting people of color because that person of color tends to end up reeking of tokenism, and a viewer tires of holding his nose. Saturday Night Live raised a different question, particularly with black cast members: Do black comedians have to do black comedy? And has SNL been a show capacious enough to absorb it? Does it have any obligation to try?

I loved Saturday Night Live whether or not it had black people, but I was always fascinated by what black people it had. I remember Morris as a man often trying to insert his vivid, quasi-militant 1970s self into a format that had to find comfort with his brand of jive. He managed to make Anwar Sadat something that fell off a Curtis Mayfield album. He did the same to his version of Tina Turner. He made sense in that Not Ready for Prime Time ensemble. Morris’s grit accessorized with how naturally ethnic the show seemed at the time. He was the one black guy, but everyone else sounded and looked like they came from an actual location — mostly Chicago.

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Belushi, Radner, Aykroyd, Newman, Murray, and Franken (Don Novello and Albert Brooks, too): They were the beneficiaries of the premium that decade placed on authenticity and place. Even WASPy Jane Curtin performed with more than a tinge of feminist exasperation. People were too interested in being interesting to focus on being conventionally beautiful. The bodies were strange and furry (Gilda Radner’s hair seemed to weigh more than she did), the personalities big. You were watching a comedy show, but you could have been at a deli. And it always seemed as if its sole customer was Chevy Chase. Doing his entitled asshole shtick, he was the guy who stood out. Chase coded as being from New York’s white ruling class, and he was the show’s biggest buffoon.

But it was fascinating to see what Morris, during his five seasons, did at the deli. Richard Pryor hosted in 1975, and in the opening sketch Morris tells Chase that Pryor asked whether Morris could be the guy who trips, crashes to the floor, and says “Live from New York …” Chase isn’t having it — I’m the star, he basically says. Morris whispers a few threats into Chase’s ear, and Chase acquiesces. But Morris isn’t as good at falling over as Chase. He calmly half-drops a tray of food, lies down beside it, and says the line without having to make a fool of himself. But anyone tuning in curious to see Pryor and Morris mix it up tuned out disappointed. Morris barely appeared in the episode again. (A few years later, he got in a Pryor impersonation.)

It was Murphy who stood out during his four-season run from 1980 to 1984. He was hired as a utility guy but wound up saving the show after being promoted to the main cast. If he changed SNL’s fortunes, he also took over the show. (It’s worth noting that Michaels was away from the show for a time, during which the reins were handed to different producers and cast members were fired.) Morris’s strains of black and proud were gone — he winked and was cool. Murphy winked and worked his ass off. He sweat. Both men seemed to know the audience was mostly white. And they liked playing with who that audience expected black men to be. Murphy was two decades younger, and his charisma drew you in. He put some of James Brown’s sex into Buckwheat and Gumby. But unlike Morris, Murphy sucked the air from the rest of the broadcast. He arrived fully formed and hilarious despite (or in spite of) sketches not working at all. His bunch of characters became a constellation that stood out against the canvas of white actors around him. This didn’t happen because he was The Black Cast Member, but because he was incandescent.

When Murphy left, the unheralded Danitra Vance arrived for a season, while the even less-heralded and never-heard-from-again Yvonne Hudson spent years standing around in sketches. Vance’s recurring character, Cabrini Green Jackson, was a more daring but more problematic rendition of Murphy’s jolly thug from “Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood,” which had Fred Rogers’s idyllic storybook Americana to put in a headlock. Vance was trying to find the joke in being a teen-pregnancy spokesperson and never quite found what it was. Damon Wayans, Chris Rock, and Ellen Cleghorne followed, but with each arrival of a new black cast member came the sinking feeling that all Lorne Michaels wanted was to keep NBC’s human resources department (and the NAACP) off his back. For its first five to eight years, Michaels’s show had been such a fertile landscape of insurgent sketches, interludes, and short filmmaking. It was a place that booked Gil Scott-Heron to play “Johannesburg” the night Pryor hosted. Saturday Night Live did something like that almost every week. But it didn’t last.

Then The Cosby Show arrived on the same network and remained the country’s no. 1 show for most of the late 1980s. Bill Cosby — with his signature sitcom and its black-college spinoff, A Different World — was advancing a new conversation on race that he openly hoped would rebuke the Eddie Murphys of the world. Neither show sanitized black life. They made an aspect of it seem socially rich and enticingly comfortable. These were the figurative neighborhoods that Mister Robinson was trying to steal his way into. With Murphy gone, SNL had begun to retreat from its original social and racialized radicalism. By 1985, with Michaels back in charge, SNL had reached a new, more arbitrary level of brilliance while becoming a whiter show.

But by that point, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, other networks were a lot more curious about what black comedians could do with their own shows as a playground for blackness. The best of them was Robert Townsend and His Partners in Crime, which lasted a couple of years on HBO and remains one of the sharpest, most fantastical comic surveys of African Americans to appear anywhere. I still own a VCR only to watch recordings of that show. The “crime” of the title might as well have referred to HBO agreeing to broadcast it in the first place and Townsend getting away with something. His first film, 1987’s Hollywood Shuffle, is even better. The movie’s satire of racism in Hollywood is also a tragedy that still doubles as a documentary. You laugh, but it’s a heavy, complicated laughter. Townsend’s projects became templates for the exploration of race and racism on both Chris Rock’s weekly stint on HBO and Chappelle’s Show.1

In the 1990s, Keenen Ivory Wayans’s In Living Color served as a similar higher-profile, mostly black alternative to SNL. It’s famous for setting Jim Carrey and Jennifer Lopez on the path to stardom, but its lasting value is its absurdist, new jack swing–era depiction of specific corners of racial behavior. Until Kenan Thompson’s Dadaist talk-show parody “What Up With That?,” SNL never had a consistent black male–fronted sketch as bizarre and hilarious as In Living Color’s “Men on Film,” which at the time was blasted for gay stereotypes, but how would anyone have known? No one had ever even seen black queens on television before.

The heartening thing about In Living Color, Townsend’s HBO show (he had a second, less good one on Fox in 1993), and 14 years of hip-hop era MADtv was the harmony of their multiracial casts. Everyone seemed to be on the same page. In nearly 40 years, SNL has never sustained anything comparable: men and women of different races, from different places, working together to be weird and smash rules. It was happening elsewhere — including on Tina Fey’s mock-SNL masterpiece, 30 Rock, which Michaels produced and which gave Tracy Morgan even better material than he received in seven years on SNL.

As happy as I was to see Cleghorne on SNL, the show never tried to integrate her. It trapped her in a quota box. Her time there overlapped with my years in college, and I thought about how lonely I’d feel at a mostly white place with no black friends. She didn’t seem to last long enough to forge white ones. Other comedians have called the show the Harvard of comedy, but Harvard would never get away with that kind of population isolation. Cleghorne was eating alone at the Black Table.

Morgan and Maya Rudolph took SNL to places it had never been before. Morgan got to be a profound weirdo in a way very few comedians do on a variety show. I mean, many comedians are out there, but Out There appeared to be Morgan’s permanent address. He loaded all kinds of soused, harrumphing, dignified blackness (Latin, African, Southern, Maya Angelou) into his spaceship and took with him everybody from Lopez and the Rock to the cast. Safari Planet host Brian Fellow is one of the 10 most enjoyably ridiculous regular characters the show has ever come up with. Rudolph was something else. She is light-skinned (born to a black mother and white father) and lasted, in part, because she could do everything, both comedically and racially, and without a lot of obvious hand-wringing about passing and “funk-faking.” Her funk transcended the limits of race without forsaking race itself. She refracted all races and could be any of us — the true Obama-era cast member.

Rudolph’s 2002 end-of-show sketch with Morgan in which they sit at a bar on Christmas Eve, oldish and drunk, singing to each other and no one in particular, was funny, but it was searingly sad, too, part Ironweed, part real. You were watching your alcoholic uncle and aunt sip the blues at last call. I’ve watched too many hours of this show, and had never seen anything as sneakily rueful as that. Their blackness wasn’t integral to that sketch, but it lent a depth of familiarity. It also presented black actors not doing blackness, per se, but being as human as one can be on a sketch show. This wasn’t something you were really seeing anywhere on network television 12 years ago or now.

Since the departures of Amy Poehler and Tina Fey and Kristen Wiig, mention has been made of a void in the show, that it hasn’t been the same since they left. It’s kind of true. But Rudolph’s dynamism and sense of showbiz hasn’t been replaced, either. And it’s left a bitterness in the culture that you felt in last year’s complaints about there being no black women on the show. You felt it in the writer Leslie Jones’s shocking “Weekend Update” editorial in which she speculatively raged about her sexual undesirability as a big, black woman. It was both a moment of comedy and cultural expurgation. Her rant was as much about her as it was about the working conditions of her employer.

It’s true that SNL currently has two black men — Murphyesque chameleon Jay Pharoah joins Thompson — and occasionally they talk to each other and that, too, feels more anarchic than it should on network television in 2014. But Comedy Central has the almost telepathic racialized chemistry of Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele week out and week in. While The Daily Show has, at last, eased into a multiracial gang of correspondents, the highlight of which is Jessica Williams’s Ivy League–ish dingbat homegirl. And the comedy site Funny or Die has made a habit of refusing to be uptight about race. Some of its best sketches are black.

Last season, SNL brought on Sasheer Zamata. But it did so only after the embarrassment of trying to turn a lack of diversity into satire when guest host Kerry Washington feigned exasperation at having to play Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, and Beyoncé in the opening sketch, in part because Thompson refused. And that refusal felt like a form of protest: Hire somebody, damn it. Thompson, of course, has managed to become a fully integrated, invaluable, deliriously inspired team player, like Tim Meadows before him, partially by sticking around. But he didn’t do himself any favors when he suggested that he lacked a black female partner on SNL because the black women who come in for auditions are underprepared. What’s up with that?

That scenario with Washington echoes a similarly troubled opening sketch from 1986, in which Winfrey, as the guest host, receives a knock on her dressing-room door from Michaels, who wants to know why she hasn’t changed into her Aunt Jemima costume. She refuses, and goes on to say: “Like I said, I don’t do Aunt Jemima. And furthermore, I’m not doing the maid sketch. I’m not doing the Br’er Rabbit sketch. And you can just forget about me in the refrigerator repair sketch.” She slams the door, and along comes Danitra Vance, made to look like Whoopi Goldberg in The Color Purple, holding a silver tray, matching coffee pot, and porcelain cup for Michaels, who picks up the cup. (She calls him “Mr. Lorne.”) He says, “Danitra, you’re black,” then asks her how to handle Winfrey’s disobedience. Vance says what Goldberg tells Winfrey’s husband, Harpo, in the movie: “Beat her.” Winfrey, of course, opens the door and pretends to beat him.

We’re some distance from a sketch as alarming as that but in ways that only seem more sophisticated. The show has handled its lack of a female cast member by seeming annoyed to have to even address the matter. Plenty of places don’t have black women working for them (I work in an office that has one). That sketch with Washington seemed like the most testily sarcastic way to address its detractors. And the memory of that bit with Vance (with her entire season on the show) lingers. This is some of the trouble with working as a person of color in a paternalistic power structure. You occasionally wonder whether you’re being asked to hold a silver coffee tray.

For now, Zamata’s still in the cast. But hiring more non-white, non-straight people — to write and act — shouldn’t be something SNL is shamed into doing. The show should reconsider itself in the spirit of competition. Until Zamata gets more to do than impersonate famous black people, we should be nervous for her — until she’s as fully incorporated as Thompson, and both working alone and alongside him and Pharoah. When it comes to race, this great American show and its makers are just like America. Both have been around for a long fucking time, and they still haven’t figured anything out.

Illustration by Linsey Fields

Filed Under: 'Saturday Night Live' at 40, Saturday Night Live, SNL, SNL Week, Eddie Murphy, Tim Meadows, garrett morris, Richard Pryor, Chris Rock, Danitra Vance, Robert Townsend, In Living Color, Ellen Cleghorne, Sasheer Zamata, maya rudolph, SNL Essays, dave chappelle, Chappelle's Show

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Wesley Morris is a staff writer for Grantland. He won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for criticism for his work at the Boston Globe.

Archive @ Wesley_Morris