The premiere of season 38 of Saturday Night Live featured the first appearance of cast member Jay Pharoah as President Barack Obama. Fred Armisen — who is of German, Venezuelan, and Japanese descent — appeared in “honeyface” to impersonate the president during the previous four seasons. The handoff of Obama from Armisen to Pharoah can be looked at as possibly the first step in diversifying SNL, a show that’s had a strange history with diversity (or a lack thereof).
While minority cast members have been a part of SNL since Garrett Morris joined the original cast in 1975, it has been a struggle for both minorities and women to gain airtime and acceptance within the hallowed halls of Studio 8H. While the barriers for women have slowly eroded over the years, minorities have continued to fight for a place on the show.
Currently, SNL has five racial minorities in the cast (Kate McKinnon is the first openly lesbian cast member in the show’s history), all of them African American. Those performers (Pharoah, Kenan Thompson, Sasheer Zamata, Leslie Jones, and Michael Che) make up the largest number of African Americans since 2003. It’s also the first time that the cast has included two African American women at the same time, while Che is the first-ever African American anchor of Weekend Update.
The ball might have started slowly rolling when Pharoah assumed the role of Obama in 2012, but it wasn’t until the next season when things started actually changing for the show. When season 38 finished, Armisen, Andy Samberg, and Jason Sudeikis left the show and Tim Robinson was moved to the writer’s room after just one season. For the second straight season, there was sizable turnover in the cast and a golden opportunity to make some significant and important changes.
With four spots to fill for season 39, SNL cast five white guys (Beck Bennett, John Milhiser, Kyle Mooney, Mike O’Brien, and Brooks Wheelan) and Noël Wells. Almost immediately, the show found itself at the center of backlash over the complete lack of diversity with its new performers (Wells is of Hispanic and Tunisian descent). Among the critics were Pharoah, who called out SNL, and Thompson, who said the show wasn’t finding black female comedians who were “ready.”
Pharoah and Thompson may have been portrayed in the media as being on different sides of the argument regarding SNL’s casting decisions, but they expedited the need for change when both stated they would not portray women on the show. The lack of diversity, especially with black women, came to a head when Kerry Washington hosted the fifth episode of season 39, playing both First Lady Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey during the same cold open with the five new white guys, plus Bobby Moynihan, walking on as “six Matthew McConaugheys.”
The show tried to laugh off the controversy surrounding its casting decisions during the sketch by scrolling an apology when Washington was changing costumes from the first lady to Oprah. The apology stated that producers would look into rectifying the issue “unless, of course, we fall in love with another white guy first,” but they did end up fixing the issue a little over two months after the Washington episode when Zamata was hired in January 2014.
Zamata, along with writers Leslie Jones and LaKendra Tookes, were hired after auditions in December 2013 to find an African American woman to join the cast. Jones would make waves with a Weekend Update appearance in May 2014 where she stated that her love life would have been better “back during the slave days.” That was the first of many controversial spots from Jones on Update, which eventually led to the writer joining the cast four episodes into last season and scoring a co-starring role in the upcoming Ghostbusters reboot.
By all accounts, season 39 was a disaster, partly because of all the white guys fighting for screen time. After the season, producers fired Milhiser, Wheelan and Wells, demoted O’Brien to writer, and made the decision to replace Cecily Strong after one season as an anchor on Update with Che. Replacing Strong was met with some criticism because Colin Jost, who took over for Seth Meyers mid-season and is white, kept his co-anchor position.
Hiring two more white guys, Pete Davidson and Jon Rudnitsky, for the past two seasons to a cast already bursting with white guys didn’t receive a lot of good press, but neither of those casting decisions has hurt the show — or made it better. Davidson has been a fixture on Weekend Update, while Rudnitsky has barely appeared this season.
Fueled by a variety of social movements, and the extreme rhetoric of the current presidential campaign, the past two seasons have seen SNL produce some of the best social material in the show’s history. Sketches like “Black Jeopardy!,” “Pep Boys,” “Blazer,” “Screen Guild Awards,” “The Day Beyoncé Turned Black,” and the cut-for-time, but later posted to the internet “Morning Show” have helped SNL reach a section of the population it rarely spoke to for over 30 years.
Having cast members available to perform these sketches opens the window for writers and cast members to create and pitch more diverse ideas on a weekly basis. This is a far different atmosphere from three seasons ago, and light years ahead of the vaunted late 80s era when no person of color was even in the cast. This mixture has led to a slight rebound for SNL, and a possible return to form after several seasons of turnover, poor casting decisions, and even worse sketches.
On top of a resurgence in sketch writing, the duo of Jost and Che has re-invigorated Weekend Update. Some viewers may have been disappointed that Strong was passed over for Jost, but the decision has proven to be the right one. Strong was able to return to sketches, where she is one of SNL’s top performers, and Jost has become the villain of SNL as the whitest guy on the show.
The start of Jost and Che’s partnership may have been a bit rocky but after a season-and-a-half, they are gelling into a formidable team unafraid to tackle issues, make fun of themselves, and their races. This back-and-forth between Jost and Che might have worked with Strong and Che, but it also may not have had the same bite.
Saturday Night Live may be heading in the right direction, but there is still a lot of work to do. The show needs to continue adding diverse voices to the cast and writing staff. It has still never cast a Latina or Asian American, which leads to awkward situations like the “Tech Talk” sketch or Strong playing every Latina character. Those comedians are out there and adding either to the show will continue moving it forward.
Being on network television does handcuff SNL slightly. It needs to play to portions of the country that other sketch comedy shows like Key & Peele, Inside Amy Schumer, and Chappelle’s Show never have to worry about. In recent years, network sitcoms with minority casts, such as Fresh Off the Boat, Black-ish and The Carmichael Show, have proven that there’s an audience receptive to humor that isn’t necessarily for Middle America. But Middle America is changing too, and hopefully SNL will begin making proactive changes instead of waiting for public outrage to make the show change course.