In Defense of ‘Saturday Night Live’s 2013-14 Season Casting

Saturday Night Live has taken a hit. Or, at least so says… well…  pretty much anyone who once loved it, but doesn’t, anymore, and so now writes Internet posts about hate-watching it. “Saturday Night Live has become that distant aunt that the whole family pretends is doing just fine,” The Backlot’s Brian Juergens wrote last year, “even though she is hoarding cats and crafting an army of creepy pantyhose children because no one wants to be saddled with the responsibility of actually having to do anything about her.”  (“Hate-watching Saturday Night Live”, 21 November 2012)

Hate-watching Saturday Night Live

Arguments come from all sides. Oh, the glory years are long gone, some say. John Belushi, Eddie Murphy, Gilda Radner, Will Ferrell and Phil Hartman could laugh circles around Vanessa Bayer, Taran Killam, Kyle Mooney, Jay Pharoah and Bobby Moynihan is what I’ve heard people proclaim. The show’s writers are rubbish. The world has gone to hell. Jazz is dead. The idea of “poking” someone on “social media” sounds “dirty”. The evening news should be given more attention. And Saturday Night Live hasn’t been worth a damn since 1978.

This conversation kicked back into gear recently when the show’s current African-American cast members, Kenan Thompson and the aforementioned Pharoah, were asked to speculate on why the show has had only three female black players in its history and why, during a season that is currently giving an unprecedented six unknowns a chance to step into the SNL spotlight, not one of them is an African-American woman. Thompson was a bit more diplomatic in October when he told TV Guide, “It’s just a tough part of the business. Like in auditions, they just never find ones that are ready.” 

Pharoah, on the other hand, caused a bit of a stir in September when he told The Grio, “They need to pay attention. Her name is Darmirra Brunson… Why do I think she should be on the show? Because she’s black first of all, and she’s really talented. She’s amazing. She needs to be on SNL. I said it. And I believe they need to follow up with it like they said they were going to do last year.”

Naturally, this moment of candor sparked debate among the People Payed to Spark Debate. Writers from newspapers, magazines, blogs, websites, and anything else that serves as a conduit between words and eyes chimed in. Jason Zinoman of the New York Times offered his two cents last week while referencing a monologue he saw the late Danitra Vance give after she left the show in 1986.

“I thought of this monologue while watching another sketch about slavery in last week’s episode of Saturday Night Live,” he wrote. “It began promisingly: A newly freed black man (Mr. Pharoah) walks into a Southern bar not long after the Emancipation Proclamation has been signed. Besides setting up an underwhelming cameo by Miley Cyrus — fertile ground for racial comedy — the central joke was how oblivious he is to racism. The scene’s closing joke has him asking a white man if there will be a black president. ‘It’s been two weeks!’ he says, with exaggerated exasperation. A joke about the impatience of a black person wanting representation would have been off-key and unfunny during Reconstruction. This month, it’s just bizarre.”(“For ‘SNL’ Cast, Being Diverse May Be Better Than Being ‘Ready’”, 29 October 2013)

This is a rebuilding year for the series. Now would clearly have been a great time for Lorne Michaels to bring an African-American woman on as a featured player. With so many spots up for grabs before coming into the 2013-14 season, many (or at least Pharoah, it seems) thought it was inevitable that a black woman would join the show. Maya Rudolph was the last African-American female to sit in that chair, and she left in 2007. Six years later, and that seat remains empty. 

While the origin of the argument for racial discord in Saturday Night Live Land isn’t inaccurate (through 38 years, the show has had a measly 13 black cast members, which is a stunning stat when you think about it), the rise in anger this time around seems wrongheaded, if not entirely misplaced. Are there not enough African-Americans on Saturday Night Live? No there are not. Is it suspect that there never seems to be a black female who pops up on your NBC syndicate at some point between the late night hours of a Saturday and the early morning moments of a Sunday? Of course. 

But does this mean that Michaels — or anyone else working at the show, for that matter — is using SNL as a platform to express some type of subconscious racism that runs rampant through every comedic mind that has ever stepped foot into Rockefeller Center? 

Are you kidding me?

To think that the people who run SNL are going out of their way to hire only those who are not female and/or black is sort of like thinking that President Barack Obama goes out his way to ensure that the US government shuts down every three months. It’s a product of his expectation, not his prejudice. If you can’t compromise, you can’t broker a deal. If you can’t make Lorne Michaels laugh, you can’t join the Saturday Night Live family. It doesn’t matter if you’re black, white, red or green. It doesn’t matter if you’re a woman, a man, a cat or a dog. If you’re funny (and some would argue, pretty) enough, you’ll make the lineup. If you’re not, you won’t. Believing the people who make decisions at that show think anything otherwise is as sad as it is frightening. 

Why? Because, despite what some like people like to think, this whole ordeal doesn’t necessarily spotlight some buried atrocity within the fabric of one of America’s most beloved television institutions. Rather, it spotlights precisely how impossible a world this is to navigate in, mediate for, and defend on any level. After all this time, all the progress, all the work achieved, the issue of race is still a topic so easily abused by people looking for ways to be dissatisfied with the current climate of growing acceptance and eventual equality that it makes times like these feel exploitative and, unfortunately, petty.

We, as a people, aren’t anywhere near where we should be when it comes to those very sensitive and very essential ideas, yes, but we are certainly further than we were even just 20 years ago. To deduce that progress on the basis of a suggestive quirk behind the scenes at a sketch comedy show is lazy at best and irresponsible at worst. 

Thus, the following must be asked: At what point can we accept change if our perception of it is impossible to define? There is a lot of senseless hate in this world. Too much of it. Bigotry. Discrimination. Judgments. Unfair actions, opinions. All of that stuff is far more prevalent than it should be in a landscape that is quickly running out of incomprehensible, so-called “justifications” for horrific actions.  

So, why don’t we save our vitriol and criticisms and ridicule for those things? Why isn’t there a hot-button discussion about how 289 people are shot each day in the US and 86 of them die? Why don’t we pay as much attention to the consistency in Middle Eastern violence as we do to the fact that Thompson and Pharoah reportedly don’t want to dress in drag anymore as they offer a passive-aggressive push for SNL’s heads to hire an African-American woman? How does this become the poster-child for race inequality in America for a week while in August, a Pew Research Center report found that the unemployment rate for blacks is consistently double than that for white people, and the Huffington Post argued that it may in part be attributed to ever-growing white privilege? 

Honestly? The fact that Saturday Night Live didn’t hire an African-American woman for this year’s season needs this much head-space when all of this other stuff is going on? Honestly

I don’t find Kenan Thompson’s impression of Whoopi Goldberg funny because it’s a black guy making fun of a black woman. I find it funny because it’s funny. Period. I find it funny for the same reasons I found Fred Armisen’s portrayal of a woman in an episode last season funny. I find it funny for the same reasons I find Vanessa Bayer’s portrayal of a young Jewish boy, Jacob, funny. Seeing people of one gender dress up as someone of the opposite gender can be funny. From Some Like It Hot on, the move has been a fairly easy way to get laughs from stupid people like me, who find humor in the predictable (yet endearing) trick. To label it racially derogatory at this point in such a climate that prides itself on being so forward-thinking feels small-minded and, on some level, a play for victory in a small battle within a larger war that should be imperative to one-day end altogether anyway.

Letting something like this incite racial anger is not cutting off your nose to spite your face. It’s simply just cutting off your nose.   

“Over the years, three improv companies — the Groundlings in Los Angeles, Second City in Chicago and Upright Citizens Brigade in New York — have supplied many of the show’s writers and actors,” the Washington Post‘s Paul Fahri wrote recently. “And those farm teams are often no more diverse: The Groundlings’ main cast of 30, for example, is all white, as is its secondary cast of 10.” (“As ‘Saturday Night Live’ cast reboots, questions about diversity emerge”, 3 October 2013)

See, the problem — much like any other complicated and evolving problem one might come across — runs far deeper than a mere observation and a couple outspoken cast members. Mad about Saturday Night Live not having enough African-American cast members? Start on the ground level and watch as the true change begins to flow slowly through the racial pipelines, intent on not stopping until it reaches full realization and this conversation isn’t even an option anymore. 

Maybe then we can work toward putting a definite end to racial tension. Maybe then we can find resolution for a problem much larger than a television series. Maybe then acceptance will be more synonymous with The Norm than it is with The Exception. And maybe then the word “Hate” won’t be so easy to use in headlines of Internet posts, even if you aren’t a fan of a show you don’t even enjoy watching.